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By Don VanderVeen / Courtesy Blackheath

When it comes to golf in Michigan, getting “blacklisted” is a good thing.

At least a half dozen Michigan golf courses — Black Lake, Black Forest, Blackshire, Blackheath, Black River and Blackberry Patch — are back in black.
Besides their names, they all share some other common traits: scenic settings, challenging greens and pristine playing conditions.

 

So while the old debate about whether or not black is actually a color or the absence of color may be intriguing, the answer will be obvious after playing the greens on these Black Beauties.

Black is beautiful.

Black Forest
The name says it all: Black Forest.

“ Northern Michigan hardwoods,” says owner David Smith. “It was literally carved out of the forest. It took us a whole year to clear the woods out of the way.

“ What used to be a dense forest now has a fairway running through it. An amazing transformation took place.”

Black Forest, designed by renowned golf course architect Tom Doak, opened in 1992.

Its name is derived from the Alpine Village theme of Gaylord.

“ Black Forest region of Germany is very Alpine as well,” Smith said. “When you look around the country, some of the more difficult courses use the name ‘black’ in the title, like Black Diamond Ranch in Florida and the U.S. Open course, Bethpage Black.

“ It really is a dark forest until you get to the openings in the fairways. (The name) seemed to note the difficulty and the Bavarian theme all in one name.”

A trek into Black Forest is an adventure into the Northern Michigan hardwoods. Every hole in Black Forest is surrounded by woods. There are no home sites. It is a feeling of isolation. And serenity.

“ The greatest thing about Black Forest is the isolation it provides,” Smith said. “You can always hear your drive echo through the woods.”

Black Forest’s beauty hole is the par-3 eighth hole, recognized by the USGA Golf Journal as a featured great golf hole. The hole plays 166 yards from the back, black tees and requires an all-carry shot over a non-maintained valley with bunkers up the face toward the green.

Its antithesis is the beastly No. 2 hole, which Smith offers as “the hardest second hole in the world.” The 443-yard, par 4 is difficult to reach in two because the second shot is usually off a crooked lie, and the shot is into a two-tiered green.

In his book “Golf Architecture,” Doak lists the No. 10 hole at Black Forest as his favorite because of the way its sets up in the valley with two maple trees that provide an hourglass approach into the green.
The par-5 No. 7 hole features cross bunkering through the middle of the fairway between the second and third shot that “at the time it was introduced, it was very unique,” Smith said. “I watched Tom Doak build it, and I can really appreciate the thought that went into each and every hole with the way he followed the lay of the land and the strategic bunkering.”

The challenge of Black Forest comes from playing the back tees. It is 7,044 yards from the tips.

But, as Smith says, “The adventure doesn’t really begin until you get onto the greens. There is a lot of movement and no two greens putt the same.”

There are also massive amounts of bunkers on the course, especially on No. 18.

“ Tom Doak likes to joke that he had a few extra bunkers left at the end of the course so he threw them on 18,” Smith said.

Blackheath
Located in Southeastern Michigan, Blackheath is another Black Beauty designed by Kevin Aldridge. Combined with Devil’s Ridge Golf club, it provides a destination, of sorts, within an hour's drive of Metro Detroit.

Unlike Blackshire, however, Blackheath is a “heathlands” course.

“ It’s a traditional links-type course, with a lot of mounding and a lot of heather,” Director of Golf Rick Fleming said. “They tried to build a true Scottish links style course, and they’ve come very close.”

Indeed.

There is not a tree on the golf course, and the greens are small and undulating with a lot of bunkers surrounding them.

“ It’s like a miniature Gailes,” Fleming said. “The hazards are the heather, the mounding and the bunkers.”

The four sets of tees at Blackheath play 6,770 yards from the tips (with a slope of 137), 6,127 from the middle tees, 5,354 from the senior tees and 4,572 from the forward tees.

Blackheath opened for play in 1998. The course derived its name from the old style courses in England.
“ There are links golf courses and heathland golf courses,” Fleming explained. “A links course is seaside and this is more of an inland course. In England, an inland golf course is heathland, and hence the name, Blackheath.”

Situated on 150 acres — including driving range — most of the holes at Blackheath are straightforward.
“ It’s packed in pretty tight, and rounds usually take less than four hours to complete,” Fleming said.
One of the more awe striking — and ball striking — sites is the No. 12 hole. It is a stunning 212-yard par 3 that has bunkers fronting the green with a gully running across.

While Blackheath plays straight and open, Devil’s Ridge is the complete opposite with elevation changes, trees and wetlands.

“ Devil’s Ridge is truly a Northern Michigan style course,” Fleming said. “We have quite a contrast between facilities.

“ It’s quite interesting. If you were to ask 100 different people about the differences between the two courses, you would get 100 different answers.”

Blackshire
As a playing partner with the renowned Scottish links course, The Gailes, Blackshire provides an amazingly different type of round. All the holes at Blackshire are cut right through trees with some gnarly pine groves scattered throughout.

