By Rick Coates
Michigan is number one in the country in the quantity of public golf
courses, and is third behind Florida and California for the total number
(both private and public); impressive considering Michigans weather and
current economic plight. Now within that ranking of most golf courses
comes another notable accomplishment; Michigan is now home to the #1
public golf course in the country.
According to the readers of Golf World Magazine (a weekly publication,
with 225,000 subscribers, that is part of the ESPN sports family) Forest
Dunes Golf is the Number One Best Public Golf Course in America.
Nestled within the Kirtland Warbler habitat of the Huron Valley National
Forest near the South Branch of the Au Sable River, the golf club
neighbors Michigans heavily forested Mason Tract and is located 10
minutes east of Roscommon.
The honor is matter of personal pride for General Manager Mark Gurnow and
his team. Forest Dunes is managed by Troon Golf; since their arrival four
years ago the course has garnered several accolades.
This (Golf World) award is probably the most meaningful, said Gurnow.
It is given by the golfing public and takes in all the factors that make
a great golf experience and not just the golf course.
Designed by Tom Weiskopf, winner of the 1973 British Open, the former PGA
and Senior Tour great is himself continually ranked among the worlds best
golf course designers.
I would put Forest Dunes in the top-three courses in which I have ever
been involved. It is the best I have built on U.S. soil, said Weiskopf.
Forest Dunes was once part of a large parcel that was owned by William
Durant, the founder of General Motors. Durant also owned the 1,500 acre
parcel that is now known as the Mason Tract.
Durant sold the 1,200 acre Forest Dunes parcel in the 1930s to the Detroit
Partnership (The Detroit Mafia families of Tocco-Licavoli-Zerilli). For
years it was known as the South Branch Ranch and served as the private
hunting grounds for the onetime Detroit crime families and their
colleagues. Legend has it that the grounds were guarded by men with
machine guns and that Jimmy Hoffa was a regular visitor, leaving some to
speculate that he might even be a permanent fixture to the grounds.
Forest Dunes opened in 1998 but almost wasnt given a chance to succeed.
Shortly after opening, the course was plagued with financial troubles,
almost closing for good. In 2001, the Detroit Carpenters Union Pension
Trust Fund took over the outright ownership of the course.
Despite all the recent accolades Forest Dunes Golf Club remains Americas
best kept golf secret, often labeled by golf writers as a hidden gem.
Gurnow feels that is no longer a title that Forest Dunes will carry as
they move forward.
Ive been here for three years and we are starting to hear less of these
types of comments; we are no longer a secret, said Gurnow.
While admiration from the golf media has helped get the word out, it is
the praise from the golfer that has resulted in Forest Dunes most
effective public relations campaign: word of mouth.
Forest Dunes with all of its accolades has been on my bucket list of the
100 best golf courses I plan to play in my lifetime. I am halfway through
that list and it is the best I have played so far, said Paul Somerville
of Southern California. I have played Augusta, several great courses in
Europe, and this has been my best experience so far.
Golf World selected Forest Dunes for its top honor based on more than
46,000 individual facility ratings and more than 600,000 criteria
evaluations nationwide. The criteria included course quality, condition,
reputation and prestige, practice facilities, speed of play, clubhouse and
locker room, hotel accommodations, caddie program, golf shop, food and
dining, off-course activities and amenities, service, and overall value.
Driving perfect scores for course conditions is Jim Bluck, golf course
superintendent. Bluck has been with Forest Dunes since 2001, coming from
the Grand Traverse Resort.
I remember the first time I played Forest Dunes, I was still at the
Resort and Dave Whiteford, a Traverse City architect and one of the
founding members of Forest Dunes, brought me over here. The course was not
even completed yet and I remember saying to him, this is the best
designed golf course I have ever played, even without the course being
completed I knew this place was something special, said Bluck. The golf
purist has several expectations and course conditions are at the top of
that list, courses that cut corners in this area find it difficult to
attract that type of golfer.
Essentially located in the middle of nowhere, the serenity and virtually
cellphone-free zone adds to the appeal of Forest Dunes. Bluck and his
team excel at keeping the grounds in its natural state. In 2003 Forest
Dunes became the first Michigan golf course to be certified as a Gold
Audubon International Signature Sanctuary and remains one of only 21
The course remains open to public play but is transitioning to becoming
private. It currently has just over 80 members. This season, non-members
are restricted to being able to play the course only twice.
While private courses are challenged and many are closing their doors,
Gurnow sees the Forest Dunes model as viable for becoming private.
Every step we have taken here has been with that goal of taking this
course private, said Gurnow. It is why we often hear from those that are
not members that they felt like they were treated as members; that when
they entered through the gatehouse every aspect of their visit with us was
what they would expect if they were a member here.
Much of the financial future of Forest Dunes falls on the sale of more
than 300 housing lots. Currently, there are 11 homes on property. As for
going completely private, Gurnow says there is not a specific timetable
but is confident that it will take place in the next couple of years.
For now, anyone interested in playing Americas Number One Public Course
they may do so (only twice a year). For additional details, to make a tee
time or visit for dinner check out www.foresdunesgolf.com.
Rick Coates is part of the management team at Forest Dunes.