It was the first time I ever I walked off a course I loved—round incomplete. I had every intention of finishing the round, and I wasn’t the least bit upset, but … you see … there was this helicopter. This helicopter was hovering overhead. I was distracted, and my ball, well … that ball, once an eight-foot two-putt from the pin and perfectly stationary, had oscillated or vibrated its way off the green, and I had no interest in chasing it down. I was way more focused on who was in the helicopter, and why the big propeller-bird was setting down on the hill (basically) right next to my son and I.
That’s how you make an entrance, for sure … “Like a Boss” one might say. And, indeed it was the boss—the owner of Forest Dunes Golf Resort—Lew Thompson. He and his grandson were coming for dinner. I expected some sort of Secret Service-like collective of guards to escort him past all of the onlookers, but no … Mr. Thompson got out and shook hands, shared jokes, or hugged almost everyone, then sat down at a table with basically everyone else. He was just one of the guys—no different—except for the helicopter “shuttle” of course.
Lew Thompson, a former Arkansas trucker turned millionaire still had the Arkansas and the trucker in him. He could relate to everyone, literally at every level, and everyone could relate to him in at least one way. He was ready to “retire.” (He just hadn’t admitted it yet.)
Lew bought Forest Dunes, just outside tiny Roscommon, Michigan, back in 2011 and took it from nothing in the middle of nowhere, to something spectacular that people from everywhere traveled to for golf (400 players a day in 2020). Thompson took over Forest Dunes and it’s Tom Weiskopf golf course when few financiers would have advised him to … when only five or six foursomes would visit each day (and seldom stay). Why? Because he wanted to. Crazy? Maybe, but it sure worked out … so much so that he just sold it to another millionaire golf nut, Rich Mack (the former owner of Florida’s Streamsong Resort) and Tom Sunnarborg (who helped Mack develop Streamsong). And now, Mr. Thompson can retire. What does he plan to do “in retirement?” Travel the world? Buy out Dogecoin?
More like, “Hang out with the kids and grandkids (Jayce and Jaeger), and play golf … at Forest Dunes.” He’s not looking to get away …
He’s already got his getaway.
• • •
People who describe themselves as “outside the box” thinkers would still be inside the box to a guy like Thompson. He didn’t just buy the resort when no one else would have, he added lodging and America’s first truly-reversible 18-hole course—The Loop. The naysayers called it “gimmicky” and suspected it would bomb, but Thompson confidently backed the concept and banked that it wouldn’t fail, and not just because he’d hired world-renowned architect, Tom Doak, to build it. Mr. Thompson knew that people who came here to play The Loop one way (one day) would stay to play it the other way (the next day), and they’d play the “Original” course as well (since they were already there, and it was a Top 100 US course). Lew knew he could keep people on property for at least two days, and figured if they stayed two they’d stay three. And—with few worthy dining options anywhere nearby—all those visitors would eat on-site, every meal. This was a gamble only to those without an adequately economical education in “supply-and-demand.”
I met Mr. Thompson for the first time last year (before he’d decided to sell-retire). He praised my son’s near ace on Hole 9 of the Weiskopf course, had a brief chat with my good friend (and golf industry public relations super-agent) Kevin Frisch, and then humbly accepted my appreciation for his NEW course. That’s right, before “hanging it up” Mr. Thompson made yet another significant investment in Forest Dunes. He brought in the artistic design duo of Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns to build his grandsons a kickass 10-hole short course—one that only recently was given it’s name—The Bootlegger.
“Glad you like it,” Mr. Thompson said. (“Like” is hardly the right word.) “I love everything about this place,” I replied. He nodded politely—he’s heard it all before a million times—“That makes two of us.”
Forest Dunes has almost everything a golfer looks for, no matter how picky you are. If the “almost” is what caught your attention in that sentence … it really only lacks the ocean (and a year-long golf season). Forest Dunes has even more for the golf group, including one of my “5 Favorite 19th Holes in America,” giving me little to no pause in my belief it’s one of the Top 10 Golf Resorts in America* (if not Top 5). Every single year my son (now 18) asks if we can go to Forest Dunes (and not just because Kevin buys him ice cream, or to revisit the site of his first ace). Despite the fact it’s a 650-mile drive from home, I’m happy to oblige, and we’ve made a 1,400-mile loop around Lake Michigan (by car, not helicopter) four times since 2016.
The Proclaimers and their “500-mile pledge” have nothing on our annual commitment to visit Forest Dunes.
THE FOREST DUNES EXPERIENCE
Forest Dunes Resort, in actuality is 9 miles north of Roscommon and 16 miles southeast of Grayling (home to Dawson & Stevens Classic 50’s Diner). That’s 45 miles south of Gaylord, 67 miles from Traverse City, 160 miles northeast of Grand Rapids, 200 miles northwest of Detroit and—to cover all the bases—335 miles from Chicago. Wherever it is you’re flying into, or driving from, here’s what you’ll find:
The 64-hole resort (with only 46 greens) has the two-story, 13-room, Lake Ausable Lodge a few dozen yards from the clubhouse and the first tee of the namesake course, designed by Tom Weiskopf. Adjacent the Lodge there are three Villas (sleep 4) and eight cottages scattered around the Forest Dunes course and Lake Ausable (most of those sleeping 8). I mention this in urging you to plan ahead with your visit, particularly if you’re bringing a golf group here. Book your lodging WAY out or expect to sleep in the parking lot!
