Forest Dunes Golf Club, a 1,300-acre development in north central Michigan with a superb Tom Weiskopf-designed course at its core, was completed in 1999 for a reported $15 million but was abandoned before it ever opened. Conceived as an upscale real estate development, the club was later revived by the Detroit Carpenters Pension Trust Fund (one of the original lenders) and reopened 10 years ago. In the face of economic headwinds, it has managed to survive as a semi-private club.
In a telling sign of the times, Forest Dunes was purchased in January 2012 by Lew Thompson, a trucking company executive from Huntsville, Ark. The reported price tag? Roughly $2 million. For that amount, Thompson acquired seven model homes, a handsome 23,000-square-foot Adirondack-style clubhouse, and a golf course described by Weiskopf as “the best I’ve built on U.S. soil.”
Moral: To those with cash at hand, the bargains currently available in the world of golf are unprecedented.
To his credit, Thompson has implemented plans to broaden the appeal of Forest Dunes to existing members, potential investors and daily-fee players. A 22-room hotel with four luxury suites has been proposed. Thompson hopes to open the facility this summer. The hotel will enable the remote club to accommodate players in their travels up, down and across one of the finest states for public golf in the nation.
The golf course, which I toured in 2002, is a knock-out. Buffered by 400,000-acre Huron National Forest, Forest Dunes sprawls across a large tract of land that was cleared for farming in the 1930s. (It failed due to the site’s infertile sand base).
Shelving his blueprints, Weiskopf built the 7,141-yard, par-72 layout out the back of a pick-up truck, redistributing sand to fabricate 20 acres of rolling “dunes” and create other features commonly found at a seaside links. Weiskopf then took his crew to Crystal Downs, the Alister Mackenzie – Perry Maxwell gem on the west side of the state, there to size up its gaping bunkers and rolling greens. The Downs style is replicated in places, but Forest Dunes is Weiskopf all the way. Framed by bracken, wildflowers and tall red pines planted by work relief crews 80 years ago, this firm, fast course was intended for purists who like to walk. A world away from Motown, there is total solitude in sleepy Roscommon, Mich. Other than golfers, the area’s most notable residents are the majestic bald eagles.
I loved each and every hole on the course, but the final three, faced into the prevailing breeze, are as good as anything Tom has done since he won the British Open nearly 40 years ago. The 16th is a long par 3 that plays across a Hell’s Half-Acre-style wasteland to a large green with an elephantine hump at its entrance. The 17th, 302 yards from the tips, is a dandy short par 4 that parallels an old landing strip used by bootleggers to import Canadian whiskey during Prohibition. Big hitters can try for the green, but the smart play is a lay-up that avoids the vast sandy hazard that eats into the left side of the fairway. The target is a slippery, well-bunkered green crowned with muffin tops.
The 18th, “Eagle Chance,” is a short par 5 that proceeds from the dunes to a sloping fairway bounded by a tawny native sand bunker on the left and more formal bunkers to the right. The peninsula green, perched above Lake Ausable, spells doom for those who overcook their approach shots. Match all square? Weiskopf built a 117-yard “Bye Hole” that plays over the lake to a convoluted green with a bunker in its center. Traveling with kids? The IV tees are ideal for juniors eager to cut their teeth on a modern classic.
Classically-styled, Forest Dunes is a pristine north woods spread that plays plenty tough from the tips but presents a fair, friendly test from the forward pegs. With its optical illusions, clever angles and slippery greens, it’s one of the very best daily-fee tracks in the nation.
For a mere $2 million, Mr. Thompson was able to back up his truck and haul in one of the golf bargains of the century.