“ The Gailes is very demanding and fairly difficult to play, so we took a lot of effort and time to make sure Blackshire didn’t get too tough,” Lakewood Shores Director of Golf Craig Peters said. “If you hit it into trees at Blackshire, you can find it and play it out.

“ The fairways are spacious. It doesn’t make you feel like you are suffocating, or that you have to thread the needle from the tee all the time. It makes you think more off the tee depending on a person's level of ability and what tees they are playing. You don’t always want to hit driver off the tee.

“ It’s always fun to play a course where you have to think.”

Blackshire’s layout, designed by Kevin Aldridge — who also designed the award-winning Gailes — is similar to that of Pine Valley in New Jersey, with large waste areas alongside tees, greens and fairways.
“ It’s different than typical golf courses up north,” Peters said. “We wanted to do something different to draw people to it and that’s where we came up with the Pine Valley look to make it stand out and look different.”

No. 1 sets the tone for the course. It is a medium length par 4 that plays up to a plateau off the tee. A huge waste area is set below the plateau to about 10 or 15 yards short of the green.

“ It lets you know right off the bat that you’re playing something different,” Peters said. “There are not a lot of forced carries on the course, but this is one hole where a forced carry is required.”

No. 11 is a short par 3 that plays just 120 yards from the back tees. There is an awesome backdrop of trees behind a very small green.

The par 5’s have cross-bunkers running through the fairways with an expanse of rough, and then the fairways begin again.

“ It’s pretty unique and different,” says Peters. “There are just so many good holes that it's hard to pick one over another.”

Blackshire, which begins its second full year of operation in 2003, derived its name from English lore.
“ It’s a very rugged style course and we wanted a name that was rugged,” Peters said. “Shire means battleground, and Blackshire creates an old-world, rugged name.”

The course is an outstanding complement to The Gailes as part of the Lakewood Shores Resort in Oscoda. The difference between playing Blackshire and The Gailes is like night and day, or black and white, according to Peters.

“ The Gailes is a pure Scottish links-style course with berms that meander the course and 138 sod-faced bunkers dotted all over,” Peters said. “There, you get all the glory and the pitfalls of a British Open-type golf course with a nice contrast between brown mounds and green fescues and grasses.”

The other course at Lakewood Shores is the Serradella, named after the founders of the old family farm where Lakewood Shores now resides. It is more of a traditional course, which provides the resort with three totally different styles of golf.

Lakewood Shores Resort offers a golf package that includes one round at each of the three courses, two overnight stays and two dinners for under $275 per person.

“ It’s like going to three different locations all in one spot,” Peters said. “You have the Pine Valley style course at Blackshire, the links course at The Gailes and a traditional course at Serradella.

“ We have beautiful scenery, three different styles of golf and a lovely setting. We give people reasons to come back again and again.”

Black River Golf Club
Classic Black River Golf Club — formerly known as Black River Country Club — has opened its doors to the public.

Situated between Detroit, Flint and Port Huron, Black River was built during the golf course construction boom of the mid-1920s.

It is not a long layout by any stretch. Three sets of tees play 6,500 yards from the back, 6,250 from the middle and 5,500 from the front. The challenge at Black River comes on the greens.

The course features a classic design in an old-time, country club setting.

“ It is enjoyable for all skill levels — men, ladies and seniors — and we get a lot of play in all three of those areas,” Black River’s Jim Ransberger said. “It’s a classic piece of property that is very hard to reproduce or replicate.” The course was re-designed by William Diddle in the 1950s.

Nine holes and the clubhouse sit atop a small ridge that overlooks Black River. The other nine holes traverse the bottomland. There are subtle elevation changes, including an elevated tee and an elevated green at No. 16.

Tree-lined fairways run along the course, and there are no home sites on the property.

Ransberger regards the 430-yard, par-4 No. 3 hole as the most challenging on the course, calling it downright “treacherous.”

“ It creates the toughest second or third shot on the course,” said the club pro.

“ You don’t want to hit it above the flag, because coming back, the ball can roll right off the two-tiered green if the putt is too hard.

“ The rule of thumb is to not hit it above the hole. The holes may not be long in nature, but they can be very treacherous putting.”

Black River was a private course that was once owned by military contractor Meuller Brass and then was bought out by membership. The golf course has a rich history and originally opened in 1926. During its heyday, it hosted several tournaments and qualifiers.

“ It has a classic, private club setting,” Ransberger said.

Membership dwindled, prompting the course to be sold again, reopening to the public in 2001.
“ We look at it like a new venture,” Ransberger said. “It’s like we’re opening up a new course with a lot of history behind it.”

Black River has men’s and ladies’ locker facilities, a practice area with short game targets, putting green and driving range.

“ It is just like a private facility,” Ransberger said. “The amenities of a private club are here, and it can now be enjoyed by the public. A lot of people didn’t have access to the club when it was private.”

