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By Don Vanderveen / Photography by Nile Young

Anyone who still believes that a great championship golf course must be difficult to play has either never had the good fortune to meet designer Rees Jones or been fortunate enough to tee it up at Thousand Oaks Golf Club.

Located on the northeast side of Grand Rapids, Thousand Oaks greatly enhances the ever-expanding landscape of West Michigan’s upscale golf community.

The hardwood forest of oaks, splendid peaks and valleys and well-groomed bentgrass conditions create a golf course that is as naturally beautiful to look at as it is enjoyable to play.

“ The thing about Thousand Oaks is that it is located on a very dramatic site,” Jones said. “We were able to weave some spectacular looking holes that are very playable.”

Rees Jones, son of renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, has a long list of award-winning designs to his credit. Thousand Oaks marks Rees Jones’ first endeavor in Michigan, and most certainly will go down as another gem alongside his many other design accomplishments.

It is built on 450 acres of heavily wooded terrain that is more commonly associated with golf courses found 120 miles or more north.

Simply put, Thousand Oaks is a “tree-mendous” place to play golf.

“ This is as traditional and classic looking as you’re going to get,” head professional Gary Smithson said. “You don’t have fountains, railroad ties or island greens. Designing now is reverting back to the old way, and this is more in line with the older, more traditional styles of golf courses.

“ We’ve got beautiful oak trees and a real big classic golf course.”

It also allows players every opportunity to score well.

Thousand Oaks is a big golf course, providing a wide, spacious feeling on virtually every fairway. That’s comforting. There is very little water to negotiate or worry about. That’s comforting.

“ Water’s great, but is not really that important to having a great round of golf,” Smithson said. “This course is very forgiving for most players, and most tee shots try to kick back into play.

“ There are no forced carries to the green and every green is accessible from the front. You can always run the ball up the middle and seldom have a spot where you have to carry the ball over a huge gaping bunker.”

There is a lot of elevation at Thousand Oaks. As a result, there are a lot of elevated tee shots, providing spectacular views and shots.

“ This is more of a multiple shot course with some elevated greens,” Rees Jones said. “There are few bunkers placed directly in front of the greens and no real water hazards. We wanted the golfers to have shot options.

“ The whole course is going to make you feel good.”

High banks alongside of several fairways help keep balls a little off center in play. The greenside bunkers, for the most part, are gentle.

“ Rees’ style of design gives every player every opportunity not to hit the ball totally out of play, whether it is bunkers or high banks,” Smithson said. “There is always an opportunity for safe shots.
“ It’s user friendly as far as the fairways being wide and allows golfers every opportunity not to hit the ball into an ugly spot. The variety of distances from the tee will allow players to have a fun round every time.”

The distances can play between 6,100 to 7,250 yards. Some tee areas feature up to seven tee boxes. Very few hazards actually come into play on the golf course. Those that do, actually HELP the golfer in some cases.

“ The bunkers are big and gaping and set up like a big catcher’s mitt, so you’re not hunting around for your ball all day long,” Smithson said. “If you land in one, it may not be the greatest spot for your next shot, but you’re a lot better off than you may have been if it hadn’t been there to stop it from going into the woods.

“ There’s always a wide driving area and the greens are flat. It’s very user friendly. It is a golf course that is playable where people can come out here, have a good time and enjoy themselves.”

Every hole on the course has its own character and characteristics. Some holes have multiple personalities.

“ We were blessed with such a huge piece of property, we were able to make 18 outstanding holes without a weak one on the course,” Smithson said. “On every hole, you can make it as easy as you want or as difficult as you want.”

The green complexes are large and feature a lot of subtle breaks. The surfaces are firm and fast.
“ Putting out here may be the biggest challenge,” Smithson said. “For the most part, the greens are very big and the surfaces themselves are very big, but there are little fingers and ledges where you can leave your ball and make it really difficult to putt.

“ It comes down to trying to figure out the greens and understanding the slopes on the greens and the ledges.”

From the moment the golfer steps up to the first tee — a downhill par-4 with a soft landing area on a large, receptive green — one can sense the special feeling for the round of golf that follows.

Each of the four par-3 holes on the course play a little bit differently. They all provide a different look and varying degrees of shot options. The difference in length of the par-3s can range anywhere from 9-iron selections to 3-irons.

“ No. 3 plays from seven different tees and seven different distances,” Smithson said. “You can play it anywhere from 210 yards to 134 yards, and diverse options like that are neat.

“ You can come out and change things so drastically just by moving the tees and pins. There’s a lot of flexibility there.”

The par-3 No. 15 hole, for instance, requires some stair stepping and is as awesome looking back from the green to the tee as it is looking at the pin while setting up.

“ It’s a beautiful piece of property that has been turned into a beautiful golf course,” Smithson said. “It’s very much a traditional layout with its distinctive style of bunkering that looks like it’s been there forever,” he continued. “There is nothing artificial looking about this course.”

The par-5 No. 10 hole plays 640 yards from the back tees. The length sounds intimidating, but it’s all downhill.

There are easy par-4s and difficult par-4s.

There are stretches of “muscle” holes, according to Jones.

For a course with very little water, it is unbelievably plush and pretty, thanks, in part, to the patented computerized Fertigation system.

There are no average holes. They range from great to spectacular.

“ It affords itself to some awesome views,” Smithson said. “That piece of property was always there for a golf course. “ It is as natural of a setting for a golf course as there has ever been.”

No. 11 is a dogleg left, offering a spectacular mountain-top view from the tips. The huge landing area again allows big hitters an opportunity to cut off the dogleg. Tip: Forget the birdie opportunity and play this hole from the tips to enjoy the view.

No. 12 is a par-5 offering a splendid view of Kent County, giving those at the tee another top-of-the-world feeling. The hole doglegs to the left and plays down and then up again to an elevated green.

“ The topography has a natural rolling terrain and there is nothing here in this area that has quite the same terrain,” Smithson said. “It is located on very peaceful setting.”

The finishing holes provide a championship-like conclusion to a round. No. 16 is an elevated tee that plays to an elevated green, No. 17 is a 210-yard par-3 and No. 18 is a 465-yard par-4 lined to the right by oak trees.

“ The three finishing holes are fantastic,” Smithson said. “They are pretty demanding. No. 18 looks like it goes on forever. It will be good to have a little cushion over your opponent when you get to that tee.”
Over the past 20 years, Rees Jones has designed golf courses in 20 states, Africa, England and Canada. His original designs include noteworthy courses such as Atlantic Golf Club in New York and Ocean Forest Golf Club in Sea Island, Georgia.

By putting his signature on Thousand Oaks, Rees Jones puts his reputation as one of the most respected golf course architects in the business on the line. Thousand Oaks promises to be a course that will only enhance that reputation.

“ What makes it special for us is that it is in the hotbed of golf,” Jones said. “There are a lot of dramatic courses in Michigan that are highly regarded. “ The site gave us an opportunity to build a course that should be compared favorably to the other great ones in the state of Michigan. This course has a good chance of earning a lot of acclaim, and is one that the public is going to want to play again and again.”

As for Thousand Oaks, a picture is worth a thousand words.

“ This golf course will speak for itself,” Smithson said.

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