The Loop 12. Photo by Brian Oar

Crossing The Divide

Inside the creation and challenges of building The Loop

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Tom Doak’s book Getting to 18.

I had the seed of a reversible design idea in my head before I designed my first traditional golf course. It was planted after reading The Architectural Side of Golf by H.N. Wethered and Tom Simpson. The book was written in 1929, during the first boom of interest in golf course design. In the book, Simpson devotes one of the appendices to reversible courses, describing the benefits of one as well as the ideal terrain. I was intrigued by the concept, but figured it would be nothing more than a mental exercise, since getting a chance to build a reversible course seemed remote at best.

I figured the closest I would come was the free-form routing for the Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes in Oregon. But in early 2013 I went over to interview for the design of a second course at Forest Dunes Golf Club in Michigan, and the new owner, Lew Thompson, said he had two goals: getting people to stay overnight at the resort instead of using it as a pit stop on their way to play other courses farther north, and a course that would wow people. Since the property for the course was relatively gentle—there was less than 30 feet of elevation change over the entire site—the wow factor would have to come from the design itself. And to play a reversible course both ways, golfers would have to stay overnight, because people can’t play in both directions at once. Forest Dunes presented the perfect opportunity to build a reversible course. Now I just needed to convince Lew.

That summer, I went to present my concept for Forest Dunes with two maps: one showing the routing for the Red Course and the other for the reverse, the Blue Course, because we found it too confusing to try to look at both at once. So I rolled out the routing for the Red Course first and talked through it a bit. Then I asked Lew what he thought. He responded that he didn’t see anything really unusual about it and that he’d been hoping for something more. 

Then I pulled out the Blue routing from underneath and said, “This is the same golf course, but I’ve also designed it so you can play it backwards the next day.” It took about a minute for the room to understand what I meant, and then Lew responded, “Well, I said I wanted something that would blow me away. And I’m totally blown away.”

He didn’t ask me any of the questions other clients might ask, like what the raters would think of the idea. His goal was to get people to stay at the resort and play again the next day, and he knew the reversible concept had the potential to do just that. I’d waited 25 years, but I finally found the perfect client.

There were reasons, not surprisingly related to ratings, why reversible courses hadn’t caught on despite their benefits. In Simpson’s book, he reminds readers that “within living memory the Old Course at St. Andrews was habitually played in reverse.” But while St. Andrews is reversible today, it is only played that way as a novelty for a day or two around April Fool’s. When play began at St. Andrews, golfers simply played out and back to the same holes. Once the game’s popularity forced the Old Course to be widened, golfers would alternate playing on the left or right sides of the corridor. Eventually, though, golfers decided it was more interesting to play along the right side going out and coming back, because of the now-famous High Hole (In), Long Hole and Road Hole. As a result, the left-hand routing, as it was referred to, fell out of use. Indeed, one of the most common objections my friends had to the idea of a reversible course was that I might be compromising the best possible routing to ensure my design wouldn’t meet the same fate. But I believed that the optionality of a completely different 18 holes on the same land was more valuable than any marginal improvement found in choosing a better 18.

I took the chance to play the Old Course in reverse while we were working on The Renaissance Club in 2007. Unfortunately, the course didn’t work as intended in all places; they’d stopped mowing the grass behind some of the greens, so a few of the approach shots on the backwards course now require a forced carry instead of allowing a run-up. But there were two or three holes where it was more comfortable to play over to the fairway on the opposite side and approach the green as you do on the right-hand course—similar to the 14th on the Old Course, where you play into the fifth fairway to avoid Hell Bunker.

To pull off a reversible course, simplicity has to rule the day. Getting all the shots to work out well from both directions is a complex puzzle in its own right, and every obstacle added to the design—a bunker, a tree, a grassing line—just complicates things further. All the conceptual versions I’d doodled of a reversible design stuck to the same general form as the Old Course: parallel holes playing out and back along a wide corridor with the tees placed on the outside edges of the previous green, allowing for play in either direction. But while St. Andrews’ double greens are enormously big, my sketches used average-sized greens, and I’d been compiling a mental playbook of what sorts of greens would work best in two directions in case I ever had the opportunity to put my doodles into practice. One of the most appealing parts of thinking about a reversible course was that it required a focus on playability, away from the visual aspects of a hole, because making a hole prettier from one direction generally makes it harder to see what’s going on from the opposite one. In my opinion, this would be a good correction for modern golf design in general.

