They got the name of The Loop all wrong. They should've called it Deja Vu.
Unless you've been to Forest Dunes resort in northern Michigan, chances are you've never played on a reversible golf course. You've played a lot of different golf courses, sure, but you've probably played them all, more or less, the same way. You might sprinkle in a shotgun-start tournament here and there, playing the holes ordinally but starting somewhere other than the intended first hole. But none of that can prepare you for arriving on the first tee at The Loop, be it that tee located to the right of the putting green for the Red Course or to the left of the putting green for the Black Course.
Tom Doak had this brilliant idea for a 36-tee, 18-hole facility, and it came to life for public consumption in 2016. In the massive, off-the-grid forests of Michigan, he would construct 18 green complexes that would be the culmination of 36 holes, with 18 of them played in, more or less, a counter-clockwise direction one day (Red Course) and 18 of them played on the alternating day in a clockwise path (Black Course). On the same ground, a golfer could experience two unique routings.
So, after settling in at Forest Dunes in a terrific cottage with all the comforts of home, I woke the next morning with my crew to the first routing, the Red Course. Before teeing off in either direction, there really isn't much of a spoiler as to what's about to happen. The drive in doesn't show many details of the course, and what forest-shrouded vistas there are wouldn't help orient a player. Waiting to get the go on the semi-blind tee shot on the Red Course, there's little understanding of what's about to happen. The starter pointed out a general line, though you could pretty much hit it anywhere plus or minus 30 yards of that track, and off we went.
Compared to the Black, the Red starts gently. The opening par 4, even including the leap-of-faith tee shot, isn't difficult. The uphill approach requires an immediate adjustment in thinking, however, the second your ball bongs on the putting surface. Nothing at The Loop is soft. Nothing. The ground is firm in every direction, and when the ball hits the ground, it sounds like it's hitting a grass-covered steel pipe. The ball bounds seemingly forever off the tee. It sometimes feels that way on the greens. So, with false fronts and run-offs galore as the best available defenses for green complexes played in every direction, finding the center of the green is typically the best course of action. Otherwise, you'll find yourself with a bump-and-run -- like at Pinehurst No. 2, playing through the air is a bad idea -- on a US Open-speed green that will likely lead to a frustrating bogey or worse. That's exactly what happened to me. I played my wedge too aggressively, going just slightly long and finding myself unwittingly chipping from the par-5 17th on the Black Course.
The 551-yard par-5 second introduces you to the first of a number of the course's demanding tee shots, some of its best defenses that you'll become more keen to as the round progresses. The approach is to a rotated Biarritz (which plays traditionally on the Black 16th hole) which will punish a mangled short approach but reward an aggressive second from distance with some run and shape.
The fourth hole on the Red is a Redan homage, sans bunker left of the green. Then again, with the firm turf, chipping from the collection area missing on the low side is arguably more difficult.
Two holes later, the par-3 sixth is the shortest hole on either course, playing 125 yards. You'll see a back bunker, but it's some 40 yards beyond the green, serving a dual purpose for the par-4 12th, which invites a fade approach. You'll think of hitting the wider left side, but the firmness often shoves the ball off the green. Playing to the narrower right side is counterintuitive but makes it easier to stop the ball.
Both courses naturally have transition holes, partially because some of the more challenging holes coming in the other direction implore some relief in the way you're playing. Take the Red's seventh hole. It's a 360-yard par 4 with a gargantuan fairway, playing to a long-wise green with a significant saddle. The approach is easier at this point in the round as you'll have realized just popping a wedge to the hole isn't a wise play, but playing into this green on the Black's par-4 11th is much more challenging and rewarding.
There's really only one way to make a par 5 on a reversible golf course: long and pretty straight. Shy of reverse engineering a massive dogleg to each par 5, this was Doak's only reasonable path to have long holes that could play in each direction. The Red ninth and Black 10th are, from tee to green, the same hole. They're about 600 yards, have some bunkers to avoid and boast wide playing areas. Making them that long implores almost all players to hit a wedge in for their third shot, and that's where the brilliance of playing 500 sort-of bland yards becomes evident. On both large greens, the quality of the third shot matters greatly. Both greens are accessible, and birdies can be had, but an inaccurate approach invites a three-putt or worse.
The Red second nine is dramatically more demanding in every way than the first half of the round -- and the opposite holds true on the Black Course. The par-3 11th is 222 yards from the back to a two-tier, back-to-front sloping green that just screams bail out to the right. The drivable 12th is a smidge over 310 yards, but it plays to the most severe green on the course. Miss anywhere but the center-right of the green, and you're looking at a three- or four- or five-putt. It's just as tricky playing into it from the reachable Black par-5 sixth, which makes sense when you see it the second time.
The par-3 14th on Red isn't particularly demanding in that direction, but playing the 185-yard hole makes you keenly aware of how challenging -- and fantastic -- the shortish par-4 fourth on the Black will be the next day. With a green running back-to-front in the Red direction, the tee shot requires precision but more to avoid chipping from awkward lies into the bowl-shaped green. Coming in from the other direction on Black 4 the next day with a likely short iron in hand, there's almost no room to miss the narrow dell running up to the hole location. Meanwhile, mounding blocks your view from the Black approach, making it probably the best hole on the two courses.
