Two courses in one at Lake Forest Golf Club in Ann Arbor
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It might be convenient to rely on a simple, standard reference when describing the layout of Lake Forest Golf Club in Ann Arbor. It's easiest that way. There's a front nine. And then there's a back nine.
That's pretty bland stuff, though, particularly considering how little in common the two sides at Lake Forest actually have. Certainly, a more lucid tongue can differentiate between two nine-hole stretches that share only the most basic of traits (you still try to put the ball in the hole). So let's refrain, at least in the case of Lake Forest, from leaning on terms like "front nine" and "back nine." Using them in this instance is like calling the Atlantic Ocean "pretty big." Not inaccurate but hardly beneficial.
Instead, let's call them what they are. This is not Lake Forest Golf Club but, rather, Lake Forest's golf clubs -- two separate courses that happen to operate from the same farmhouse-turned-clubhouse. Truth is, both have a front nine but no back. They're as separate from one another as the NBA and WNBA, linked together by a common handle.
How different are the two sides at Lake Forest? Well, if picked up and dropped at the site of their respective ancestry, the first nine holes would wind up somewhere in Scotland.
Holes No. 10-No. 18 might in fact land somewhere in Michigan, surely somewhere in the United States. It's as if the course designer couldn't make up his mind, and, as a result, the Ann Arbor area boasts a welcome addition to its steadily expanding golf course menu if only for Lake Forest's originality.
The charming little spread rears its "old-school" teeth quickly. Even while driving up Ellsworth Road from the Ann Arbor-Saline turn off, it becomes quickly apparent as you look out over the early holes that Lake Forest doesn't try to fake it when it can't.
This land is what it is. In short, it's often flat, settling only for occasional land ripples to give it contour. Trees are scarce, though much planting in recent months will one day cast a different shadow on certain holes. Having that to work with, Lake Forest designers instead implemented tall heather and fescue patches, not always making for the most gorgeous or scenic course but one that certainly drums up images of courses overseas.
Opening and closing with a pair of par 5s, Lake Forest's front is short, putting more onus on iron play than long drives. The tall grass stands in just the right spots, and a pair of in-course ponds and a winding stream, add to the challenge. It stretches only 3,178 yards from the "Championship" tees, 2,545 yards up front. And while it's true enough, those short numbers can lend themselves to a summer-low score, your short game must be on to make it happen.
The par-5 first hole, one of the toughest of the front, features a pesky water hazard running along nearly the entire right side of the fairway. The hole plays 519 yards from the back tees, two solid and accurate shots.
Both par 3s, (No. 2 and No. 8) are low-iron lobs, but, again, accuracy at the green is a must to avoid the trouble lurking. Lake Forest might occasionally be forgiving if you stray from a fairway, but if you're off the mark around the green, get ready to dig into your bag for a new ball.
The par 4s up front are short as well, in some cases, too short. No. 3 and No. 4 are respectable 424- and 374-yard holes, but 5 and 6 offer evidence that perhaps someone wanted to avoid offering a par 35 course. Even to the back of the tee boxes, the fifth holes lists at 295 yards. The green sits well below and to the right, behind a mammoth maple tree and other newly planted saplings. When those young trees stand taller, the hole will be a simple lay-up iron and chip. As it is, you knife across the corner and reach the green in one.
No. 6 doesn't stretch much further, only 331 yards from the back of the box. An open landing area makes nearly any tee shot serviceable, leaving even the weakest players off the tee with an iron shot into the green.
But, like many courses, Lake Forest saves the best of its front for last. No. 9, a 564-yard par 5 is without question the most challenging hole of the round. It lines a pond to the right, and dances left-then-right to a green that's hedged by another pond to the left.
If, by now, you've acclimated yourself to an imitation British Open-type of round, get ready to shift gears. The 10th serves almost as a bridge to a different style of play, where the grass gets shorter, the trees get taller, and the course stretches its legs a little. Regardless of which of the four sets of tee boxes you're playing, the second will reach about 250 yards longer than the first, and in ways that are noticeable in your club selection.
The par-4 10th plays more than 400 yards from both the "Championship" and "Back" tees, and plays straight, cutting into the woods that make up the property's northern portion.
The par 3s on back cover 146 and 233 yards, much different than the lob shots up front, and the par-5 18th, which returns to the links-style play as it heads toward the clubhouse, spans nearly 600 yards from the "Championship" tees.
If the back nine has its drawback, it comes at the par-4 12th, where a lay-up shot off the tee is require to set up an approach over a marsh. (I used a seven-iron to sit my ball just to the edge of the wet stuff.) That hole aside, much of the back nine at Lake Forest represents much of what has come to define Michigan Golf. The fairways cut through the rolling forests and occasional elevation changes make for enjoyable views we've almost come to assume.
What we don't typically assume is that we'll have the chance to play two courses in one. Now, with Lake Forest, we can even treat ourselves to that.
February 28, 2002