Now that I’d convinced Lew to go for a reversible course, I was excited to try my ideas on an actual site. From my doodles and experience at the Old Course, I was biased toward a fairly straightforward out-and-back routing that didn’t return at the ninth hole. On a reversible course, when the routing changes direction, it is hard to use the same tee to play both ways, since a golfer would have to hit over the edge of the previous green playing from one direction or the other.

I was also determined to make The Loop work with average-sized greens. Multi-tiered greens were likely out, because they didn’t work well cascading away from the line of play—though a green tiered from side to side would be fine. Crowned greens would work, but potentially be repetitive. Punchbowls were fine if you were comfortable with the line of sight in both directions—although that proved difficult to pull off in the field. The Biarritz green with a swale through the middle worked so well that we wound up building two: on the Red Course, you play into the second green sideways and the seventh straight on, and it’s exactly the opposite on the 16th and 11th when playing the Black Course. (At some point after the presentation, we renamed the Blue Course as the Black.) But I didn’t think of the most obvious solution until I was deep into the routing, because I was thinking too much about the Old Course; changing the angle of play to 90 degrees instead of 180 degrees makes even the simplest green shape much different the other way around.

Overall, the routing of The Loop was a more conventional thought exercise than I had imagined. Since it was a flat site, I looked for the contour lines and was drawn to a series of shallow valleys that led away from the back of the existing parking lot. The valleys led me to the property line, which runs along what is now the fifth hole on the Red and 14th on the Black, where there was a good off-site view into the adjoining state forest land. Near there were two bigger bowls in the terrain filled with native grasses, which I’d found on my first walk-through of the property and thought would make an ideal spot for par-3 holes. This became the setting for the sixth on Red/13th on Black and 14th on Red/fifth on Black.

From there, I tried to follow the perimeter of the property in a simple C shape, like the Old Course. Lucky for me, the golf course wasn’t long enough with that simplistic routing, measuring only about 6,000 yards. This meant I would have to double back in the middle somewhere to get the course up to a more conventional length; that turned out to be a blessing. For one, it forced me to look harder at the topography and find good features like the valleys that are now the seventh and 11th fairways on the Red Course, 12th and eighth on the Black, respectively. More importantly, it required me to further change directions in the routing, which I’d been trying to avoid. Changing directions made it almost impossible to build tees that we could use for play in both directions.

Accepting that I’d have to change directions was a “Eureka!” moment for the design. If we couldn’t build tees that would work for holes in both directions, we would have to build separate tees for the separate routings, but those tees would need to be only half as big, since they’d be used every other day. At that size, the tees would be small enough to appear as flat spots in the fairway when playing the opposite direction. This gave us much more freedom on tee placements and subsequently the variety of tee shots, because we were no longer constrained by playing from the edge of the corridor into the middle.

Not only did changing directions give us more creativity with the tee shots, but it also meant that play would be approaching greens from different angles. When the angles of play are 180 degrees apart, the green will play similarly in both directions, but with the angles of play at 90 degrees from one another, even a simple green, such as a long and skinny rectangle, transforms into a wide and shallow target when playing the other direction. It also allows for a greater variety of backgrounds, including some non-golf ones, since a player does not always have to be looking down the corridor of play. The sixth hole on the Red and the 12th hole on the Black are an example of this juxtaposition. The sixth on the Red is a short par 3 over native vegetation hitting to a wide, shallow green, but when playing the Black that same green is a long, skinny target for the short par-4 12th, with the native area out of sight—and mostly out of play—to the right of the green.

Shot-tracker arrows illustrate how Doak used the same corner of the property to accommodate Nos. 5 through 7 Red and Nos. 12 through 14 Black.
Shot-tracker arrows illustrate how Doak used the same corner of the property to accommodate Nos. 5 through 7 Red and Nos. 12 through 14 Black.

