Orchard Lake Country Club, MI, USA

Ninth hole, 450 yards; Returning to the clubhouse, the ninth feels like the Home hole it once was! On opening day in 1927, this bruiser was the eighteenth. Originally, the tee was left of the eighth green in a bog. Both access and maintenance proved problematic and necessitated a move well right. Though Alison didn’t oversee the moving of the tee, the happy result was the creation of a true dogleg, the only one on this side.

Today’s hole plays as a dogleg right off the tee while the handsome second shot still lines up just as Alison intended.

Eleventh hole, 445 yards; At least one modern architect holds as ideal a right fairway bunkers 265 yards from the tee and left ones 285 yards away as a draw goes farther than a fade. Golden Age designers would scoff at such a formulaic approach. Here, the landforms dictated that the right fairway bunker be well ahead of the left.

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The eleventh fairway elbows right around this beautifully positioned Alison bunker 175 yards from the green.

Alison’s green pads are tall which means that his bunkers are deep. Above is the greenside bunker at eleven. His distinctive bunkers would become known as ‘Alisons’ in Japan.

Alison’s green pads are tall which means that his greenside bunkers are deep, such as the one above at the eleventh. Famous for being penal, his bunkers become known as ‘Alisons’ in Japan. Despite continued improvements in the sand wedge over many decades, Alison’s bunkers are still best avoided.

Thirteenth hole, 195 yards; The rectangular block of 42 acres on the south side of the road required that the holes would run along an east/west axis. So be it. The one exception is the one shot thirteenth which lies perpendicular and it’s easy to imagine that Alison found this hole early in the routing process, so perfect for golf is the fourteen foot depression between tee and green. Since the long one shot seventh, there has been little respite from a series of challenging holes. According to a 1955 article in upstate New York’s Tonawanda News, ‘Speaking of golf, Gene Sarazen purposefully blew a putt on the 18th green of Detroit’s Orchard Lake course. He was two feet away from the cup with his second shot, so he knocked the ball to the side and then flipped it in. He played it that way because he had 17 straight fours. ‘I never had played a round where I had 18 fours in a row,’ Stocky Gene grinned. ‘I decided it was getting late, and if I was ever going to do it, now was the time.’ Imagine blowing a birdie on purpose!’ Imagine that indeed – Sarazen bogeyed all four one shot holes at Orchard Lake! Conversely, he birdied the three par 5s to tidy up his card.

No wonder Alison accepted this project and then devoted so much personal time to it. Natural depressions like this one are the envy of most private clubs in the greater Detroit area.

No wonder Alison accepted this project and then devoted so much personal time to it. Natural depressions like this one are the envy of most private clubs in the greater Detroit area.

Fifteenth hole, 430 yards; Foster notes, ‘If you lived in an intellectual bubble, the task of any restorer would be to make each green exactly as the architect had it.’ Yet, that’s just not the real world, that’s fantasy land. In the case here, the green had been severely altered to feature two tiers that had nothing to do with Alison. Enchanted with the virtues of the seventeenth hole, Foster pulled the green ten yards left (away from the road that bisects the property) and built an entirely new one. It fits perfectly and best, it brings directly into the line of play an Alison bunker that was once well left.

For all the world, the fifteenth feels like an Alison hole. A key indicator of the success of the restoration is that today the entire course is one homogeneous fabric. Not only is there no hint of Bill Diddle’s work in the 1960s but none that Keith Foster was ever here.

For all the world, the fifteenth feels like an Alison hole. A key indicator of the success of the restoration is that the entire course now feels as one homogeneous fabric. Not only is there no hint of Bill Diddle’s work in the 1960s but there is no evidence that Keith Foster was here either! As Foster says, mission accomplished.

Sixteenth hole, 155 yards; Scroll back through the photographs of the one shot holes and their uniqueness is what jumps out. They ‘box the compass’ which matters when you are in the windy Great Lakes environs and are physically quite distinct. Think about it: the Redan-like third, the magnificently long seventh, the thirteenth’s crater, and the walled-off teasing short sixteenth.

Carry it too deep onto this well –bunkered classic short hole and the tilt of Alison’s green becomes a major impediment to par. McMaster's 2013 work in establishing fescue in selective areas such as back right of this green will pay off handsomely in the years to come.

