First impressions tend to stick in the memory. I first toured Black Lake Golf Club, the centerpiece of a 1,000-acre retreat and learning center owned by the United Auto Workers, around 10 years ago. I pulled to the front gate with a gentleman in public relations who was driving a BMW. The man at the gate, clearly a UAW lifer, gave us a stern look.
“You can’t come in here with that car,” he said.
“But this guy’s with Golf Magazine. He’s going to write a story about the golf course.”
“Don’t matter,” said the old-timer. “It’s foreign made. You ain’t getting in.”
A few hurried phone calls later, we were allowed to pass through the gate and onto the grounds of the heavily forested retreat, which is located in Onaway near Black Lake, one of Michigan’s largest inland lakes.
On my first visit to the club, my eureka moment came shortly after we were permitted entry. access. Dressed for golf, we headed for the staging area. I couldn’t help but notice the golf carts were manufactured by Yamaha. If this was such an all-American, union-blue facility, what was Black Lake doing with Japanese carts?
“There’s more American parts in Yamaha carts than the American brands,” the starter told me. “The first tee is right over there. Enjoy your round.”
I did. Tremendously. Of course, it was déjà vu all over again yesterday. Same Yamaha carts. Same magnificent course. Only now there’s a handsome new wood-and-stone clubhouse, and the club has softened its policy towards foreign-made vehicles. We, of course weren’t taking any chances. Our car this week is a Cadillac Escalade.
It’s a known fact that corporate giants like Firestone, NCR, and IBM have built golf courses for management—why not the United Auto Workers for the rank-and-file? In that spirit, the UAW selected Rees Jones to build a housing-free layout where blue collar can go soft collar. Having tweaked numerous courses for major championships, Jones weaves classic design features into his new designs better than anyone. The goal at Black Lake was a versatile, environmentally responsible course, a straightforward, old-style track free of frou-frou that would invite players to accomplish their task, be it match par or break 100.
On a sand-based site marked by wetlands, ravines and thick stands of birch, maple and pine, Jones devised a superb routing and then melded holes to the rolling, glacially-formed terrain. No artificial mounds or capricious frills are found on this beautifully groomed spread, which was allowed to grow in a full year before opening.
“The holes were there, we just had to find them,” Jones said. “We strive to build holes that blend with the natural terrain. There is nothing artificial or contrived at Black Lake.”
Each hole on the 7,046-yard, par-72 layout has something to recommend it. There’s a pair of brawny par 4’s—seven and 13—intended to separate the men from the boys, but most of the holes call for strategy and finesse. Two short par 4’s—four and 15—demand precision drives and pinpoint approaches to elevated greens where the chance for bogey is greater than it is for birdie. Two risk-reward par 5’s, six and 10, dare better players to attempt a heroic carry over water. They are balanced by a pair of uphill, turbo-charged monsters, nine and 18, that play as true three-shotters, even for those who drive the limit.
The most distinctive par 3 is the 14th, which occupies an old sand pit and sports nine sets of tees, from 235 to 145 yards. A multi-lobed, 180-yard-long bunker defends the right side of the hole, though a banked ramp short and left of the green tends to slingshot balls to the broad putting surface. Personally, I liked the 17th, a mid-length par 3 that plays from an elevated tee over soggy wetlands to a narrow, three-tiered green with a huge multi-lobed bunker to the left of the putting surface. It’s a beauty, but danger lurks for the unwary.
Jones also built the Little Course at Black Lake, a nine-hole par-three layout with holes ranging from 34 to 117 yards. It’s a nice sub-compact beside a gleaming full-sized sedan that the public, not just union members, is invited to take for a spin.