Long before he became a household name among the cognoscenti, designer Tom Doak built Black Forest at Wilderness Valley over 20 years ago.
There are better-known courses in Gaylord, ones with smoother greens and more expansive views. But Black Forest, Doak’s second design effort after now-defunct High Pointe, showcases the architect’s encyclopedic knowledge of classic holes drawn from British and American courses. Young Tom was ably assisted by Gil Hanse, a former design associate who has gone on to great successes of his own, notably the 2016 Rio Olympics design job.
Back to Black Forest. This traditional, broad-shouldered course meanders through nearly 400 acres of thickly wooded hills and valleys. The holes were carved from a dense forest of hardwoods and pines. The feeling is one of seclusion. This is a place for golf.
Doak, only 30 at the time, was still learning to dig his ideas into the dirt when Black Forest was built. I retrieved from my files a brief on the course he sent me in 1991. “Deep in the woods of northern Michigan, the Black Forest is a difficult but surprisingly playable layout,” he wrote. “The woods are thick as the name implies, but most of the clearings are comfortably wide for the average golfer. Instead, the main difficulties of the course lie in the rolling topography, the relatively small, sloping greens, and most of all the dramatic bunkering: in contrast to the grass-faced bunkers prevalent in modern design, the sprawling sand of Black Forest is a throwback to the style of George C. Thomas and Alister Mackenzie. The five par-5 holes (which include the first and 18th) may be the highlight of this most original par-73 layout.”
You can take Doak at his word on all counts, but the “surprisingly playable” bit only applies to golfers prudent enough to play the white tees at 6,097 yards, as we did. At 6,688 yards, the blue tees are for low single-digit players, while the black markers at 7,044 yards carry course and slope ratings of 74.3 and 147, respectively. Even scratch players and professionals have their hands full from the tips.
Black Forest, like all the courses we experienced on the trip, played long. Personally, I believe the course is over-watered: Doak used ground contours as natural defenses on many of the holes, but these contours only work if the ground is relatively dry. The roll-out on most drives was negligible. (I calculated the effective playing distance from the white tees at roughly 6,400 yards).
Setting aside that peeve, Black Forest is a solid test of golf. When I spoke with club developer Dave Smith many years ago, he said he told Doak to build a course that would serve as a more challenging counterpart to the facility’s gentle Wilderness Valley course. Mission accomplished.
Among the more distinctive holes at Black Forest, and there are many, is the long par-3 fifth, which plays over a ravine to a hilltop green fronted by a fearsome bunker that measures 40 feet from stem to stern. From the tee, it looks like a sandy tidal wave. At the par-5 seventh, a penal cross bunker must be negotiated, while the short par-3 eighth calls for a forced carry over a ravine to a small, crowned green defended by an imposing network of multi-tiered, amoeba-like bunkers.
“In an era when nearly all new ‘great’ par 3s feature water, the eighth hole (in fact, the entire course) is a throwback to the days when bunkering and green contouring were the two key components of golf course design,” said Doak, no shrinking violet when it comes to assessing his own work.
Black Forest is often described as a “minimalist” design, and I doubt Doak and his team moved too much dirt, but the 80-plus bunkers sprinkled across this rugged layout are not of the wallflower variety. Neither are the greens. Players must contend, as we did, with hogbacks, swales and more than a few buried elephants built into the putting surfaces.
In his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Doak admitted that “I’m still suspicious of a course where I haven’t broken 80 yet…(m)aybe one day I’ll play a decent round here and I’ll feel better about the whole thing.” My guess is that Tom, a Traverse City resident, has broken 80 on Black Forest in the two decades since he built it and has derived great pleasure from conquering one of the fairest but toughest tests of golf in northern Michigan.
A few final thoughts on golf in and around Gaylord. Because this part of the state resides in the western limit of the eastern time zone, daylight is prolonged. Even in early August, it stayed light until 9:30 PM. Which is nice if you’re trying to squeeze in an extra nine or 18 holes.
Second, Michigan is located within a 500-mile drive of nearly half of the U.S. population and is readily accessible through several international and regional airports. It’s reputation as a convenient golf mecca is well-deserved.
Third, no place in the world produces more tart red cherries than Grand Traverse County. It’s noteworthy that every summer, more than 300,000 visitors converge on the “Cherry Capital of the World” to celebrate the National Cherry Festival. The cherry pies and jams produced here are out of this world.
Lastly, no trip to the region would be complete without a visit to Don’s Drive-In of Traverse City, a 1958 doo-wop throwback popular with locals and tourists alike. The shakes—order a black-and-white—cannot be drawn through a straw. Use a long-handled spoon. You’ll be humming oldies in no time.