The change of direction also allowed me to do some things that would have been difficult to get away with otherwise. The seventh hole on the Red has a long, narrow Biarritz-style green with a swale through the middle; a deep, grassy hollow to the right; and a pine tree off the back right corner. The approach for the 11th on the Black plays over that hollow and the pine tree is now uncomfortably close to the green and line of play. In fact, it’s closer to the green than I would ever leave a tree in normal circumstances, but here the variety made it worth leaving.

Routing The Loop ended up being more similar to routing a traditional course than I’d anticipated. It’s too confusing to try to think about the holes both ways at the same time, so I would route a few holes in one direction and then check to see if I thought they would work backwards as well. Nearly all of the holes were routed for what is now played as the Red Course and then vetted backwards.

For example, I started with the first hole on the Red Course. It’s a blind tee shot down into a valley and then a steep pitch back up to the green, which can be seen clearly from the tee. For the Black Course, a drive would carry that same valley, with the second shot playing slightly uphill over flatter ground, into the 18th green. It was easy to see that it would be a good hole for the Red Course and also work well and play differently the other way around, but there were three or four holes that weren’t as simple. I felt comfortable with them for the Red Course, so I spent a lot of my time on site ensuring that they worked for the Black Course as well.

One of those was the 14th on Red, fourth on Black. On the Red Course, it was a natural par 3 over a big hollow filled with native vegetation, with the green site nestled down a bit from the flat ground beyond. But the other way around wasn’t so obvious. It was a very flat, relatively short par 4 with poor visibility. From the fairway, a golfer could see only the top of the flag, and the big hollow of native vegetation was hidden beyond it. In addition, there was nothing strategic to make it matter which side of the fairway a player drove it to. So I asked our associate, Brian Schneider, to create a green where a drive to the left gave the golfer a good look at it, but a drive to the right resulted in a difficult, semi-blind approach. Today’s green, with a little slot at the front left between two rows of mounds, was his first try at it. It’s my favorite green on the course. If a golfer doesn’t drive it to the left, they can still try to bank their approach shot off the mounds to the left of the green to get it close. And the little slot at the front of the green for the Black Course makes a great back-right hole location for the par 3 on the Red Course. Just like that, one of the lesser holes became one of the best.

It took quite a bit longer to decide the green site for the following hole, 15th on Red, third on Black. It wasn’t so great, and after a couple of attempts at shaping a green we decided to just move it. Originally the green was located in the hollow just behind the tee for the fourth hole on the Black, but visibility into the green wasn’t great from either direction. The approach for the third hole on the Black had an interesting ridge to play over, but there was no reason to, since the green was tucked away to the left. Eventually I realized that the solution was to put the green on the end of the ridge, which made it one of the most challenging approach shots on the course in either direction. Moving the green meant that the third hole on the Black and 16th on the Red, which share a fairway, were now long par 4s instead of par 5s. We did lose some yardage and a shot to par with the changes, but luckily Lew agreed with me that those details weren’t what would make this course special.

In hindsight, many of the features I like best on The Loop are things that we wouldn’t include on a normal course, but seem more acceptable when a golfer confronts them only half the time. For example, the pine tree on the approach to the 11th on Black or the maple that blocks the green from the right half of the fairway on the 13th on Red. In both cases, I would probably have routed the holes so that those trees would have been less in play if the course was going to be played only in one direction. But for The Loop, the more noticeable they were, the more contrast they created between the directions. I like those holes enough that maybe I’ll have the guts to leave quirky features in play a bit more often on my regular designs.

Another quirk found on The Loop can be seen on the tee shot for No. 8 on Red, where a good drive will land over the crest onto a side slope. This type of result is seldom encountered on modern courses, where architects pay such attention to the landing area, but that’s exactly the kind of tee shot found on older courses because today’s golfers have outgrown the landing areas that were located 220 yards out when those courses were built.

Between those types of features and the reduced emphasis on visibility, The Loop feels older than most of my other designs, and that’s something I really like. Under the guise of making the design reversible, we could leave in features that we might otherwise airbrush away in today’s environment. These slightly awkward features make a golfer think more and challenge their confidence—the sort of mystery that is commonly found on links courses, but all too rare in modern design. 

Getting to 18, by Tom Doak, is published by Renaissance Golf Publishing and available now.