LochenHeath: a Northern Michigan gem goes private
WILLIAMSBURG, Mich. - When you think of throw-back or minimalist golf course architects today, one of the names that regularly pops up is Steve Smyers.
The Florida-based course designer has laid out well-regarded tracks from Tampa to Illinois to England. His flagship effort in the Wolverine State is LochenHeath Golf Club, a 7,049-yard, par-71 course overlooking the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay.
Opened in 2001, LochenHeath turned private at the beginning of 2004. While LochenHeath originally considered stay-and-play packages, the club only allows members and their guests on the course at this point.
So if you want to play this baffling yet beautiful thrill ride of a course, either start making friends with property owners in the development, or maybe even snatch up a lot of land yourself. Membership is available only to landowners in the development.
Smyers is a devoted student of strategic design. In a recent interview with TravelGolf.com, Smyers summed up his design philosophy.
"I think that you've got to challenge the golfer by getting him to think about the golf shot," Smyers said. "You know most people don't know how to, or they don't think their way around a golf course. You really make players think when you don't limit their options, when you don't instruct them to hit it here or pay the price, when you make them wonder and create indecision."
True to his credo, Smyers' first Michigan design offers loads of indecision from tee to green. It seemed all along Smyers wanted to build a quintessential "members' course" - those fortunate enough to play it many times will be able to quiet the inner doubts stirred up by Smyers' architectural chicanery and hit the shots required to score well here.
A paradoxically grand ‘minimalist' design
LochenHeath displays the hallmarks of Smyers' minimalist design philosophy - golfers just won't see them. There are no imposing granite hole markers here, just modest tee stands. And golf cart paths are well-hidden from view, adding to the overarching atmosphere of a links course (although some cart paths are so far away from greens as to raise pace-of-play worries).
The philosophy as it plays out at LochenHeath has generally been praised by critics. The course was named one of the top 10 new courses in the nation by Golf Magazine and was ranked as the seventh-best course in Michigan by Golfweek.
LochenHeath Director of Golf Jeff Coble points out that high-handicap players will find the course comparatively forgiving off the tee.
"The driving areas are pretty generous, so players aren't penalized off the tee," Coble said. "They really need to be on with their shorter approach shots, though. There are lots of collection areas and false fronts."
And herein lies the rub: Although the green complexes are reminiscent of Scottish links courses, they feel somehow more contrived. The impression is that they are more purposely penal than just naturally formed by nature and grazing sheep.
False fronts and false sides are aplenty, which in themselves are not a problem. However, the remaining putting surfaces on some greens are so small as to be severely limited in their pin placements. Take, for instance, the 549-yard 12th, where nearly one-half of the green consists of a false front.
Smyers uses the indigenous natural wonders to excellent effect on many holes. The petite par-4 seventh, which measures just 309 yards from the tips, is one of the prettiest short par 4s in the area. Traverse Bay stretches along the right side of the fairway and cavernous bunkers dot the left side. The small, difficult-to-read-green is guarded by a staunch stand of hardwoods, as well.
The 574-yard ninth is a thrill-ride down hill from the tees. A good drive will roll and roll and roll some more into reasonable two-shot range. The fairway is much wider than it looks from the tee, but the approach to the bowl-shaped green is tricky: The putting surface is tucked behind two gaping traps.
As lovely as the scenery is on the back nine, first-time players here will find some shots - or entire holes - awkward. The 378-yard 11th offers a breathtaking tee shot some 80-plus feet down to the fairway, but then the hole is marred by a green that is almost too cute.
The left-to-right angle of the green to the fairway makes all yardages seem wrong. As I was searching for my own ball over the back of the green, I found six more (and a couple were way back there), so I'm not the only one to have trouble here.
The only clumsy driving hole is the 575-yard 15th, where golfers are greeted with a tee shot through a notch in the hillside to a fairway that cannot be seen at all. As the architect said in the quote above, he doesn't like to "instruct players to hit it here," and this hole indeed lacks even a subtle hint about where to hit it.
On the off chance that your drive ends up in the ribbon-like fairway (which mine somehow did), there are many places in that fairway from which you cannot see any more of the fairway in order to lay up (which I did), or the green, should you want to go for it (which I did, but I couldn't, so I didn't).
According to Coble, there are plans to raise the tees here to give mere mortals - or non-members - the chance to see where it is they are supposed to be aiming their ball.
Unique golfing experience
Golfers familiar with Smyers' past work will find a good bit about LochenHeath to be consistent with his other courses. At the same time, there's a whole lot here that will not seem prototypically "Smyers."
The severe undulations in the land and perhaps Smyers' reluctance to move tons of dirt may have engendered some of the features that make this such a unique course. No other layout in the Traverse City area compares with respect to LochenHeath's singular combination of scenery, flawless conditioning, shot-making options and rather extreme green complexes.
Having finally gone private, members will absolutely astound their guests with savant-like course knowledge of the sort one can only glean from repeated playing of a track that fools the eye and questions the fortitude of golfers to the extent of LochenHeath.
Yardages/Ratings/Slopes: 7049/75.6/144; 6718/73.5/138; 6211/70.9/132; 5222/70.4/128
April 28, 2005