Stoatin Brae pg ii
Michigan, United States of America

Tenth hole, 335 yards;  For the next hour or so the golfer does battle across the most compelling portion of the property. For sure, he marvels at how much good golf emerged from this 45 acres. Part of his appreciation stems from what preceded these six holes. The contrast between the prairie and this corner is excellent and together they provide a complete offering. Put another way, if the entire course was like this section, the author thinks that the golf might suffer. Certainly, the walk would be much more difficult. As it is, the golfer considers 36 holes in a day a viable option. The rambunctious tenth is visually more intimidating as a consequence of the prairie golf. Thankfully, given its modest length, the hole shouldn’t play as hard as it looks, which a design concept that Alister MacKenzie supported and that Renaissance has carried on. Where to aim from the tee isn’t readily apparent but in a perfect use of the brow of a hill, a drive long left over it opens up the approach to an angled green. When people talk about ‘a well-designed hole’, this is what they mean: the architects incorporated a natural feature (brow of a hill) into a hole and then built man-made features (bunkers, angled green) that compliment it. That is all you can ever ask an architect to do!

As pretty as this photograph is …

… this perspective is more telling as it shows the hidden portion of the fairway beyond the hill.

If the golfer is brave enough to play long left, he is rewarded with this straightforward pitch.

Most players though prefer to hit to where they can see but that leaves this dreadful angle into today’s back right hole location.

Eleventh hole, 165 yards; The golfer walks away from his round here with a new found appreciation for how most designs from 1975 to 2000 were over-shaped and over-wrought and routinely featured containment mounds and framing. What a waste of time and money as such elements add nothing to the golf while distorting nature. Look at the photograph below of this green and the elegant manner in which it occupies the shoulder of the hill. Now imagine it with mounds behind and be thankful for this crew as opposed to someone who would have been more heavy-handed.

A false front and green that rolls off to the right make getting close to this right hole location problematic. A back left hole location is more user friendly and the golfer learns with time when to thrust and when to parry.

Twelfth hole, 380 yards; This proved to be the crucial moment in the routing process. Renaissance could visualize the prior and subsequent holes but there appeared no easy way to get from eleven to thirteen because of a prominent hillock that had to be scaled here. As the debate continued over possible alternatives/solutions, Slawnik proposed one major cut to the land for the entire project. That idea carried the day and the execution of lowering the fairway some twelve feet was carried out with aplomb. That’s minimalism for you: doing what it takes to make it look like no earth was moved. With that one bold move, the rest of the golf flowed naturally. Both the tee ball and approach are genuine additives to the course.

The 12th features a thrilling drive over the left bunker. If hit well enough, the tee ball will catch the downslope on the far side and bound merrily toward the green.

The downhill approach to an open green passes with flying colors the litmus test of wanting to hit a small satchel of balls to get the approach just right. Too many modern courses look great in pictures but once there, the shots never quite measure up to the photograph. 

Thirteenth hole, 460 yards; A sure fire way to turn an uphill bruiser into something more engaging is to cap it with a green that enjoys punchbowl qualities. One of the first to do so in America was C.B. Macdonald at National Golf Links of America and the finest the author has seen is the sixth at Whippoorwill outside of New York.  Here, a look at the scorecard suggests a house of pain. However, if you play the hole properly – a draw off the tee and another one that lands on top that then swoops onto – or is it into? – the green, the hole produces a moment of joy and immense satisfaction.

A draw works well to this fairway that bends left but cants right.

As seen from 250 yards away, the white flag plays peekaboo.

A huge drive leaves this approach shot to a left hole location, though the start of the green is evident 35 yards to the right.

Leaving the 13th, its punchbowl qualities become evident. It like the 1st, 2nd, and 12th greens is bunkerless.

Fourteenth hole, 145 yards; An ideal follow up to the beastly uphill thirteenth, this short one shotter plays downhill and everything is in plan view. Or is it? Look closely at the two photographs below.

In this mid-morning picture, the 14th appears to be a relatively straightfoward shelf green benched into the hillside.

However, the morning dew highlights the rolls and the soft front and right side. As is often the case at Stoatin Brae, the golfer does well to aim toward the middle of the green and putt out to the edges.

Fifteenth hole, 375 yards; Similar to the tenth, the architects use a modest length two shotter to traverse a dramatic valley. While the tee ball lingers in the mind, the approach is awfully fine too, with a large bunker employed to confuse.

On the far hillside one of the course’s largest bunkers extends thirty yards from the green toward the player. The bunker is actually removed from the putting surface by 10 yards and gaining depth perception is awkward. A high right back plateau in the green affords several tricky hole locations.

Sixteenth hole, 540 yards; As well as any, the sixteenth hole demonstrates the course’s setting above the river valley and the architects took maximum advantage by building a slow, unfolding three shotter. As a nice change, the sixteenth fairway is shared with the third and Renaissance floated a central hazard into the direct line of play. A big drive brings the green within reach in two and the walk down the fairway toward the skyline green is one to savor.

This 230 yard shot to a skyline green is so appealing that the golfer hardly notices that he has returned to the prairie.

Seventeenth hole, 170 yards; One of the author’s handful of favorite penultimate holes in America is the 125 yarder at St. George’s on Long Island because it tests nerves as well as how clearly the golfer is thinking. A long one shotter is too often about execution versus actually trying to play a shot. This hole like the illustrious 17th at St. George’s is played from a valley to a knob green. From the 6,271 yard set of tees most people will play, it measures 135 yards. Yet, its defenses are plentiful and substantial as seen below.

Morning or …

… late afternoon, the 17th requires a deft touch to hit and hold the green.

The aforementioned par 5 Home hole concludes the round meaning that the fifteenth is the last two shotter that the golfer faces. Similar to what they learned at Pacific Dunes, Renaissance Design chewed up the flatter portion of the property by placing all four of the par 5s in that milieu. It makes for an exciting finish as much can transpire over the final three holes.

Overall, there is nothing not to embrace about playing here. The golfer gets the best of both worlds: an intriguing mix of prairie and big hills. The author’s only regret is that there aren’t a few more shared fairways like the sixteenth and third. Finding your ball in the impenetrable native grasses is unlikely, so the resort needs to be vigilant about keeping the playing corridors broad. The prairie grass is a wonderful accent to the golf but if it comes into play for anything but a rank bad shot, the continuum of playing with the same ball and the pace of play are ruined.

Leave it to the Scott family to get things right. They have done so for nearly 55 years and there is no sign that this American story is slowing down. In fact, the addition of Stoatin Brae to their golf offering means the Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort has reached an all-time high.

Run – don’t walk – to Stoatin Brae if you like top drawer architecture at affordable UK pricing.

The End