Thousand Oaks Golf Club: Mr. Jones Rolls Out a Masterpiece

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Plainfield Township, MI - Michigan is a great golf state by any standard: total number of courses, courses per capita, quality of golf resorts, average cost of 18 holes, quality of course designs, number of course architects with courses in the state. Take this last category, for example. Golfers in Michigan are blessed with the opportunity to play courses designed by nearly all of the contemporary greats—Robert Trent Jones, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, Arthur Hills, and Tom Fazio, just to name a few.

One notable absence from this distinguished roll-call, until just this year at least, is Rees Jones. Not to be confused with the bodyguard of Lady Di who survived the wreck in Paris (that's Trevor Rees-Jones, if you're keeping track), Rees Jones is one of the preeminent course architects today. Not only is he a member of what some would call the "Royal Family" of course design, but he is also the same guy who was entrusted to renovate Congressional Country Club (site of the 1997 U.S. Open) and The Country Club in Brookline, MA (site of the 1999 Ryder Cup).

Best of all for Michigan golfers, Mr. Jones's first course in the state has officially opened this summer. Thousand Oaks Golf Club, on the eastern edge of Grand Rapids, is a spectacular design that gives even the much-ballyhooed northern Michigan courses a run for their money. When you tee it up on each and every hole, you can see and appreciate the work of a true master.

To fully appreciate the uniqueness and overall quality of Thousand Oaks, consider first that it just opened for regular play on April 15, 2000. Despite this fact, the greens—the one part of a new course that typically betray immaturity—look, roll, and hold a ball as if they were five years old. Brand new greens generally lack a dense root network, causing the ball to skid rather than check. New greens are often sort of sandy, like many practice greens. New greens suffer from inconsistency, with some being faster, others slower. The greens at Thousand Oaks are none of these things. And they are subtle in their reads and intimidating in their contouring all at once.

With regards to the "northern Michigan" feel to which many southern courses aspire but almost never acquire, Thousand Oaks actually has all the ingredients. First, each hole is totally isolated from the next, separated by thick hardwood forest, long stretches of wetlands, or both. Second, there are more elevation changes on this course than there are on most roller coasters. Nearly every tee is elevated, as is nearly every green. Those greens that aren't elevated require downhill approaches that can mess with both your club selection and your mind. Perhaps the only other Mid-Michigan course than can rival Thousand Oaks with regard to these "northern" qualities is The Majestic at Lake Walden.

Jones has obviously designed this inspiring championship course to host championships in the future. At 7128 from the tips (and 6677, 6137, and 5328 from the more forward tees), the course has the length to challenge even the best players. In addition, several of the greens have been set into huge earthen amphitheaters, with mounds towering up behind. It might not be too long before galleries crowd these areas at some state or national tournament.

If there is one area where the course betrays its age, it is in a small handful of bunkers, where recent heavy rains have exposed some drainage and runoff issues. However, considering Mr. Jones's affinity for expansive (think beaches instead of sand traps) and abundant bunkering, it is not surprising than one or two should require a bit of redesign. Part of the problem is areas of run-off from the nearby housing development, but this is certainly only a temporary problem (and rest assured, none of the houses will ever sit directly on the course).

It is not an exaggeration to say that nearly every hole here could be the signature hole at some other courses. Jones's bunkering looks like something out of a painting, and the expansive vistas off of the tees are so inspiring that you feel like you could knock the ball 300 yards. And this is precisely one of the major dangers of such a spectacular design, at least for average golfers—the fairways look so wide-open and inviting from fifty feet above them that you swing way too hard. Result: dubbed, sliced, or hooked drives that leave impossibly long or impeded seconds, or simply lost balls. (In duffers terms, this means, "Bring lots of golf balls.")

But if you can enjoy the scenery and still play within yourself, you will have 18 extremely memorable holes (though for some, the memory will be something like, "Oh yeah, I remember I got a snowman on that one…."). Starting with the 408-yard par-4 1st, you are presented with a slightly raised tee stand looking out over a fairway that doglegs downhill to the right all the way to a green that is nestled absolutely perfectly into a grove of trees at the bottom of the hill. This is one of the best opening holes around with respect to the way that it prepares you for the rest of the course: elevations, uneven lies, tough green. It's all here and it's all throughout the following 17 holes.

The signature hole is No. 6, a 465-yard par 4 that plays every bit that long. The tee shot is uphill and requires a drive long enough to clear the crest of the hill (approx. 250 yards) to have a decent shot over the swale that lies between you and the green. Here, as with all of the greens, there is a safe side and a dangerous side. Miss on the dangerous side, and you'll end up in an enormous bunker, down a steep bank, or both (for example, missing left on No. 5 leaves you in bunkers so far below the putting surface that you'll need repelling gear to get there and back).

No. 9, a 530-yard par 5 would make a perfect closing hole on any course. From the tee it is all an uphill dogleg right to the green, with those gallery-ready mounds behind the green and the lovely clubhouse behind the mounds. It is very similar to the 18th at the private Egypt Valley Country Club in Grand Rapids, where a Senior PGA Tour event is held.

The back nine plays tougher than the front, but Nos. 16, 17, and 18 especially are, in Rees Jones's words, "muscle holes." They consist of a 408-yard par 4, 206-yard par 3, and a 451-yard par 4. You will need every ounce of energy you have left to squeeze good scores out of these holes. And if you have dared to walk this course (they do allow walking any time here), and didn't bring a mountain goat as a caddie, you probably won't have enough gas in your tank to finish strong. (I know I didn't, and I love to walk…usually.)

The hallmark of the course, from front to back, is the amazing contouring in the fairways. If you want a flat, even lie, you will need to place your tee shot with pinpoint precision. Although the fairways are wide, and the rough buffering the fairway from the ever-present forest is short and manageable, the ups and downs, humps and bumps throughout the bent grass fairways do not allow for many "routine" second shots into the picturesque greens. Iron play is at a premium, as missing a green will surely be penalized with a bunker shot or demanding pitch from below or above the putting surface.

Of course, the facilities are equally top-notch. The clubhouse contains a large restaurant for formal dining, locker rooms, banquet facilities, and a complete pro shop. Gary Smithson, Director of Golf, can arrange lessons for you on the large range. A 3-hole short game practice area is also under construction next to the range. And you'll need all the short game skill you can muster if you miss the greens out on the real course. The only amenity lacking, at least so far, is a snack bar for hot dogs, etc. (Who wants a full meal in a ritzy restaurant at the turn?) We'll hope that this is just a temporary oversight.

Rather remarkably, there hasn't been a lot of press on Thousand Oaks yet, despite the high profile designer and the outstanding design. In fact, there isn't even a sign out on the East Beltway, nor one at the turn onto 5 Mile Road, nor even one at the course entrance. But when the press and the playing public get wind of this new Rees Jones gem, the buzz reaches a crescendo, and the inevitable comparisons to northern courses are tossed about like so many cracked tees, rest assured that Thousand Oaks is all that, and a bag of range balls.

Welcome, Mr. Jones, to Michigan. We hope you'll come back often!

(sung to the tune of "Mr. Jones" by Adam Duritz,
performed by Counting Crows):

"Mr. Jones & me, standing at the tee box,
Yeah, we stare at the beautiful fairways—
It's perfect for you, I just wish I could split it, too.
I want to be Tom Lehman,
Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky.
But when you've won the British Open, oh son,
That's just about as funky as you can be.
Mr. Jones & me --
We're gonna break eighty…."

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

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

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