Thoroughbred Golf Club: A Sure-Fire Win at Double JJ Resort

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Rothbury, MI - If you've spent much time around horses, you are probably familiar with the Thoroughbred breed: They are statuesque, muscular, lean, fast. Most of all, Thoroughbreds are horses that you need to have experience with in order to handle them well. They can be unpredictable and frightening for novices, but in the hands of savvy trainers and jockeys, they are champion show and race horses. The Arthur Hills-designed course at the Double JJ Ranch in Rothbury is named after this most regal of equines for good reason: You will need a very steady hand to keep a rein on your score here.

Thoroughbred Golf Club, which opened on the 4th of July 1993, has garnered nearly as many accolades since its debut as Cigar did wins: Best New Course in Michigan and No. 3 in America (Golf Digest, 1993), "One of the tem most challenging courses in America" (Men's Journal, 1996), "No. 1 upscale course in Michigan and No. 33 in America" (Golf Digest, 1996), "One of America's Best" (Golfweek, 1997), "One of the top 100 woman-friendly courses in America" (Golf for Women, 1999), "4 ½ Stars" (Golf Digest, 1998, 1999, 2000).

All of the praise is not misplaced. Thoroughbred is not only located at what might well be the most unique resort in the Midwest (Double JJ Resort, see accompanying review), but it is quite possibly the one of the most memorable courses you will ever play. Arthur Hills took a 400-acre section of the Double JJ Ranch and built a course of unparalleled natural beauty, incorporating miles of horse trails, a cranberry bog, Carpenter Lake, and more woods and wetlands than you'll find in some state parks.

According to Jeff Howland, PGA Professional at the Thoroughbred, Arthur Hills faced a unique challenge in laying out the course. Says Jeff, "Art told me it was the first time that he'd ever had to take horseback traffic into account." You will notice throughout your round that indeed, Mr. Hills took the horses very seriously as you see numerous signs reminding golfers that horses always have the right of way. The horse trails cross the cart paths wherever you see wooden slats cutting across the tarmac running between holes.

But it is not just the co-mingling of horseback riding and golf that makes the Thoroughbred unique; nature and Mr. Hills have endowed the course with long carries, severe doglegs, and elevation changes matched by only the best courses in the nation. This is the sort of course where one bad shot (and I mean ANY bad shot) requires one, maybe two good shots (and I mean GOOD shots) to recover.

If your goal is bogey golf (90), you may want to drop your standards a bit, and just enjoy the scenery.

Depending on who you ask about the Thoroughbred, you will get one of two reactions: Love it! Hate it! Those who love it enjoy a challenge and have probably played it a few times. Those who hate it are the kind of golfers who think they are Tiger Woods and are used to scoring low on their home courses, where they know every swale and knob. When these Tiger-wannabes shoot ten or so strokes over their handicaps, they blame the course-they rail against the blind shots and blast the pervasive hazards.

The key to the Thoroughbred, however, is familiarity. Pro Jeff Howland emphasizes that the mark of all great courses is that golfers have to learn to play them. You will not play here once and score well, no matter what your handicap is. "Sometimes," says Jeff, "you get groups calling who want to play five courses in five days. But we strongly encourage people to play here several times. They won't get bored."

And for what it's worth, there is at least one golf writer who is convinced that he could take ten strokes off his score if he could just have one more lap around the track with this Thoroughbred.

You, however, lucky golf enthusiast that you are, are now privy to some local knowledge that may make your first round at this world-class course a bit better than most. Let's begin with the basics: This is target golf at its finest, so accuracy is key. And while the staff claim that it is not "blind target golf," the truth is that Helen Keller would have a better view of some of the shots you need to play here than you will.

Another fact about this course is that it simply does not let up. Some of the state's hardest courses at least let you catch your breath on the occasional par 3 or cupcake par 4. The Thoroughbred, however, does not let you rest. You will walk off the 18th green with a story for each hole. And you will probably walk off the 18th green with fewer golf balls, too.

The two "official" signature holes are Nos. 2 and 18, but all the rest (other than No. 16, where, mercifully, birdie may be nearly as likely as double bogey), could be signature holes here or anywhere else. No. 2 is a long (446 yards from the tips) par 4 with a halved, dogleg left fairway. A cranberry bog stretches between you and the green. The fairway tilts at a painful angle from right to left down toward the bog.

