Orchard Lake Country Club, MI, USA

Regardless of this view from the club porch to the east, the best thing about Orchard Lake Country Club is its restored Alison course to the west.

Regardless of this view from the club porch to the east over its pool house and swimming pool toward Apple Island, the best thing about Orchard Lake Country Club …

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… is its restored Alison course to the west.

Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player all had kind words for Orchard Lake. No surprise really, Captain Hugh Alison, one of the all time great architects, designed it during the Golden Age of architecture. Built over roly-poly land of human scale, the raw property allowed Alison to carve some of his famously deep bunkers into the folds and take advantage of many natural green sites.

Over time Alison’s design faded, many of his features were softened and by 1990 Orchard Lake had lost its standing in the top tier of Detroit courses. It had fallen prey to the usual malady: five decades of overzealous tree planting.  Tree encroachment is both slow and insidious. As woodlands expand, fairways shrink and bunkers are removed when their position becomes irrelevant. Nothing to guard down an avenue of trees! Trees also stunt air movement and typically lead to soft, spotty playing conditions. Regardless of its pedigree, no course can survive unchecked tree growth.

In 2002, Orchard Lake made a fortuitous call to Keith Foster. Unknown to the club at the time, Foster had traveled across the breadth of England in the late 1990s studying the works of Fowler, Colt and Alison. While most architects look to Scotland or Ireland for inspiration Foster found the allure of England irresistible. Upon his return stateside, Foster, an antique collector, stumbled on a Frank Hopkins 1927 limited edition book that featured great holes around New York City. It captivated his imagination particularly, the drawings of several holes at Alison’s Lakeville (Fresh Meadow, today) on Long Island.

Foster’s own field research and these drawings convinced him that most Alison courses had become diluted, weakened versions of his original work. According to Foster, Harry Colt’s work can be characterized as subtle, charming and understated. Alison tended toward bolder features in part to differentiate himself from his partner. His green pads were every bit as huge as Seth Raynor’s but his bunkering underneath them was more artistic. Working backwards from the green pads, which Foster affectionately refers to as ‘monuments to the ground’, Foster admires Alison’s sculpted bunkers, randomly cut into landforms and the low lying nature of Alison’s tees.

Given time and money, most clubs inadvertently emasculate Alison’s work. They build up his tee pads, narrow the scale of his holes and features and diminish the stature of his green complexes with extensive rear plantings. Such was the state of Orchard Lake when Foster took his initial walk around the property in 2002. Over a series of meetings, Foster communicated his vision, a restoration of the grandeur of Alison’s work. Foster’s infectious enthusiasm for Alison and his place in the game as one of the elites carried the day. His plan was accepted in 2003 and the first order of business was the intelligent removal of non-indigenous trees. In Green Keeper Aaron McMaster, Foster had the perfect cohort who shared a common vision. According to McMaster, who joined as an Assistant Green Keeper in 1996, ‘From the moment I saw the club I loved the layout, land and greens.  You could see the bones were great but it had been overplanted during the 60’s and 70’s especially with Norway Maples.  The problem these trees presented was that they totally obscured the great rolling terrain the club possessed, obliterating long vistas that are another signature of the property. There were only a few minor alterations to the course that would be difficult to reverse; mainly greens 2, 4, 8, 12 and 15 that had been rebuilt in the 1960’s.  Otherwise, all renovations were minor in nature such as the removal of bunkers and a few strange tees that just didn’t fit it. It was very much an Alison course yearning to be brought back.’ McMaster and his crew slowly but surely started pulling back the growth, exposing a delicious, rolling landscape.

The conundrum is that tree removal is both essential and contentious. Ultimately, any project moves at a pace with which the club is comfortable. At Orchard Lake important strides were made in the first couple of year but just when the club was about to head into phase two, bunker restoration, economic conditions intervened. The automotive sector, Detroit’s backbone, was hard hit in 2007 and the rest of the American economy suffered a severe body blow the following year. The re-introduction of many of Alison’s features was delayed and finally carried out in the fall of 2011 and 2012.

With the trees down, the course went from 22 acres of fairway to 35. 22 bunkers were restored, raising the total to 68 (a 48% increase). Most importantly, the bunker footprints were significantly enlarged and there is a whopping 250% (!) more exposed sand today than ten years ago. Even relative to other Golden Age architects like Donald Ross and A.W. Tillinghast, the scope and size of Alison’s bunkers are a standout feature. No such thing as a proper Alison course without his trademark bunkering.

McMaster notes:

It was at this point that we put back all the bunkers both from the original course and added a few in the Alison style based on where people hit it today. The bunkers needed to be grand like Alison’s other works and they needed to fit the scale of the property.  The existing bunkers had shrunk and the land just dominated them. We stepped up the tree removal and also made a major gain with the addition of 27 acres of native fescue.  We always thought that the native would do very well with our sandy dry soils and that the maintenance crew could keep them thin and playable.  These areas were previously planted with bluegrass areas that didn’t show off the land forms. The board and membership saw this transition in grasses as best environmentally, architecturally, aesthetically and economically. Regarding bunker styles, we ultimately chose one that Keith likes to call Alison with a little more edge. We wanted to have the eyebrows of the bunkers be fine fescue and leave them rough for an old school look and natural tie in with the native areas. Keith approved this and that is how our bunkers evolved to look as they do.

Look how artistically the bunkers are cut into land down the fourteenth fairway. This picture in 2002 would have shown just four bunkers, all greatly reduced in size, and the hole exhibited little of the charm that it does today.

