High Pointe Golf Club: A Part of Golf's History in Michigan

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Williamsburg, MI - With his newly opened Pacific Dunes course on the Oregon Coast receiving rave reviews, architect Tom Doak has quickly become one of the newest "big" names in course design. Mike Stachura, course critic for Golf Digest, employs terms like "iconoclast," "visionary," and "throwback" to describe Doak.

When describing Doak's High Pointe Golf Club just outside Traverse City, there is one adjective you can never use on any of his other work: First. High Pointe is Tom Doak's first 18-hole effort as a course architect. And one thing that makes it a joy to play is the fact that at nearly every hole, you can see hints, traces, and full-blown examples of the hallmarks of a Doak design - the sorts of features that are quickly making him famous.

High Pointe was a rather stunning debut for Doak. The accolades showered on the course include "Top 100 You Can Play" (Golf Magazine, 1996-99); "One of the100 Greatest Courses in the U.S." (Golf Magazine, 1993-1999); "One of America's 75 Best Public Courses" (Golf Digest, 1990); "One of the Top 10 Courses Built in the U.S. in the Last 10 Years" (Links Magazine, 1997). All this for the first course of a man who had to convince the owners of the property to entrust their future to an unknown architect.

As it turned out, however, Mr. Doak had done his homework. Classic design features highlight both the front nine - a linksy, open, Scottish-style layout - and the back nine - a prototypical Northern Michigan woodland layout. The distinct difference between the two nines is not in the least jarring, however, although when finished, you feel as if you've played two courses rather than one.

Ben Croftchik, High Pointe's Pro Shop Manager, offers a bit of local advice: "Everyone says they feel like the front nine is so open, but the back nine is so tight. But if you'd take away the trees from the back, you'd see that the fairways are just as wide back there. They just seem tighter because of all the trees along the sides." And you'd be surprised by all the players who come in with stories of how the "open" front nine (3,697 yards, par 37) beat them up, while the "tight" back nine (3,193 yards, par 34) saved their scores, says Croftchik.

The key to playing well at High Pointe, though, besides hitting the generous fairways, is putting. "Keep it below the hole," advises Croftchik. "These greens are very undulating." Indeed, read the online descriptions of the holes (http://www.highpointegolf.com/course.asp), and the adjectives "domed" and "crowned" come up again and again in reference to the greens. The staff just call them "Doaked-up."

At an average of 5,000 sq. ft., they are big putting surfaces, but with all of the humps and swales, tiers and false sides, it's a miracle that the greenskeeper can find a level spot in some of them to cut the hole. The green on No. 8, a tough long par 4, is probably the most wildly undulating green I've ever seen, complete with two and one-half tiers. If you're above the hole here, forget two-putting.

Overall, the layout is fair to players of all levels. There are only two forced carries off the tee (Nos. 14 and 18), the fairways on both sides are generous (despite appearances), and water comes into play on only one hole. Bunkering is traditional: from shaggy-edged fairway bunkers to 5-foot deep pot bunkers. The best advice is to stay the heck out of these traps, especially on the 4th and the 14th (both of which have hidden bunkers behind the greens that require flare guns along with rakes, so your playing partners can find you again).

"Tom [Doak] is proud of his ‘minimalism,'" says John Jessup, High Pointe's Marketing Manager. "He was proud of the fact that nothing was done to build the fairway on No. 6, aside from grading it and planting grass. That's as minimal as it gets." Short of centuries of grazing sheep, ocean winds, and bored shepherds, that is.

Speaking of the tradition of the game, some of High Pointe's best points harken back to obscure facets (obscure for Americans, at least) of the game's long history. Take hole No. 4, a 199-yard par 3 curiously named "Redan." So what's Redan mean? Just ask one of the several Scotsmen who play High Pointe every year, and who, according to John Jessup, "tell us that the front nine is exactly like playing back home."

A Redan design is one of the most influential in golf. Modeled after the 15th hole at North Berwick West Links (Scotland) - and so-named after a type of fortification used in the Crimean War - a Redan must have a green set on a ridge, diagonal to the line of play. The green must slope from front right to back left, running away from the tee box. The front left of the green should be guarded by a steep bunker, and long shots should be swallowed up by a line of cavernous pot bunkers behind the green.

The 4th at High Pointe has all of these Redan hallmarks. The front bunker is deep enough to be mistaken as the gateway to hell, and the pot bunker behind the green as hell's backdoor. And like all but a small handful of the greens here, you cannot see the putting surface from the approach areas (fairways or tees). You get a par on this hole and you feel like you should try Q-School.

Exhibit two of Mr. Doak's sense of history is the very demanding 425-yard, par-4 10th, named Ben Nevis, which is also the name of Britain's highest mountain (located in Scotland). From the tee box, you hit out of a shoot of trees to a fairway that would give the roller coasters at Cedar Point a run for their money. The fairway was even steeper for the first few years of the course's life, prompting one-time touring pro Dan Pohl to exclaim after his round was done, "Beautiful layout, but what's the deal with No. 10?"

When the decision was made to lop the top off the first of two mountains in the fairway, Tom Doak was not happy. But, as John Jessup explains, "We had to make it playable for average players. And it's still no where near easy." This is an understatement: A short drive here makes for a long fairway wood over a second mini-mountain to a small, round, blind green.

Two other holes of particular note are the 459-yard, par-4 3rd and the signature, 512-yard, par-5 closing hole. The 3rd presents players with a visually daunting tee shot off elevated tees to a semi-blind fairway, with a stand of pines right and fairway bunkers left. The fairway itself meanders down into a small valley and then back up to a crowned, green, the surface of which you cannot see from the fairway.

The 18th is a fabulous closing hole that requires strategy, guts, and pure shots. The fairway is bisected by the only water on the course, a pond that lies diagonal to the tee boxes. Pay attention to the sign at the tees, which tells you how far it is to the nearest and farthest points of the first half of the fairway. From the elevation of the tees, the woods on the far end of the fairway looked out of reach, but the sign told me otherwise, so I used 3-wood to hit it two yards short of the trees. From there, it's longer than it looks to the second half of the fairway, over the water. The green is protected right-front by the pond, which is thick with golf balls. A truly wonderful closing hole.

Overall, it seems like most of the holes here play longer than the yardage would indicate, due to the slightly elevated greens and native fescue fairways, which make for great lies but less roll. The natural, minimalistic design means lots of interesting lies in the fairways, but the great condition of the course doesn't give you anyone to blame but yourself if you hit one thin or fat. The greens are well manicured, but still tough because of the undulations. Ben Crenshaw played a round here with Tom Doak a couple of years ago. No word on how he handled the "Doaked-up" greens, but he shot a 74.

Located across the road from the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa (and The Bear, The Wolverine, and Spruce Run courses), High Pointe has some stiff competition. But the $30-80 green fees lure many golfers away from the resort for twilight rounds ($30-55). With a complete practice area, comfortable grill and bar, computer-assisted lessons, and partial pro shop, there isn't much that players miss by leaving the resort.

Pacific Dunes in Oregon may make Tom Doak famous; but High Pointe Golf Club in Michigan started him on his path to fame. And it's always fun to play a course that's a part of golf's history.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.


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