Today I played a round at Black Lake Golf Club in Onaway, Michigan. Black Lake Golf Club is currently ranked 35th in the 2007 Top 100 Public Courses in the USA by Golf Digest Magazine. I know, I know, golf course rankings are quite subjective, at best. Here is my impartial opinion.
There are many, many great golf courses that will never make a Golf Digest Top 100 list. However, Black Lake Golf Club quickly made short order of the other 170 golf courses that I have played, including the venerable Arcadia Bluffs. Did I just say Arcadia Bluffs? Yes, it is difficult to compare two very different styles of design, parkland versus links, but someone has to come out on top.
This is the second Rees Jones venue that I have played, the other being Charleston National (SC) and I was thoroughly impressed by both Rees courses. Once you have played here you’ll find that Black Lake Golf Club is a fair a test of golf if you choose the correct tees.
According to Rees Jones Inc., “we work to create courses that are fair, challenging, continually interesting to play, and visually exciting. We get a feel for the land, we listen to the client, and we build a course that we believe has integrity and lasting value.” One could argue that this course will always be intersting and challenging, each and every time out. Black Lake Golf Club is fair and visually exciting (stare at my pics), but you will still need a decent shot off the tee. Actually, you’ll need a lot of them! Super wide landing areas at Black Lake? Nope, not here, but there was ample room off the tee.
It’s not incredibly tight, but nor is it incredibly wide. Where Rees Jones gets you is with the strategically positioned sand traps in the fairways and around the greens. His risk reward opportunities were perfect as well. Sure, you can hit driver anywhere on this golf course, just be prepared to look a bit for your ball in the ferns if you bite off more than you can chew on a few of these holes.
Jones’ sand traps are really something to behold. They remind me of a newer, much more modern Donald Ross design. Picture a well-mounded grass bunker, carve out only the bottom nicely and add fine sand. They look like they are easy to maintain yet not impossible to hit out of cleanly, even when you short side yourself. Jones also seemed to build a few green plateaus (hole #15) that reminded me of Donald Ross courses (Pineneedles came to mind), especially the Par 3 number 17 with the bail out area behind the green (not even visible from the tee box). However, this golf course CANNOT be mistaken for any Donald Ross gem, it is uniquely Rees Jones through and through.
Drought conditions this summer? All over the Midwest yes, but NOT here at Black Lake Golf Club. I did NOT see any burned out areas, not ANYWHERE from the number 1 teebox all the way to the number 18 green. Impressive. The greens, although fairly quick, are somewhat subdued and lacked any great amount of undulation. The greens are no where near flat, just not tricked up at all. Basically, once on the green, what you see is what you get. Go right at the hole.
Black Lake Golf Club tips out at 7046 (74.4/138) yards. We played the white tees at 6401 yards (71.3/130), although it appeared to play longer. Must have been the uphill, into the wind par fives. The front tees play to 5058 yards (70.1/120).
There are five sets of tees in all. The course offers a nice clubhouse that does not detract from the course, a complete practice area and a 9 hole “Little Course”. Black Lake Golf Club is owned and operated by the United Auto Workers (UAW) and is a part of their Education/Training Center.
If you enjoy a serene parkland golf setting, supreme conditioning, and no houses what so ever you’ll love it here. In fact, we felt all alone, as if the course was ours, during our whole round. We sure did.
Hey Rees! Please hurry up and design a course in Ohio!
Barnbougle Dunes: World Class Golf
We arrived to Launceston Airport in Tasmania just before sunset. Located on the Northeast Coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania, Barnbougle is almost as far from Sweden as it gets… yet it immediately felt like home when we arrived.
The drive from the airport was just over an hour, taking us through deep forests and rolling hills before we arrived to Barnbougle Golf Resort, which consists of two courses — The Dunes and Lost Farm — a lodge, two restaurants, a sports bar and a spa. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and we couldn’t see much of the two courses on our arrival. I would like to add that both Johan and I were extremely excited about visiting this golf mecca. We later enjoyed a tasty dinner at the Barnbougle Lost Farm Restaurant before we called it a day.
