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Inside The Loop, Tom Doak’s reversible 18-hole course in Northern Michigan

September 20, 2017

“A man. A plan. A canal. Panama.” A more talented wordsmith than myself might be able to come up with a similarly memorable palindrome for The Loop, Tom Doak’s “reversible” 18-hole golf courses that opened last year at Forest Dunes in Roscommon, Mich. Although, on second thought, the palindrome comparison isn’t quite right, as the courses—Black, played clockwise one day, and Red, played counterclockwise the next day, both on the same piece of ground—aren’t meant to mirror each other. In fact, the whole point was to have to two distinct, outstanding courses sharing the same turf. Neither does playing the course backward produce Satanic messages, nor word that Paul McCartney has died.

Maybe the struggle to come up with an apt correlation for The Loop is itself the most appropriate compliment one can pay it. This is about as high-concept as high-concept gets, and brilliant, too. No wonder Doak stewed over the idea for more than two decades, inspired by the long-bygone days of the Old Course at St. Andrews being played backward during the winter to help the course properly heal. Non-golfers immediately understand the benefits for both the owner (two layouts for the price of one) and the environment (two layouts for the land usage and maintenance of one); golfers are immediately intrigued by the question of how the conceit works in practice. Can it really be done such that the result isn’t just two flat, boring designs?

Yes, it can. Playing the Black in early evening and the Red the next morning—suggested tagline: “Red is the New Black”—there wasn’t time to forget much. Yet rarely during the second loop did I remember where I’d been on the first go-round. A bit of repression might have played a role at some moments, such as on the reachable par-5 6th hole on the Black, where I made 7 from just over the green in two; when I suddenly realized that I was on the same patch of ground while playing the par-5 13th hole on the Red, I shuddered.

When such moments did occur, the effect was like running into a long-ago classmate. You know you know her, but you can’t remember from where, and then you do, and then her name magically pops in your head, even though she looks different than she did back in the day. It’s an uncanny and disorienting impression, utterly novel, and not unpleasant if somewhat unnerving.

You get used to it. Same goes for holing a putt and then wandering around in search of the next tee box, which might be well up the next fairway. (Caddies are generally plentiful here and should be utilized, even if this means losing the charm of organic discovery.) What takes more getting used to is the difficulty of navigating the vexing green complexes, which are by the nature of the project the stars of the show. Most greens are like paintings, approached from afar head-on; these are like sculpture, needing to be interesting in the round, because the approaches aren’t all just 180 degrees from the opposite direction given the day, but also sometimes 90 degrees or 120 degrees.

Unless your iron play is Spieth-like, you’ll miss your share of greens, and that’s when the fun/trouble truly begins. By design, the turf is firm and fast throughout, and because of the course’s newness, all the more so. Nerveless wedge players will try their steady hands at going the airborne route. The rest of us will careen between Texas wedges, bump-and-runs and hybrid putting, the last method of which saw yours truly play onto the green, over it, and into a bunker. Twice. On the same nine. Red, Black, it didn’t matter: Color me flummoxed.

Commiserating, my caddie on the Red course noted that a small but vocal group of Forest Dunes guests, experiencing similar short-game difficulties, cancel their remaining loops on The Loop, opting to play extra rounds on the resort’s classical Tom Weiskopf-designed gem instead. That’s rash, if in weak moments understandable. (Fun fact: “Dammit, I’m mad,” is among the most famous palindromes.) Clockwise or counterclockwise, your head may spin at the difficulty in getting the ball to heel on the green, but once aboard putts run pure.

No excuses there, nor for missing the fairways, which are generally ginormous. As with Doak’s work at Old Macdonald at the Bandon Dunes Resort, players will swing away freely, as many of the fairways are nearly unmissable. Design buffs will understand that this need not produce mindless golf, as tee balls should be used to create the best angles. No doubt The Loop courses reveal themselves over the course of many rounds; guests playing just a single 18 in each direction may find the flip side is a lack of instant memorability. Again, file that under “nature of the beast.”

Whether a loop de loop of The Loop proves bucket-list stuff or just a one-off—well, two-off—will be a matter of taste. What’s inarguable is that Tom Doak and his team have pulled off something brilliant, and succeeded on their own, unique terms. There’s no two ways about it.