My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
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There is clearly no bad hole at Dunes Club. Of course, I would love it if there were nine more holes to make it a set of 18 completely different holes, but the fact it's nine holes is what makes it unique and special. It's fairly unanimously considered the best nine-hole course in America, if not the world, and I'd say that's for good reason. It's a course that really stands tall, and while it makes you want more, it doesn't make you feel gypped either. And, it has to be good to command the dues that Chicago's elite pay, and the time it takes them to make the trip to the other side of Lake Michigan, all for a nine-hole course. Dunes Club was really unlike anything I had ever seen. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to check it out and very grateful to our host for making it happen.
#8, Par 5, 507 Yards
Many think this is the best hole on the course. It's a par 5 with a sharp turn to the left at the end, which means it was intended to be played as a three-shot hole. However, we watched some big hitters fire balls into the 5th fairway and then have a somewhat clear view into the green to go for it in two. This is clearly not how the hole was intended to be played and many folks though the club needed to do something to limit people trying this strategy. It made for a dangerous part of the course in my opinion, especially since the guys off of #8 were landing the ball near where the caddies stood on #5 when forecaddying for balls off the tee. Unfortunately for me, this was not an option, as I'm not long enough to play it that way. So, it was a drive out into the middle and then a layup over a Hell's Half Acre style cross bunker to position yourself for the pitch into the green. On that layup, keep it far enough right to avoid being blocked by a large tree that guards an entrance from the left. The green is uphill, shallow, and well protected in the front by sand. Definitely a good hole.
#5, Par 4, 378 Yards
There is only one pond at Dunes Club and it comes into play mainly on this hole. It technically needs to be carried off the tee on the 8th hole, but it should only come into play on a miss-hit drive on that one. The landing area off the tee is quite wide, so the ideal side of the fairway depends on the pin position. The green is extremely contoured, so being on the right side of the hole is key. Missing the green means you'll need to get up and down from closely mown collection areas. I loved the view looking back from behind this green toward the tee. Made for a great picture. When walking around the pond fronting the green, you'll walk through the drink shack. It's nothing more than four coolers filled with refreshments and a piece of paper to tally what you took. The honor systems prevails here.
#4, Par 4, 399 Yards
Another hole that appears to have a tight driving area, but there's more room out there than it seems. After the drive, the hole bends a bit to the left. The green is open on the left side with a bunker on the right.
#3, Par 5, 515 Yards
Dunes Club is a traditional routing of two par 3's and two par 5's with five par 4's filling out the nine. Both par 5's are intended to play as three shot holes. In this case, distance off the tee is limited by a cross-area of humps, bumps and moguls cut as rough in between the first and second shots. Another area of sandy waste lies in front of the green, so the second shot is usually a lay-up. Big hitters might be able to get home in two, but I sure never gave it a thought with the trouble in front of the green. Short and right is the miss into this green.
#2, Par 3, 167 Yards
I list the hole as 167 yards, but it plays anywhere from about 130 yards to about 200 yards. There are two completely different areas of tee boxes that come in from different angles. We played from one angle the first time around and the angle the second time. The first two pictures below are from the right tee box. The next picture is from the left tee box, with the final picture looking back at the tees from the green. You can see the two different angles into the hole.
There is a general protocol when it comes to playing Dunes Club. First of all, it's walking only, with caddies mostly. Members can carry their own bags, but most take caddies anyway. The next part of the Dunes Club experience is that there are no tee markers. Most holes have many tee box options, which can change the distance of the hole upwards of 100 yards. The local "rule" is that the winner of the previous hole gets to chose where to tee off. Another cool aspect of the club is that while you're out playing the first nine, the maintenance staff changes the pin positions so that your second nine isn't played the same. Even though you're playing the same nine holes again, the change in pins, along with the flexibility in tee box options, makes the second nine different from the first. The caddies are a valuable resource to show you to different tee boxes on some holes where you have a chance to come in from a completely different angle (on the par 3's).
The course itself is quite a test. It's a par of 72, and the course record is posted inside the clubhouse. Mike Kaiser had the first course record with a score of 84. Each person to subsequently held the record is listed up to the current record, which is surprisingly only a 69 for amateurs. Even though their are no tee markers, I was surprised to see that the course does have a USGA-rated scorecard with three sets of tees measured. The Back Tees play to 3,492 yards (6,984 for 18 holes), and have an 18-hole rating / slope of 75.6 / 149...and you thought you were playing a little mini 9-holer! I'd say when you added up all the different tees we played, it probably measured out to the equivalent of the Middle Tees, which play 3,269 yards (6,538) and a rating / slope of 74.0 / 145. I'll quote those below:
#1, Par 4, 398 Yards
The first hole is marked as the #1 handicap, but it was pretty unanimous that there are tougher holes at there. What might make the first hole tricky is that, as I said, there is no practice area at Dunes Club, so you're teeing off cold, in front of the on-lookers who might be present on the putting green. The landing area off the tee is narrow and trees are the main obstacle flanking the landing area. There is a lot of sand at Dunes Club in the form of waste areas, blowout bunkers, and more typical sand traps. However, there isn't too much intimidation in the form of sand on the first hole. After a safe drive, it's a shot into a green that has plenty of bailout room to the left of the green, the side opposite a greenside bunker. It's a green that will allow for a run-up shot as well. Finally, you can see Lake Michigan from the green, looking to the right. It's the only view of the lake on the course.