Carry it too deep onto this well –bunkered classic short hole and the tilt of Alison’s green becomes a major impediment to par. McMaster’s 2013 work in establishing fescue in selective areas such as back right of this green will pay off handsomely in the years to come.

Seventeenth hole, 380 yards; Certainly among Alison’s best, the seventeenth is the favorite of many a member. All the elements are present that make Orchard Lake special: a convoluted fairway where level stances are elusive, artistic fairway bunkers that extract ½ stroke penalties, and a well placed, formidable green atop a hillock.

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As seen from the back tee, the last two holes head east back to the clubhouse and make for a rousing finish.

 

The appeal of the approach shot is timeless: Can the golfer carry the rise and keep his approach shot below the hole on the tilted green?

The appeal of the approach shot is timeless: Can the golfer carry the rise and keep his approach shot below the hole on the tilted green?

 

 Back to the drawing board: This golfer’s approach landed a foot on the green, jumped forward began tittering and rolled back, well down the slope. The recovery pitch from a tight lie might be more unnerving than the full approach shot.

Back to the drawing board: This golfer’s approach landed a foot on the green, jumped forward, tittered and then rolled back down the slope. The recovery pitch from a tight lie might be more unnerving than the full approach shot.

Eighteenth hole, 375 yards; Golf was played with hickory clubs for the first several years at Orchard Lake and the course was obviously built with that in mind. Given that the course measures over 500 yards longer today than when it opened, Orchard Lake has compensated for changes in technology. Yet some holes adjust better than others and the eighteenth is a cracker even if it is played with a three wood and short iron. Frankly, it wouldn’t have played much differently in Alison’s day. Then as now, the severely canted right to left green is ample defense.

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Alison was a strong player and Foster believes that his courses reflect that ability. His greens almost always feature broad slopes in contrast to the straight- hitting Walter Travis who built intricate, almost delicate greens. Alison’s right to left swoop on the Home green solicits many a 3 putt at the most ruinous of times.

Additional reading on Alison can be found throughout GolfClubAtlas.com, notably in the Kirtland Country Club and Milwaukee Country Club profiles and with Tom MacWood’s excellent piece on Alison’s work in Japan. In that article, MacWood nicely sums up Alison’s approach to bunkers:

All these influences contributed to the Alison style, a style that did feature very deep bunkers. Not only were his bunkers deep – both greenside and fairway – they were also very large in scale. Alison’s greenside bunkers were frequently as large as the greens they guarded. He often elevated the green well above the approaching fairway or tee;, bunkers were then cut well below the elevation, in effect increasing their depth. Fairway bunkers were placed against or below mounding, which also increased their effective depth. And he was not opposed to an occasional forced carry — usually with bunkers set at a diagonal, allowing for choice and rewarding the bold play.

Suffice to say, that from his partnership with Colt, to his time in United States that included work at Pine Valley, to building epic courses in Japan, the Netherlands, and ultimately South Africa where he died in 1952, Alison left a global legacy that few can match.

Better than almost any architect before or since, Alison embraced the appeal of teeing off with a ball on the first tee and holing out with it on the eighteenth green. Doing so gives any golfer a great sense of satisfaction. While Alison created fierce hazards, they were rarely of the do-or-die variety. According to MacWood, Alison wrote in a letter, ‘Water is a bad feature in that the ball cannot be played from it, and in consequence it does not test the golfer’s skill.’ He gave all golfers plenty of room to operate but an advantage to the better player who successfully took the bolder line.

Golfers of all ages and abilities have fun at Orchard Lake.

Golfers of all ages and abilities have fun at Orchard Lake.

Without water hazards, Orchard Lake serves as the perfect place to learn the game of golf, develop a deep appreciation for it and then grow gracefully old with your clubs and dignity still intact. Be it a grandson of 12, granddad at 76, or the tiger, every golfer can have fun on a course like Orchard Lake. This newly restored Alison joins the likes of Milwaukee and Kirtland as the best examples of this master architect’s work in the United States. The secret is out – the course that Sarazen loved is back for all to appreciate.

The End