Here’s the truth that they ought to print on the front of the scorecard of Tom Weiskopf’s 2002 masterpiece, the Forest Dunes golf course at the Forest Dunes Resort in Roscommon, Michigan: Be bold! Go for it!
Following that simple advice will set a golfer on a course for maximum fun, requiring daring and challenging golf shots. Pull off the heroic shot more often than not, and low scores will be the reward. Fall of short of perfect execution, and enjoy the challenge of the heroic recovery shot that the course affords players of all skill levels.
There is an explicit risk-reward decision on almost every tee shot, and a few approach shots, at Forest Dunes, with the results of executing each path generally commensurate with the risk taken-on or avoided. This makes it an excellent match play course, perhaps one of the best in the realm of the big name golf resorts.
The calculus of the architecture and strategic intent encourages taking on the greater risk rather than the conservative play, more often than not. Certainly, there are shots that won’t fit every golfer’s eye or may require more skill than one is confident they’re capable of, but taking the aggressive line maximizes the fun on a course that proves layered, detailed, and beautiful.
There’s little subtlety to the design; the strategic decisions are thrust upon the golfer, front and center, from the tee on each hole. There is obvious trouble that must be judged and evaluated before the tee shot is struck, with consequences of both the decision and execution rippling through the rest of the hole.
Often, the potential trouble on a given hole forced a decision of distance or carry of the tee shot, not simply picking a correct aiming line. The crucial decision on several tee boxes, not limited to par three holes, was one of club selection, not merely aiming point or shot shape.
To reflexively pull driver for the tee shot ignores many of the questions that the Forest Dunes course asks of a golfer. The course doesn’t explicitly take driver out of a player’s hands often, but rather, it requires the player to think through the likely outcomes of hitting that driver versus a slightly safer club choice. It is a course that places positives and negatives on both choices. The biggest deficiency that Forest Dunes exposes and punishes is the mental frailty of indecision.
The accumulation of these types of decisions over 7,116 yards in 18 holes, requiring the player to decide to go for it or play it safe, over and over again, is one of Forest Dunes’ subtle charms or criminal curses, depending the perspective. At a course rating of 75 and a slope of 146, it is not a course to be trifled with under the best of circumstances. It is, however, a course to be enjoyed.
That the risk-versus-reward spectrum plays perfectly in balance proves one of Forest Dunes’ most distinctive positive qualities. The probabilities of the outcomes are correct throughout the course, meaning if there was great risk taken on and executed, then the payoff to the player in the form of the advantage due to a better angle or shorter next shot falls in proportional to the risk taken.
Likewise, when a player elects a safer route on the tee shot, the course imposes a disadvantage on the next shot, either in the form of additional distance or poorer angle to the hole in proportion to how risk-averse the tee shot proved. It is a brilliantly strategic form of golf at Forest Dunes, rather than applying beautiful window-dressing to penal golf course architecture.
The course demonstrates another remarkable quality by allocating strategic diversity across the entire course. The explicit risk-versus-reward decisions never yield, stoking ongoing interest for 18 varied holes. Players face some narrow fairways, some as wide as the day is long, some holes aligning arrow-straight from tee-to-green, some containing pronounced doglegs or split fairways.
Forest Dunes does not allow any holes off from the forced decisions from the tee, yet it presents its questions with such character and intrigue that each successive challenge provides a new stimulus to keep the golfer engaged. For those unable to execute a solid tee shot, be it a risky proposition or not, there almost always remains a chance for the hero recovery shot, which, prudent or not, invites the same excitement and risk-reward calculation as most tee shots.
The angel-vs.-devil dichotomy begins on the very first shot, as the first fairway lies diagonally running away, from left to right, from the first tee, forcing a player to choose an aiming point that allows the rough and sandy waste areas short of the fairway to be covered, but not aiming so far left as to hit a drive to the thick rough on the far side of the fairway. That there remains lush turf on the far side of the fairway that countless, weak-kneed golfers bail out towards is a testament to the skill of the superintendent and grounds staff.
The first hole, beyond giving players a sense of the kinds of challenges they’ll face during the round, serves the important function of transitioning from the beautiful sandscape of the north end of the course to the imposing woodlands of most of the rest of the front nine.
Truth be told, the landscape at Forest Dunes is much more forest than dunes, but with truly interesting topography and scenery, well utilized in the sprawling routing. The sandy, shallow dunes on the back nine provide a stark contrast to the tree-framed holes of the front, though the course is far too flat for the “Dunes” moniker, frankly.