To the left of the picture are two bathrooms, each with a stall shower in them. To the right and across the "lobby" is a makeshift pro shop with a few of the normal golf shop inventory and a computer. Then, there's the clubhouse itself. It's about the size of a one-room cottage, and laid out that way too. There are no banquet rooms, grills rooms, or libraries. Just one room with a few tables and a TV. Drinks are on a "help yourself" basis and you keep your own tally for the day on a notepad. Open the fridge and grab whatever you want. Outside of the clubhouse is a small patio are with some tables and umbrellas overlooking a large number of bird feeders and part of the 9th hole.
It's a pretty big deal for a 9-hole golf course to get the attention of the golf course raters of the world. It's an equally big deal for a 9-hole course to attract a who's-who of Chicago big shots as members. The secretive and secluded Dunes Club has accomplished both of these. When a golf weekend materialized in September of 2014 that included Olympia Fields and Lost Dunes, I was as intrigued and curious about Dunes Club as I was about the US Open course on the opposite side of Lake Michigan. Could a 9-hole course seriously be worthy of all the hype and attention that I had read about?
Before I answer that question, a little about Dunes Club and its story. But, you can't really talk about Dunes Club without talking about Mike Kaiser. Mike Kaiser, who made his money by owning a Chicago-area recycled greeting card company, has probably been the most talked-about and celebrated golf course developer thus far in the 21st century. Kaiser is most famous for owning and building Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links, and the soon-to-be-built Sand Valley, but it was Dunes Club that started his life in the golf industry. While living in Chicago, Kaiser had a vacation home in Southwest Michigan, on the banks of Lake Michigan. This is a very quiet and sleepy resort area, and when the land across the street from his home was about to be bought and developed into condominiums, Kaiser thought something needed to be done. So, he bought the land instead....all 60 acres of it. At the time of the purchase, Kaiser had no plans for the property. However, when an adjacent parcel hit the market, which allowed him to purchase 30 more acres (90 in all), the concept of a golf course was born. Kaiser hired Dick Nugent, the architect who built Chicago's Kemper Lakes to built him 9 holes of golf that reminded him of Pine Valley. Wow, what a task! Having not seen Pine Valley yet, I cannot compare and contrast. However, what was built in this hidden piece of land near Lake Michigan is something else.
When it's your turn to play Dunes Club, the biggest challenge of the day might possibly have nothing to do with a golf club or golf shot. It might be the challenge of simply finding Dunes Club! There no sign, guard gate, or anything else that would indicate a golf course is near. You know you've found the club when you see the numbers 10600 on the side of a tree (shown above). Turn into a gravel road and between a very narrow opening of a black fence, and you've found it. From there, you need to find a parking spot, which isn't terribly easy either. Informal spots are available on the stones and between trees. Upon arrival, caddies immediately came to our car to welcome us. Dunes Club only has about 100 members, and it's very normal for a day to go by with only a few groups playing the course. However, the Saturday we played, it was actually rather busy. There is no practice range at Dunes Club, however apparently the club is known to set up on a small net with a turf mat for those who feel the need to loosen up. Also, no need to check in with a locker room attendant and get a guest locker for the day, for the "locker room" is simply a small alcove inside of the clubhouse door with just a few doors and shoe bays (see below):
#9, Par 4, 391 Yards
Definitely a tough finishing hole. Don't miss your tee ball on the left because the contour of the fairway will kick it further right. Get it over the hill off the tee and you can get a nice run-out. The best part of the hole is the "Devil's A**hole" bunker that pays homage to Pine Valley just short of the green. Plus, an awesome hill on the right side of the hole that will retract anything that doesn't carry all the way to the green back down into the fairway 50 yards short of the green. Making per here is a really strong finish, or a strong way to start your second nine.
#7, Par 4, 363 Yards
A hard and narrow dogleg left. You need to keep it far enough right to avoid being blocked out on the second shot. I thought the incredibly natural blow-out bunkers on the left side made this hole. There is an alternate tee box on this one (shown toward the bottom) that plays even further left and makes for a sharper dogleg.
#6, Par 3, 165 Yards
There are tons of tees available on this one, which includes a new tee that was built a couple years ago. The club cleared out a number of trees to create the "Blueberry Tee" which comes in from a different angle (like at the 2nd hole) and plays as a 100-year pitch. It was fun playing from there, though I completely botched it! I made birdie from the regular tees and double from the 100 yard Blueberry Tee. That's golf! It's a more dramatic hole from the regular tees, but still plenty fun to play it a different way the second time around.