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May 2018

Reversal of Fortunes

reversal.jpg‭By Steve Eubanks

The idea is as old as the game itself, part of golf’s fabric dating back to the days of flasks and Featheries. Yet, it somehow slipped away, a fading memory in a distant mist. The fact is, the first reversible golf course – a course that could be played in a traditional sense from No.1 tee to No.1 green and onward in sequential order, and then reversed so that the last (or often the penultimate) green became the first – was also the first golf course.

The Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, founded in the year 1413, was for centuries played in both directions depending on the day, the time of year, the wind and the conditions. Sometimes locals would grab a handful of hickory niblicks, mashies, cleeks and spoons and play the course as it is seen today, in a counterclockwise loop from the current first tee behind the Royal & Ancient clubhouse, across the Swilken Burn to the first green and on from there. But other days and times, golfers wearing woolen coats and high collars would tee off from the current first tee and play to the 17th green. Then they would play to the 16th green; then tee off from the 16th tee and play to the 15th green, and on in that fashion (a clockwise loop around the links) until they reached the second tee, where they would play to the current 18th green. Reversing the links was as common in St. Andrews as a cold summer rain. 

 Today, The Old Course is too popular and busy to flip the routing, although the St. Andrews Links Trust (which owns the course) does host “the left-hand loop” every April where the course is played backward for nostalgia’s sake.  
 But the reversible routing idea is far from dead. In fact it, seems to be making a comeback, this time (for the first time) in America. 

 “Part of the resurgence of reversible golf courses is based on the cost of land and cost of construction,” said Chad Maveus, general manager at Forest Dunes Resort in Roscommon, Michigan.

 Forest Dunes was once a ranch abutting the Huron National Forest owned by William Durant, the founder of General Motors. Later, part of the land became a hunting and camping retreat for Michigan’s gangland bootleggers. Then, in 2002, new owners introduced golf to the area with the Tom Weiskopf-designed Forest Dunes Golf Club. After one bankruptcy and the angst that every golf owner went through during the Great Recession, trucking magnet Lew Thompson bought the resort, built a lodge and began looking to add more golf. That’s when one of America’s most noted architects came in with a novel idea.

 “Tom Doak had read a lot about reversible golf,” Maveus said. In fact, Doak had done more than read about it. Reversible courses had been his obsession for more than 30 years.

 “There have been reversible courses at private estates throughout this country and there were once a number of reversible courses in parts of Europe,” Maveus said. “Obviously, Tom knew about The Old Course and some others.”
 In America, the number of reversible courses was sparse. John D. Rockefeller, who did not play golf, built a couple of reversible nines on two of his estates. Robert Trent Jones added a nine-hole reversible par-three course to the 36-holes at Cragun’s Resort in Minnesota. And Tripp Davis had built a nine-hole reversible course called “Proving Grounds” in Malakoff, Texas.

 The most famous reversible course in the states also is the most exclusive. Sunnylands, the estate of the late Walter Annenberg, sits at the corner of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope drives in Palm Springs, California. Behind the coral-colored walls and tropical plants that buffer the compound from the bustling desert streets lies a beautiful botanical garden (open to the public); a main house, along with a number of guest quarters, where world leaders meet to discuss weighty matters of state; and a nine-hole reversible golf course that Gary Player once called “perhaps the best little golf course in the world.” President Ronald Reagan used to play the reversible course with Annenberg every Christmas and prominent political and business figures still swat a few around the Dick Wilson-designed masterpiece. 

 “It’s fantastic, some of Dick Wilson’s best work,” said Drew Kerr, the current superintendent at Sunnylands. “There was originally a design for 18 holes but, of course, it was Mr. Annenberg’s backyard so he could do what he wanted with it. Nine and a driving range made more sense. So, Dick put tee boxes at different angles and from different lengths. That really gives you the feeling that it is 18 different holes. Couple that with the fact that we go behind every group, rake bunkers and change cups for our guests, and when they play (the same greens a second time) they don’t get the feeling that they’re playing the same hole.”
 From its championship routing, Sunnylands can stretch to 7,200 yards, but few people play it from there. In fact, few people play it at all.  

 “We’re not a golf course first,” Kerr said. “First and foremost, we’re a Camp David of the West, a retreat for world leaders to come and meet and think in a relaxed setting. Golf is a bi-product. We play less than 100 rounds every year. I talk to the superintendents at conferences and they’ll ask me, ‘How many rounds did you play last year?’ and I say, ‘50.’ They look at me and say, ‘50,000?’ and I say, ‘Uh, no, 50. Five-oh.’” 

 They play a few more than that these days. Sunnylands now partners with the First Tee of the Desert, allowing kids in the program to come out in the spring, use the range and play the course on occasion. While they are there, the kids learn about the history of the estate and its mission.

