Tucked away on 1,200 acres of heavily wooded land east of Grayling, Mich., is a golf course that endured years of financial setbacks, ownership changes and development failures, only to finally emerge triumphant. The land, bounded by Huron National Forest and a pair of state forest preserves, was homesteaded by farmers in the 1930s, but the breezy site's sandy soil was ill-suited to agriculture. Conceived as an exclusive real estate project in the mid-1990s, Forest Dunes was planned as a country club playground for Baby Boomers. Around the time the first of two courses-designed by Tom Weiskopf-was completed in 2000, the membership drive stalled, real estate sales withered, and the opening was cancelled.
After the lenders foreclosed, Forest Dunes fell into the hands of the Detroit Carpenters Union. The union brought in a top greenskeeper to revive the layout. Opened for play last year and acclaimed as a superior test of golf, Forest Dunes is currently positioned as a semi-private club that allows daily-fee play. Its impressive gates-leaping bucks rendered in steel-probably won't close to the public for five years, or until the rolls are filled. Given the high quality of the golf, you'd be well-advised to head three hours north of Detroit to tee it up on one of Michigan's finest courses.
Weiskopf, who has built a second career as a golf course architect after years of trying to tame his temper on the PGA Tour, set aside formal plans at Forest Dunes. Instead, he spent time in the field to ensure that the site's natural attributes were maximized. After removing sand and glacial till from a pair of lakes to create nearly 20 acres of "dunes," Weiskopf fashioned his version of a seaside links in Michigan. No worries that Great Lakes Michigan and Huron, much less the ocean, are far from view-the firm sand base, steady breeze and close-cropped turf ensure that the 7,104-yard layout plays firm and fast, much like a genuine seaside links.
Framed by wildflowers, bracken and tall red pines, Forest Dunes was created for purists who enjoy the game as it is meant to be played: on foot. ("WALKING IS ENCOURAGED" blares the club's website). Nature lovers will love the setting. The par-four first hole is named for a bald eagle's perch, while the par-five seventh has a pair of "goalpost" black oaks stationed left and right of a green encased in sand.
A true shotmaker's course, Forest Dunes comes on strong midway through the round, starting at the 10th, a sickle-shaped par four with forking fairways. There's a shorter but more dangerous path to the right and a longer but safer route to the left, with a nasty sand pit between them. The par-five 15th, called Hideaway, introduces players to a touch of the Auld Sod, a punchbowl green sunken well below fairway level, with only the flag visible from the fairway.
The final three holes, facing into the prevailing breeze, are as good as anything Weiskopf has designed. The 16th, named "Hell's Acre," is a 231-yard par three that plays across a sandy wasteland to a large green with an elephant-size hump at its entrance. The 17th, 302 yards from the tips, is a brilliant risk-reward par four. Big hitters can try for the green, but the smart play is a layup to avoid the sandy hazard on the left side of the fairway. The target is a well-bunkered green crowned with muffin tops. The 18th, "Eagle Chance," is a 531-yard par five that plays to a sloping fairway bounded by a native tawny sand bunker on the left and formal bunkers to the right. The green, perched above Lake Au Sable, spells doom for those who overcook their approach shots.
Want to settle a bet? Weiskopf built a 117-yard "Bye Hole" that plays over the lake to a doughnut-style green with a bunker in its center. Got kids? The V tees at 3,084 yards are ideal for juniors eager to play a modern classic that was destined, even during its struggles, for greatness.
GREEN FEE $80-$125
THE DEAL> One night lodging in the Forest Dunes Lake Cottages, one round of golf and a continental breakfast; $149 per person, quad occupancy.
CONTACT Forest Dunes Golf Club; 989-275-0700; forestdunesgolf.com.