The “Original” 7,116-yard Weiskopf course opened almost 20 years ago (in 2002) under the name “Forest Dunes.” Tom Weiskopf considers it one of the three best courses he’s built in the United States, and I consider it one of the “25 Best Public Access Courses” I’ve played in the world (out of 560)—with one of my favorite openers anywhere, a dizzying array of “signature” holes (like the driveable 4-par 17th) and an actual 19th hole ending at the clubhouse that my son, Dylan, aced on his first visit.
Walking off the 19th hole of Forest Dunes you’re steps from the Bootlegger Bar—technically the Weiskopf course’s 20th hole—a phenomenal expansion to the lakeside patio that was already one of America’s “most chill” post-round hangouts. That also means you’re mere steps from the 10th green of Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb’s new short course—The Bootlegger. With all holes playing between 65 and 150 yards, you only need a handful of clubs and one ball. “Fun” was the order and the design talent behind the fabulous Winter Park 9 in Orlando delivered that on every front. After Dylan’s sixth go-round (in one day) I asked for his lowest score and favorite hole. “29 on the 5th loop,” he said. “And holes 2 and 6 are my favorites. This (short) course (and the HillTop Putting Course) just made my favorite place in Michigan that much better.”
“Forest Dunes is your favorite place in all of Michigan?” I asked. (We’ve been everywhere there.)
“Forest Dunes and Mackinac Island,” he nodded. “Absolutely.”
The “other” course at Forest Dunes is Tom Doak’s 2-in-1, reversible course—The Loop. Originally intended to be “walking only” when it opened in 2016, the firm and fast Loop now allows electric carts and features a clockwise, 6,704-yard “Black” routing with white flags on the front nine (par 34) and red flags on the back (par 36)—like the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, and a “more traditional” counter-clockwise “Red” Loop at 6,805 yards.
If you come to Forest Dunes and only play The Loop one way you’ll be missing the true magic of the experience. And, if you don’t pause here and there throughout the round to look at how the hole you’re playing would unfold in reverse, you’re missing out on the true genius of what Tom Doak accomplished. There’s only one similar design in America—Dan Hixson’s duality experience at Silvies Valley Ranch in Oregon—but even that used 27 greens. Tom Doak built my favorite public course in America at Pacific Dunes (also in Oregon) but, what he pulled off here with this project is arguably more brilliant. Skeptics may nitpick various elements of a few greens, but they’ll still concede there’s nothing else like it (yet) in the world. If that doesn’t scream “can’t miss,” I don’t know what will.
You can’t really call something you buy from someone an inheritance, but I also don’t think you can remotely put a price or value on all that Rich Mack is inheriting in this epic transaction with Lew Thompson. With Lew determined to help Rich succeed, (in Michigan “sports speak”) this will be like having Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson on the same team—an unstoppable force. I have to believe everyone—owners and golfers alike—wins the big game with this momentous deal.
I met Rich Mack nearly a decade ago at Streamsong Resort in Florida. My son, Dylan, was with me then, too, and Mr. Mack gave him a high-five for his first ever sub-90 round. I’m 400% certain Mr. Mack remembers neither occurrence, but I appreciated the conversation with him then because (like Mr. Thompson), Rich was extremely friendly and approachable, and you could tell he was a man with a plan that would defy the minds of most golf developers. When Mr. Thompson sold Forest Dunes to Mr. Mack in January of this year it was really only a surprise in that Lew had previously seemed so determined to stay at, and keep growing, Forest Dunes himself (there were rumors of another full course being plotted out). It wasn’t a surprise who Lew sold the resort to, and I fully expect Mr. Mack to make his own significant mark on the place in short order.
Hopefully that “mark” will mean the addition of another course … or two. I’d love to see him “diversify the portfolio” artistically. Imagine a Mike Devries course here—a local Michigander famous for his private Kingsley Club, a Top 100 course only 60 miles west of Forest Dunes. Or a David McLay Kidd design, fresh off his incredible Midwest success with the (also Top 100) Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley. Either or both of those geniuses, and/or someone like the Rob Collins-Tad King team would draw a crowd. (Wait until you see Landmand in Nebraska!) None of those guys would disappoint, and collectively would add an architectural depth chart that few other resorts in the world could match. I know what I’d do, were Forest Dunes my resort. But, it’s not my place, and the agonizing beauty of this golfer-to-developer relationship is that I get to wait with everyone else to see what Mr. Mack’s Master Plan will be. #pinsandneedles
• • •
I haven’t run into Mr. Mack since that Streamsong visit—a fact that’s a bit bizarre, considering his “home” in Minnesota is less than half an hour from mine. I’d invite him for a round at a local favorite course like Interlachen or Spring Hill if I thought he had the interest, or that much time to spare.
My son, constantly saying I think too small, had a different suggestion. “Dad, maybe instead of driving 1400 miles this summer you reach out to Mr. Mack …
Maybe he’s got a helicopter.”
• • • • •
* – Mobile Golfer’s “10 Best American Golf Resorts”
- Bandon Dunes (Bandon, OR)
- Pebble Beach (Pebble Beach, CA)
- Big Cedar Lodge (Branson, MO)
- The American Club (Kohler, WI)
- Forest Dunes (Roscommon, MI)
- Kiawah Island (Kiawah Island, SC)
- Sand Valley (Nekoosa, WI)
- Pinehurst Resort (Pinehurst, NC)
- Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (Scottsdale, AZ)
- Gamble Sands (Brewster, WA)