The next day, we woke up early and got out to The Dunes Course as very first guests out. Well, to be quite honest, we weren’t actually the first out. There were a few locals — Wallabies, lots of them — already out on the course. The natural landscape at Barnbougle is fantastic and my cameras almost overheated with the photo opportunities. After two intense hours of recording videos and producing photos both from ground, we headed back to Lost Farm for a wonderful breakfast (and view). After our breakfast, it was time to try our luck.
Before describing our experience playing the courses, I would like to mention about Richard Sattler, a potato farmer and owner of Barnbougle. In the early 2000’s, Richard was introduced to U.S. golfing visionary Mike Keiser, who had heard about his amazing stretch of farmland in Tasmania and came down to visit. Mike convinced Richard that Barnbougle (which at that stage was a potato farm and still grows potatoes and raises cattle today) might be perfect for creating a top quality golf course.
After an introduction to well renowned golf architect Tom Doak and the formation of a partnership with former Australian golf pro and golf architect Mike Clayton, the development of the Barnbougle Dunes Course commenced.
Featuring large bunkers dotted between fun rolling fairways shaped from the coastal dunes, Barnbougle Dunes offers the golfer some tough challenges, in particular on the first nine. This is indeed a course that will entertain all kinds of golfers.
After our round, we looked back at some fantastic highlights such as playing the iconic 7th hole, a short par-3 called ”Tom’s Little Devil,” as well as the beautiful par-4 15th. We were just two big walking smiles sitting there in the restaurant to be honest. Lets also not forget one of the biggest (and deepest) bunkers I’ve seen at the 4th hole. The name of the bunker is “Jaws.” Good times!
As a small surprise for Johan, I had arranged a meeting after our round with Richard Sattler. Richard, ever the farmer, entered the car parking just in front of the clubhouse in a white pick-up van with a big smile un his face. We talked to Richard for almost 30 minutes. He is an extremely humble man and left such a warm impression on us. Richard explained the Barnbougle story: how it all began and the property today.
To me, this is a high-end golf destination offering something very unique with two world-class courses in Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm, both ranked in the top-100 greatest golf courses by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine (U.S.). With the courses located just next to each other, it’s probably one of the best golf resorts you can find down under and a golf resort that I would like bring my hardcore golfing friends to visit. Everything here is exceptional with the resort providing spacious rooms, comfy beds, good food and spectacular views.
Barnbougle Dunes is a real treat to play for any golfer and will leave you with a sweet golfing memory. Compared to the golf courses available on the more remote King Island, Barnbougle is accessible (given Tasmania is connected by better flight connections) and the hospitality and service at is much more refined.
The golf resort is one of the absolute best I’ve been to. I can also highly recommend playing Barnbougle Dunes; I had great fun and you can play it in many ways. Tomorrow, we will be playing and experiencing the other course at Barnbougle: Barnbougle Lost Farm, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course with 20 (!) holes.
Ocean Dunes: Golfing in the Wild Waves
On the last day on King Island, we were excited to see what its other golf course had to offer. While we first missed the small entrance to Ocean Dunes from the road, we finally got it right and approached the course on a small gravel road taking us up to the golf club parking.
When we walked from the car parking heading down to the temporary club house, we were facing large dunes and a beautiful big ocean. “What a site for a golf course!” That was our first impression. And after a quick look out on the short par-3 down below us, we knew that this would be a good day.
Ocean Dunes opened in September 2016 and is designed by Graeme Grant. It’s actually for sale at the moment, and if I had the money I would honestly consider buying it. It’s currently ranked as the fourth best public golf course in Australia. We met one from the staff before our round, and she told us that Ocean Dunes is like Barnbougle Dunes on steroids. Although we haven’t reached Barnbougle yet, we immediately understood that this was a good thing.
We later played 18 holes, and we were almost alone out on the course. I love that feeling when you’re able to play in your own pace and don’t have to wait. Just hit, look and plan for your next shot. It was a very windy day, and it wasn’t in the normal wind direction. A lot of our approach shots just wouldn’t stop on the firm greens.