 “They’ll also get a tour of the gardens and go out with me so I can explain to them about being a superintendent,” Kerr said.
Making Business Sense.

 Most course owners are not Walter Annenberg or J.D. Rockefeller. Golf in the 21st century has to make a modicum of business sense. Doak knew that when he looked at Lew Thompson’s place in northern Michigan. The architect also knew the market. Doak understood that if you wanted to separate yourself in a saturated industry, you had to do something radically different; something that raised eyebrows and made people talk; something that kept pass-through golfers on the property an extra night, maybe two.

 The result was The Loop, the first fully reversible course in America.

 “No matter how much we communicate the concept, until people see The Loop, they can’t understand or appreciate it,” Maveus said. “If you were to come out and play The Loop and you didn’t know it was a reversible golf course, and then you came out the next morning and played again, you would have no idea. It is truly a mind-blowing experience. The two directions really look nothing like each other. We’re on the same land but it’s a totally different routing, a totally different look and feel.

 “The only way I’ve been able to express it to people is to tell them to take their favorite hole at their home club and if you could play it backward, what would it look like? You would change the scenery; you’d change the backdrop; you’d change the landing areas and the bunkering; you’d change the wind direction, the way the green receives shots: It would become an entirely different hole. That’s what we’ve done at The Loop on every hole.” 

 In fact, Forest Dunes markets The Loop as two different golf courses: the Black and the Red. “We rotate it daily,” Maveus said. “On the even-numbered days, we play the Black course and on the odd days we play the Red course. This year, on the 31st and 1st, which happens three times in our summer calendar, we have a special event where you play 36 in one day. It’s a sell-out. We’ll play one direction, break for lunch, and then go out in the other direction. We’re calling it the ‘Dual,’ which is a nice play on words.

 “But, truly, people play the Black course one day and when they go out and play the Red course the next day, they’re blown away by how different an experience it is.”    

A matter of space
Mind-blowing experiences aside, effective marketing isn’t the only business reason for building a reversible golf course. In the case of the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta, the reason was simple: there wasn’t enough room to do anything else.

 An old 18-hole municipal facility in the heart of North Atlanta, the game and the area had outgrown Bobby Jones GC. “It had become dangerous,” said Dr. Bob Jones IV, the grandson of the great Bobby Jones and one of the men most instrumental in the course’s current redesign. “The course was too short and too compact for today’s technology and the number of rounds being played there,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, Atlanta hasn’t stopped growing. So, there was no room to expand the golf course.”
 
 The answer was to have noted architect Bob Cupp (who passed away in 2017) convert the 18-hole facility into a reversible 9-hole course with a world-class practice facility, a short course for beginners, and a clubhouse that will become Golf House Georgia, the home of the Georgia State Golf Association, the Georgia Section PGA and the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. 

 “We’ll have 18 sets of tees and nine greens,” said Whitney Crouse, CEO of Mosaic Clubs and Resorts, which is managing the construction. “Nine holes present a number of challenges. You have to get everybody off the first wave before you start the second wave going the other direction, but it’s a really neat concept, one that’s going to attract a lot of attention and a lot of outing business.” 

 The Georgia State University golf teams will use Bobby Jones GC as their home practice facilities and the foundation that is funding the renovation has raised $20 million of the projected $24 million needed to complete the project. 

 “Bob Cupp did a great job,” Crouse said. “When you’re in a land-locked setting like this, reversible is a viable option.”
 But that recommendation came with a note of caution. “This isn’t as simple as building a few new tees and saying, ‘Okay, now play the course the other direction,’” Crouse said. “You have to have greens that receive shots from totally different directions. Your bunkering has to be very strategic. You’re basically building one green for two completely different holes. So, while the idea is great, it’s not a tweak here or there: this is a total rebuild, an entirely new facility, a new concept.” 

 Maveus agreed with that insight. “It’s a lot more subtly invasive than I first imagined,” he said. “Bunkers that are in play one day, you don’t even see them the next. The greens complexes could not be traditionally sloped from front to back. On one hole, we have a huge greenside waste bunker, but when you flip the golf course, you don’t even see it. So, there are a lot of intricacies involved.” 

 There are also a lot of benefits from a business standpoint.

 “We loved the concept of getting two courses for the price of one,” Maveus said. “Water, pesticides, fertilizer, equipment: we have the benefits of three golf courses but the operating expenses of two. People can stay here three days, play golf every day without playing the same hole twice and yet we’re maintaining two courses.

 “Those things have opened people’s eyes. In terms of resource management and conservation, the reversible concept really makes a lot of sense.”     
 
Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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