Length is surprisingly not and issue off the tee, but it is on the second shot to the green. If you end up on the left side of the first section of fairway, you need to carry the cranberry bog (which likely holds more golf balls than cranberries) 180-230 yards to the green. If you land on the steep right-hand side of the fairway, you'll need to draw your second 160-215 yards to the putting surface over an enormous tree.

Skipping over the rest of the front nine, each hole of which deserves its own paragraph, we get to the dangerously blind 531-yard, par-5 10th. Before you tee off here, be sure that you can see the flag in the middle of the fairway: If you can't see it, DO NOT HIT. The flag is in the middle of the fairway and signals to those on the tee that it is safe to hit away. This feature epitomizes the character of the course: You need to trust your club, trust your yardage book, and trust that you'll be able to find your ball somewhere up ahead.

The short, 371-yard par-4 14th is a prime example of another hallmark of the course: the variation in yardage between the front two and back two tees. From the back two tees, you'll have over 150 yards of carry to a partially blind landing area. From the front two, the tee shot is not much of an issue.

In fact, you should be VERY, VERY humble in your choice of tees when you start playing. Yardages are not as telling here as the course slope. The yardages from the four sets of tees are 6,900, 6,463, 6,063, and 4,851 yards, so only the tips seem daunting to most. But be aware of the extraordinarily high slopes: 147, 141, 135, and 126, respectively. In other words, even though the distance from the whites is not great (especially for us high handicappers who hit a long tee ball), the difficulty remains high.

On any given day you can sit in the restaurant that overlooks the 7th green and 8th tee box and see foursome after foursome of macho types teeing off from the blues on the 8th and not clearing the long carry off the elevated tees. So rein in your ego, or the course just might buck you off.

Two of the most pristine, breathtaking holes you will encounter anywhere are the Thoroughbred's 15th and 18th. The former is a 428-yard par 4 (345 yards from the blues) that wraps to the right around shallow, fish-filled water. The fairway is nothing more than a thin ribbon of bent grass, narrowing even further the closer you get to the green, which is protected front and right by the wetlands.

The green itself is relatively deep, with a huge mound in the center (looks like they had to put down a lame horse and buried it here).

No. 18 (par 5, 580 yards), a giant horseshoe around Carpenter Lake, is quite possibly the best finishing hole in Michigan. Into the prevailing wind, you will need a career drive to put yourself into good position for your second, no matter which tee you hit from. The green lies far, far away, 90-degrees to the left of the landing area. Your second can be played safely to the right, away from the water, but be sure that you take enough club to ensure that your third to the elevated green is not too long.

When you arrive at the well-bunkered green, take a moment to look back toward the tee and marvel at the distance and lovely landscape that you've traveled. At this point, you may not even worry about your score!

Not only is the layout of the Thoroughbred one of the best in the state, so are the facilities. The staff are tremendously friendly and completely down to earth, unlike the folks you will find at some other top courses in Michigan. Remember, these are horse people, salt-o'-the-earth folk, not your typically snooty golf crowd. They even hosted an outing recently where players teamed up using giant slingshots rather than clubs to propel the golf balls. (I'd like to see the gatekeepers of Bay Harbor or St. Ives display such good-natured modesty and neighborliness!).

The practice facilities are fantastic, with a unique, target-rich driving range, two practice greens, and complete short-game and sand area.

The clubhouse features handsome signature wear, and snacks and drinks served out of a covered wagon. Jeff Howland and his staff even host the "Yee-haw Open" every Tuesday and Wednesday morning, in which novices and scratch golfers alike are paired with staff members for nine holes of rip-roaring, country-style golf where fun is the operative word. Many of the folks who had never picked up a club before taking part in this ho-down on the links now return annually on golf outings.

The Double JJ Resort is not a golf resort: It is a dude ranch that just so happens to include one of the best golf courses in the state (and the nation).

Sure, there are plenty of other activities at the resort, from archery to trail-rides, from a water park to cattle drives.

But golfers will want to saddle up and ride the Thoroughbred as many times as possible. Just be prepared: When you're finished, you will probably feel like you've been ridden hard and put away wet.

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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