Red ends with two tough holes. The par-3 17th invites a fade to hold the firm green, but the shaved area short leads to a nasty uphill pitch to a green running away from the player. On the 475-yard 18th, the landing area for the tee shot is framed by two large -- and largely unreachable -- bunkers to disguise the wider landing area short. This is the only blind approach shot on the course, uphill to a green that will reject balls short and to the right of the target. It's a finisher that will dizzy you one last time.
The next morning, after sleeping on a great afternoon round on the Tom Weiskopf-OG Forest Dunes course (which was so fun and a huge change-up from The Loop), we hit the Black. As mentioned, the Black Course jabs you hard out the gate and then eases up after a trying start. Now we're playing Red 18 in the reverse direction, looking at framing bunkers we didn't see on Red 18 tee yesterday. It's an uphill shot into the suddenly receptive green that was Red 17 yesterday. And that's the first time you start feeling like you're living in an existential crisis, constantly looking behind you to remember how you screwed up the day prior, vowing not to do it in this new direction.
The par-4 third is perhaps the hardest hole on the entire 36. The tee shot isn't really tough -- few of them truly are, at least in finding short grass -- but the second shot is daunting when you know the green that's ahead, which was 15 the day prior on Red. The green slopes away and to the right on the Black routing, with a bunker short to collect weak misses. A cut in to the far left portion of the green has a chance to hold, but two-putting to a hole location on the right will require you getting over the sudden trembling in your hands as you hold the putter.
The drivable par 4 on the Black is No. 7, inviting, like Red No. 12, a fade. The smarter play, truthfully, is to hit a long iron to about 100 yards and hit an easy pitch short of the flag. But what fun is that?
The 484-yard Black ninth is unique, considering the approach to it and the par-5 ninth on the Red play in the same direction. Both ways, you can use the left side of the green to access the right and the back as a stop to hold a longer, rolling shot.
For a moment, the 489-yard par-4 14th feels a bit more like the sand hills of North Carolina than an other-worldly golf experience. The demanding tee shot on this hole requires a draw to get run out and open up the fairway. However, the second shot truly requires a fade to get to most hole locations. However, if you miss well left of the target, getting up-and-down on a putting surface running quickly away from you is challenging. It's perhaps the only par 4 or par 5 on the course that seems like it has to be played a specific way to be successful. Those demands exist on other holes, no doubt, and a more frequent Loop player would know the wide landing areas are as deceptive as they are generous. However, for the occasional resort guest, the lack of claustrophobia off the tee frees the golfer to have a good time on a demanding test.
That said, the Black lets up a little on the final two holes. The par-5 17th, playing into Red No. 1 green, is a great hole which invites the player to take on a well-framed tee shot with aggression to have a chance to fly the ball into the green in two. The severe back-to-front slope of the hole's routing means balls can stop quickly on the green, which is great for longer approaches and potential circles on the card.
The Black finisher is a delightful match-play hole. It's a 360-yard par 4 that has all kinds of room left off the tee. However, embracing that space left means taking on an approach shot that is a scary short iron to a green running away from the player. The more you can bite off on the right side, with a big carry, the easier the approach.
Tom Doak created two dynamic, challenging and wholly unique golf courses on the same land. It is the extreme proof of concept for the modern school of golf architecture, which carves out huge playing areas to not only put smiles on the faces of golfers of all skill levels but challenges the more skilled player to take on seemingly more accessible tee shots to find the right angles to hole locations. The angles are truly limitless, proving that, with proper design, golf can be played fairly in any direction and be a rewarding challenge. The generous putting surfaces let players run the ball up every which way, while the still-softening land provides plenty of roll off the tee. The speed is mind-blowing, and hopefully that's something that remains even as the course softens some in maturation. As the fairway fescue sprawls and fully blankets the ground, the playing areas will only get better.
Doak's work in Roscommon deserves all of the acclaim it has received. It will be lavished with more over time as more people discover The Loop. Forest Dunes should also be praised for keeping the rates modest. Even in peak season on Thursdays through Sundays, the course is $149. In shoulder season, the walking-only course is $69. That's great value, making adding a caddie all the more plausible. Staying at Forest Dunes is reasonable as well, with weekend peak rates ranging from $90 per person per night in a lodge room to $149 per person per night in the four-bedroom villas, where we stayed.
If you're heading to this part of northern Michigan to play golf, then you'll love Forest Dunes. The 54 holes of golf are varied and fun, making them perfect for a buddies' trip. The food is locally sourced, prepared well and served by friendly staff. The cell phone service is pretty spotty -- truly best on the golf course itself, which is a little strange -- so you may want to let your loved ones and business associates know you'll be operating on a delay. Embrace it, and, as you find yourself turning around yet again to recall the shot you hit the other way the day prior, you'll realize that having the time to see things from another point of view means a lot more for life than golf.