The turf playing surfaces are surrounded hemmed in by a magnificent combination of proper sand bunkers adjacent to the fairways and greens, and sandy waste areas further from the fairway. These elements, combined with intelligent selection of which trees to keep in play, creates a complex, layered aesthetic and dictates many of the aforementioned strategic decisions from the tee.
The aesthetic of holes that features the sandscape leaves golfers awestruck at first sight. That look is most conspicuous on the cluster of holes bunched together behind the clubhouse, which are the holes that make the first impression as golfers view from their breakfast tables at the clubhouse lodge or as they jump over to the range for a quick warm-up before their round, namely holes number 1, 8 thru 11, and 16 thru 18.
Despite the thick tree cover over the rest of the course, the exposed sand can actually be found on a majority of the course, in many cases replacing the dense tree canopy or long, secondary rough or native areas that frame the playing corridors at a wide distance from the middle of the fairway.
Visually, it is as close to the aesthetic of the Sandhills region of North Carolina as I’ve seen, though it lacks the dramatic elevation changes within and between holes that the courses in those hills provide. This resulting effect may be of the spread out nature of the holes, rather than any lack of inherent interest in the topography. Regardless, the various visual layers add to the drama of the risk-reward decisions.
The most explicit, and perhaps best, risk-reward holes on the front nine are the sixth and eighth. Both employ classic golf strategy of forcing the player to decide when, rather than whether, to take on the risk by electing to be aggressive with the tee shot, which results in an easier second shot if successfully executed, or if a safer route is chosen from the tee, take on a more difficult second shot.
The par four sixth hole features a split fairway with a sizeable diagonal bunker and a large tree performing the task of centerline hazards. Carry the bunker and avoid the tree, then a secondary set of bunkers guard the fairway on each side at 250 yards from the tee, complicating the prospect of a heroic tee shot. However, pull the shot off and it’s an easy, short approach from a good angle to the green. Lay back from the centerline hazards to the lower fairway, and the second shot becomes blind with a short or mid-iron to a well-guarded green.
Similarly, the par four eighth hole puts the player to a tough decision, as the fairway bends hard to the right with a massive bunker on the inside of the dogleg. The further to the right the tee shot is, the shorter and easier the second shot is to a heavy-guarded green, but fail to carry the bunker and either a sandy lie or a sightline to the green is completely blocked out by the heavily treed dogleg angle. Bail out on the tee shot to the fattest part of the fairway left of the bunker, and face a mid or long iron into a peninsula green guarded by bunkers on all sides, with water short and right, and just beyond the bunkers on three sides of the green.
Another split fairway awaits golfers on the tenth hole, but in a different concept than on the sixth. Number ten presents parallel fairways separated by a pond of sand, rocks and wispy grasses, with each fairway creating ideal angles to different portions of the boomerang green. Conceptually, it’s a par four version of the 18th hole at Valhalla GC, with Forest Dunes’ version using sand instead of water.
The right-side fairway is a more direct route to the green, but offers a narrower landing area and a longer carry to reach from the tee. A clever player will use the pin position to work back from green to tee to strategically pick their fairway.
Finally, the seventeenth hole is Forest Dunes’ pinnacle risk-reward hole. It is a drivable par four with sandy waste areas to carry most of the way to the green on a direct line, coupled with danger in the form of bunkers, obstructed views, and poor angles to the green the closer one tries to lay up to the green. The closer one gets to the green, the more hidden the green becomes, meaning the closer to the trouble one places the tee shot, the better their angle to the large, rolling green.
Forest Dunes features a 19th hole, in the form of a short par three over the water that returns to the backyard of the clubhouse. It’s exists to settle bets and allow one last swing into a setting sun, before returning to hang out around the fire pit with drinks or a quick jaunt around the Short Course or Putting Course.
The continuous run of high risk-reward golf holes is a wonderful way to present a course, especially at a private club, which is what Forest Dunes was when it was conceived and built. However, inviting heroic shots, but punishing those that fall short of the execution threshold, can make pace of play a tricky endeavor for a course operator, but Forest Dunes strikes the correct balance.
Forest Dunes is someplace that I envision returning to within the next few years with our Buddies Trip, because it was such a fantastic playground on both of our 2019 rounds, making inland rounds of golf exhilarating and providing an incredible environment for match play.
It is a struggle to come up with names of other courses that combine difficulty, strategic interest, and fun as well as Forest Dunes. The persistent test of one’s mental discipline in a way that doesn’t leave a player feeling beaten down coming through the final holes is a near-magical feat, one worth remembering and repeating. It is a course in harmony with its surroundings, and in harmony with itself, providing a challenge that leaves one wanting another turn.