My highlight from Ocean Dunes was definitely the fourth hole, a lovely and beautiful par-3 where the big waves crashed in. It has a Cypress Point vibe about it. I also enjoyed playing the third hole, a long par-4 (425 meters) that runs just next to the ocean with a tricky fairway sloping down toward the ocean. It all ends with a very complex green. It’s a great challenge from the backtees.
Overall, I would describe Ocean Dunes as a challenging, risk-reward course. It’s a bold and perfect complement to Cape Wickham Links on King Island. At Ocean Dunes, there are 17 holes with water views. All 18 holes have bent grass greens and a lot of variation. They’re highly memorable. We truly enjoyed our round and had a lot of fun. But if you’re able to visit King Island, it’s not fair not to treat yourself just to one course. You need to play both Cape Wickham Links and Ocean Dunes.
The next destination for us will be Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm in Tasmania. They’re two world-class courses that looks amazing in the photos I’ve seen so far. I can’t wait to get there and share our experience. We will also meet the owner himself, the potato farmer Richard Sattler. Don’t miss it!
- Cape Wickham Links: The Treasure of King Island
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The Long and Winding Road to The Old Course
St. Andrews holds a special and historic place in every golfer’s imagination. Anyone who has the faintest chance to play St. Andrews should do whatever it takes to get there. My journey to The Home of Golf was a circuitous one, filled with random twists and colorful characters along the way. It all started with a wedding. This is my story.
Palm Desert, California 2006. I was living the charmed and unglamorous life of a club professional. My soul was slowly being crushed by too many Couples Twilights and Ladies’ Guest Days. The love I once had for the game was waning and I needed something authentic to rekindle the passion. One day my friend Aaron called from Minneapolis with some exciting news: “Dude, my cousin Paul is getting married in a castle in England next month and we…” I cut him off with a quickness. “Forget the castle. We have to go play St. Andrews.” My response didn’t surprise Aaron one bit. His mind was already heading in the same direction, and he knew what I was going to say before he picked up the phone. We started forging a plan for the trip.
Aaron and I were both fairly seasoned travelers, but we weren’t without our limitations. There were family and work obligations to consider, as well as Aaron’s recently rebuilt knee. He was going to be a game-time decision for every round. I’m not saying Aaron is Brett Favre, but he’s a pretty tough guy so I felt good about our chances.
Our limited itinerary called for a Friday arrival, a Saturday groom’s dinner and a Sunday night wedding — all in the company of the wildly entertaining Reid and McIllrick clans. After that, if we survived, there would be golf: Monday at 7 a.m. on the Old Course, Tuesday at Carnoustie and Wednesday’s game at Loch Lomond before heading home. The difficult feat was going to be leaving from the wedding on the outskirts of Leeds, England around midnight and getting to the first tee at St. Andrews by 7 a.m. the next morning. Make no mistake; this was going to be intricate work.
You should know a little bit about the cousin/groom Paul Reid. A successful aviation executive and a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, he is perhaps best known for being the older brother of former Hibernian Football Club Goalkeeper Chris Reid. As teenagers the Reid brothers would visit their Minnesota cousins, and we all became fast friends. Paul and his bride-to-be Kay didn’t actually invite me to their wedding, but they knew I was coming as a guest; albeit a guest with ulterior motives.
We landed in Glasgow and drove to York, England (mistake) to meet up with the rest of the wedding party. The first two days was a boisterous blur of pints and greasy fish ‘n’ chips. I don’t remember much, but I do recall a few things; most notably, the groom’s dinner that featured a James Bond soundtrack. Not James Brown: James Bond. I’m a pretty solid dancer, but there’s only so much you can do with “A View to a Kill.” But it’s the groom’s night; if it’s Duran Duran he wants, then it’s Duran Duran he’ll get.
When Paul and Kay’s wedding finally came, it was a beautiful and lavish affair. Truth be told, I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough. When the clock struck midnight, Aaron and I hit the road. We were stone-cold sober and in front of us lay a cold, wet, five-hour drive through the dark Northern night. There was no place else in the universe I would have rather been.