Black Lake
It seems like any project Rees Jones touches turns to gold. Black Lake is a perfect example.

It has been ranked fourth best course in the state of Michigan behind the private clubs at Oakland Hills, Pointe O’ Woods and Crystal Downs, as well as in the top 100 in the United States.

And it has been living up to its lofty billing.

Carved out of pines, hardwoods and wetlands, Black Lake is a stunning visual marvel that is as enjoyable to look at as it is to play.

“ Every hole is a great golf hole,” says director of golf Pam Phipps. “It’s a very traditional, classic design. The conditioning is about as good as you can find anyplace. The golf course is in great shape.”

Jones is renowned for his outstanding bunker work as evidenced at the U.S. Open course at Bethpage Black. Black Lake is another example of how sand and bunkers can shape and make a course interesting, challenging and beautiful at once. Close to 175 bunkers are strategically positioned around the golf course.

“ It’s challenging, but it’s fair,” Phipps said.

Bentgrass areas in front of the greens remind Phipps of another Jones classic.

“ It’s similar to what he did at Pinehurst. You can either chip and run or putt it up.”

There are some slight elevation changes at Black Lake, but they aren’t as drastic or heavily tree-lined as some other courses in Northern Michigan.

The combination of its outstanding reputation, the variety of holes and the immaculate conditioning of the course have made Black Lake a must-play destination venue.

“ We don’t have what we you would quote as a signature hole,” Phipps said. “Some will say that every hole out here is a signature hole.”

But there are a number of highlights that will grab you.

They include the par-3, No. 14 hole which features a huge, winding Sahara bunker along the right side; the short par 5 at No. 6 that requires a risk-and-reward carry over water; and the elevated tee of the long par 4 at No. 13.

Black Lake opened for play in 2000 and immediately grabbed the attention of the golf industry, garnering honors from many major publications, including a No. 2 ranking for “Best New Upscale Course” by Golf Digest.

“ It can be very colorful around here,” Phipps said. “Another nice thing is that you don’t see any homes around it and never will.”

The course, located in Onaway, derives its name from the proximity to Black Lake where the United Auto Workers Walter Reuther Education Center and campgrounds are located.

“ Everyone refers to the area as Black Lake,” Phipps says. “We’re right at the tip of the mitt, centrally located. It’s sort of in the middle of nowhere, but only 30 minutes from Mackinac City, 40 minutes from Cheboygan, 40 minutes from Alpena and 45 minutes from Petoskey.”

Blackberry Patch
The Blackberry Patch is a golf course filled with fruits and thorns. The fruits are the rewards for solid play, while the thorns are penalties for those who attempt to bite off more than they can chew.

Although it is located just four miles from I-69 in south central Michigan, playing the Blackberry Patch creates a secluded, isolated and unhurried feeling.

“ It has been a neat, little hidden gem, but we don’t want it hidden anymore,” head professional Matt Lough said. “It’s the premier Southern Michigan public facility that people can play for under $50 at prime time.

“ With this golf course and the pure bentgrass tees, greens and fairways, it’s quite a deal. It’s very unique.”

In its previous life, the Blackberry Patch was farmland that featured — you guessed it — blackberries. There are still some native blackberry brambles growing in the secluded areas of the course.

Architect Ernie Schrock transformed the rolling terrain into a fun, playable golf course that opened in 1999 for its first full season. Schrock has designed many courses in Indiana, including Autumn Ridge, Cherry Hills, Pine Valley and Spring Meadow Farms.

“ I think this is Ernie’s best work, and I've played a lot of his courses,” Lough said. “No two holes look the same. Each time you step on the tee box, you get a different look of the golf course.

“ You just don’t get that feeling that you've played a similar hole out here, because each hole is definitely a unique, individual hole.”

There has been a slight redesign — or, more fittingly, a re-designation of holes — from the original course. The front is now the back and vice versa.

The new No. 1 hole is a tester; a 360-yard, par 4 from the white tees that doglegs slightly to the right. The fairway slants left to right and hitting into the green is almost like going through a tunnel, but it takes a person into the outstanding visuals of the course right away.

The old No. 2 is the new No. 11, which is a par-3, 213-yard hole from the tips. It requires a forced carry of 130 yards from the forward tees and 170 yards from the back. The all-carry shot to the green features an elevation change of 40 feet. The front of the green is guarded by a bunker, creating a challenging shot from any of the four tee stations.

The old No. 11 — which is the new No. 2 — plays 616 yards from the tips with a forced carry over the wetlands. There is a pond to the left and wetlands to the right with a tight driving area. For those attempting to cut off some distance and go for the green in two, they must contend with a pond in front of the green and a bunker strategically placed to the side.

“ It's a course where you have to use some strategy to get around,” Lough said. “You don't just grab a driver at every tee box and bang it. You have to hit the right areas to get at the greens.”

   
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