Look how artistically the bunkers are cut into land down the fourteenth fairway. This picture in 2002 would have shown just four bunkers, all greatly reduced in size, and the hole exhibited little of the charm that it does today.

In addition, natural bowls and other topographic features were brought back into play. Tee balls now slalom along the second fairway, are shunted into the restored bunker off the tee at the eighth, and tumble along the fourteenth and fifteenth fairways. A big bowl is once again found within the twelfth fairway as seen below. Golfers now appreciate the movement of the ground at Orchard Lake both visually and from a playing perspective.

Looking back down the twelfth fairway, McMaster’s cart denotes where the rough line was in 2002. This wonderful bowl is an example of a unique feature that once was lost and is now found.

Looking back down the twelfth fairway, McMaster’s cart denotes the rough line in 2002. This wonderful bowl is an example of a unique feature that once was lost and is now found.

Foster approaches each restoration project in its own measured way. That is important because Alison himself had devoted a good deal of time and nuanced this design. During the winter of 1926 he spent nearly 30 days surveying the 140 acres that became Orchard Lake. In the spring and summer of that year, Alison was on-site almost sixty days during construction. In the Golden Age of golf course architecture that was a considerable amount of time; it still is! LW Lavis from New York was the on-site supervisor.

Holes to Note

(As part of the restoration, back tees have been added and this par 71 course can play over 7,100 yards. The yards cited below are from the 6,700 yard Gold tees which will tax all but the very best.) 

First hole, 390 yards; While Orchard Lake doesn’t possess a rushing river like some of Alison’s other U.S. designs, it has roly-poly landforms across its entire 140 acres. Only at the first and ninth fairways are the odds of drawing a level stance in the golfer’s favor. Every other fairway features movement of six to eighteen feet, which is nothing short of ideal. The golfer can’t complain of hilliness and yet the variety of lies offered up ensures fresh golf from one round to the next.

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The good news is that the wide fairway offers up plenty of level stances for one’s approach. The bad news is …

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… everything else! Who can blame the golfer for trying to avoid the yawning deep front bunker? Though more subtle in its terror, the pitched putting surface is equally worrisome.

Second hole, 480 yards; Orchard Lake was a regimented course ten years ago requiring little more than straight hitting down tree lined fairways. Such golf lacks beauty and stymies imagination and creativity, the very components that make Golden Age courses  so cherished. Compare that restrictive linearity with the picture below of the free form second hole as it is now.

Today’s bunkering scheme heightens one’s appreciation for the free- flowing landscape that is Orchard Lake while providing all golfers with something to mull over.

Today’s bunkering scheme heightens one’s appreciation for the free- flowing landscape that is Orchard Lake while providing all golfers with something to mull over. This golfer has a go for the green from 230 yards out, after having made the necessary adjustment in his stance for the uphill lie.

Third hole, 185 yards; Alison’s partner, Harry Colt was keen about first staking out par 3 holes. Whether Alison did the same is unclear as he left little documentation behind. Yet, Colt’s tendencies surely held some sway because Orchard Lake’s three shotters feature an uncommon amount of variety.

Classic features define classic courses and there are few more heart-warming sights for an architecture buff than this par three and its Redan characteristics.

Classic features define classic courses and there are few more heart-warming sights for an architecture buff than this par three and its Redan characteristics.

Fourth hole, 370 yards; One’s round gets underway with three enticing holes, one of each par. Indeed, there are many fine three hole stretches throughout the course and gaining consensus among the members as to the best is impossible. However, not a single member would nominate the fourth through the sixth. More work is to come here but the reverse fairway bunkers looking at each other at the fourth and the sixth’s kettle depression that will be full of swaying fescues in 2014 speak to the overall quality of the course. There is not a clunker hole in the lot.

Rare is it to see two bunkers in close proximity that look at each other.

Rare is it to see two bunkers in such close proximity that look at each other.

Seventh hole, 220 yards; As long as big one shotters are built to scale, the author has always found them to be prized holes. The ninth at Yale, the twelfth at Wannamoisset, and the thirteenth at The Addington are examples that add variety and drama to their respective courses. This one does too.

Foster is a big fan of the seventh because it epitomizes the grand scale that Alison favored. The mammoth left bunker is the largest on the course and dwarfs the golfer.

Foster is a big fan of the seventh because it epitomizes the grand scale that Alison favored. The mammoth left bunker is the largest on the course and dwarfs the golfer.

Eighth hole, 390 yards; One of the prettiest holes in a golf rich state, the eighth plays as well as it looks. Though its corridor is essentially straight, playing angles abound. Two fairway bunkers scream at the golfer to hit the tee ball left but the deep, 30 yard long left greenside bunker suggests otherwise.

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The perfect line off the tee is slightly left of the gentleman holding the flag stick. If well struck, the tee ball carries the forward bunker, kicks off the downslope beyond, and stays short of a second fairway bunker seventy yards ahead. The golfer is rewarded for the bold line off the tee with a short iron into an open green.

 

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Foster is especially pleased with how this forward fairway bunker was re-introduced into play. Built into a dominant ridge that cuts across the fairway, it plays even bigger than it looks as the gnashing of teeth indicates from those that see the land kick their tee balls into it!

At 4,400 square feet, the eighth green represents the smallest target on the course.

At 4,400 square feet, the eighth green represents the smallest target on the course. It is best approached from the right side of the fairway which is of course where and why Alison placed two bunkers.

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