It didn’t take long for doubt to start creeping in. Keep in mind, back in 2006 the car rental GPS systems were suspect. We were rolling through the rural countryside with MapQuest print-outs on the left side of the road in the driving rain. And don’t forget we were powering through a 3-day hangover fueled solely by adrenaline. This was nothing short of a herculean challenge.
Every good road trip has a soundtrack, right? Somehow, somehow, the only CD we had was by a band called Granddaddy. “Rear View Mirror” was their only jam. Late night/early morning Scottish radio offered little relief as “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley was on every time we sought refuge on the FM dial. There was no Belle and Sebastian, no Big Country, no Simple Minds (thank God) and not even Teenage Fan Club. Just Gnarls Barkley every single time. I’m not making this up.
Three hours into our journey, we were starting to fade hard. Luckily, we came across a roundabout that had a 24-hour gas station/convenience store. Stepping out of the car I realized that what I thought was a light drizzle was actually rain. It wasn’t enough to keep you from playing golf, but it was a legitimate stop-a-Little-League-game type of rain. And it was cold. I bought a few extra-large coffees that tasted about as bad as you would expect rural Scottish gas station coffee to taste at 3 a.m. and headed back to the car.
Then it happened. As I hastily scrambled to get back into the car and away from the freezing rain, I fumbled the coffee. Not in the parking lot, not the side of the car, not even in the floor of the car. I ham-fisted all 32 ounces of java directly into Aaron’s lap. Talk about furious. Aaron was sleep deprived, had a right knee as swollen as Frank Gore’s and was freshly soaked with a gallon of lukewarm coffee. To rub salt on the wound, the only MapQuest sheet that we needed was also ruined. We would have to make the last two hours to the Old Course on feel, and I wasn’t sure our friendship would last that long.
We found our way to town around 5:30 a.m. We had rented a few rooms in a house about 10 minutes from the course and the plan was to change clothes and go play. The schedule was all working out, but the weather wasn’t. It was still raining, windy and maybe 40 degrees. But we changed and headed to the Old Course, hoping at least one of the elements would relent.
It’s not easy getting the 7 a.m. tee time at The Old Course. As the saying goes, “It’s who you know that counts,” and a friend of mine who was a member of an exclusive club that somewhat guarantees members tee times at courses all over the world had set it up for us. I had no confirmation or booking number — just an email from my friend telling me to be at the first tee by 6:45 a.m. If you knew this guy, you’d realize this wasn’t as risky as it sounds. So as we parked the car and started to walk to the historic first tee, only two things were going through my mind:
- It is still lightly raining, windy and cold
- Considering it’s 6:45 a.m., there are a lot of people here
As we approach the first tee and the Ellis Island-like crowd that surrounded it, the sense of place really started to sink in. Then suddenly, like Moses parting the Red Sea, two men split the crowd and walked toward us.
“The professionals from California, I assume?” said the shorter dark-haired fellow named Robert.
“Yes sir,” I replied.
We stumbled through introductions and Robert went on to say that everything had been handled. There would be no need to pay for anything. Then he asked if we’d take a few singles to play along in our tee time. We happily agreed.
As I went to put my peg in the ground, I could hear whispers from the de facto gallery: “Look! He’s the pro from California!” I wanted to turn and tell them, “No! Look away! I’m just a hack club professional and I haven’t slept in two days! Look away!”
Instead, feeling every ounce of the onlooker’s expectations, I pulled driver because it had the greatest chance of getting airborne. I swung as hard as I could and snap-hooked a line drive about 230 yards (85 yards of carry) into the 18th fairway. I was strangely content with the result. Just as we were about to walk off the tee, Robert approached and we shook hands as if to say thanks and good bye. He suddenly pulled me in closely and whispered, “At the conclusion of your round, there will be a silver Range Rover parked behind the green. Get in that vehicle.” Then he just turned and left. It was weird. The whole thing felt very covert. There was something about Robert and his sidekick that had my radar up. I wondered if the James Bond soundtrack from the groom’s dinner was a premonition of things to come.
We were paired with an Englishman who was a very solid player and another man from Houston, Texas, who was far less capable. The Texan, as we came to know him, probably shot over 150. To call him eccentric would be a gross understatement; he made Bill Murray look like Tom Kite. He sported a big, bushy gray beard and a flannel button-down shirt. The only thing guarding him from the elements was a picnic blanket he wrapped around his husky frame. My guess is he slept on that same blanket the night before, probably on the first tee. Whether The Texan was entirely there mentally was a topic of hot debate. “Nice shot,” I untruthfully said to him once. He looked back at me (through me?) for about 10 seconds before uttering, “They all are.” Curious words for a man who just shot about 150.
People will often tell you how great the caddies are at The Old Course, but they didn’t have my man Stevie. Again and again, I asked Stevie not to read the greens for me because I wanted to figure them out myself. I also asked him not to club me, but rather to just give me yardages. As we approached the 10th green, I was pleading: “Stevie… please, for the last time, please don’t give me a read unless I ask for it, OK? I really want to read the greens myself.” His reply: “You got it, sir. Sorry, sir… You got it.. This one’s right to left, sir. About half a foot.” He hands me a putter, walks away and grabs the pin.
By the time we reached the historic Road Hole, my relationship with Stevie (not his real name) was beyond frayed. A good drive left me in the middle of the fairway. I asked Stevie for a distance and he clubbed me. “Just the raw distance, please, Stevie.” He clubed me again. And then again. I asked one more time and he finally relented. I took 8-iron — one more club than Stevie recommended — and hit it pure leaving a ball mark about five feet past a middle pin. The problem was the ball ended up well over the green on gravel. Triple-bogey seven. Stevie was right. The shot called for a 9-iron hit short and right of the sucker’s line I had played.
As we reached the 18th green, we all shook hands and gave our thanks, good lucks and goodbyes. I embraced Stevie as if asking for his forgiveness. I looked up and there it was, the silver Range Rover. Robert and his accomplice jogged out to meet us, grabbed our bags and loaded them in the back. “Off to the castle for lunch now,” Robert said. It was not a request, but a requirement. Our golf bags were like hostages so we followed orders.
Again, we didn’t know these guys from Adam and the whole scene was just a little north of uncomfortable. Defenses were slightly up. I knew Robert and his cohort wanted something from us, but I wasn’t sure what. Robert told us we were about five miles away from “the castle” where we could “have lunch and discuss a proposition.” When we got there, it was more clubhouse than castle. There was a garden, a pool and stables. It reminded me of an Oasis video. I was half-expecting Liam Gallagher to be passed out on a billiards table in the parlor.
As it turns out, Robert was just trying to sell us memberships into the club, which would be like joining all of the world’s finest clubs. It would guarantee us tee times “anywhere but Augusta National” as Robert reiterated half a dozen times. Instead of calling him to the carpet on the false promise of global tee times, I explained that I wasn’t in the market to join any club and thanked him for his hospitality. After a nice lunch and few beers, they drove us back to our car.
Aaron and I hadn’t slept in well over 24 hours and we were spent. We had plenty of daylight to play more golf, but we just didn’t have the energy. Kingsbarn, The Jubilee, maybe even a replay of The Old Course; it was all right there in front of us. But instead we went back to our rooms to warm up, dry up and rest; a decision I’ve regretted ever since.
After recharging, we dragged ourselves back into town and drank half a dozen pints as we recounted the day. There were so many surreal quirks that we had to take a mental inventory. Was that the hardest five-hour drive ever? Did we almost crash into a few roundabouts? How horrible does a lap full of coffee feel at 3:30 a.m.? Did that scene at the first tee really happen? Is The Texan is still alive? Was he even real? Was being shuttled away from The Old Course by strangers in a silver Range Rover to a castle for lunch with two kind of strange guys we didn’t know the most James Bond move ever… or the least James Bond move ever? Who knows.
But I know one thing: I’ll be back at St. Andrews someday, hopefully with my daughter if she chooses to play. I’ll show her where my smother-hook on the opening hole ended up. We’ll laugh at stories about The Texan. Maybe I’ll birdie the 18th again. As we’re standing on the green hugging, I’ll pull her close and whisper: “If you see a silver Range Rover behind the green, don’t get in. They’re just trying to sell you something.”
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