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Kilts Optional: Michigan's The Gailes GC is Scotland Without the Plane Trip
For many American golfers, a trip to Scotland is the ultimate nod to getting back to the sport's roots, a chance to connect with the game's birthplace and its seminal courses. Making a trip across the pond is a pipe dream for many, so how about the next best thing - playing a course where the conditions in Scotland (minus the driving rain and kilt-wearing ghosts in the mormaerdom, stewartry, earldom and burghs) in the United States?
Scotland or Michigan? It's the Gailes near Lake Huron
A Scottish links experience is what golfers will discover at The Gailes Course on the "Sunrise Side" of Michigan just a mile west of Lake Huron. The course, one of three (four if you count the 18-hole, par-3 Wee Links) at the comfortable and remote Lakewood Shores Resort in Oscoda, was routed by Bob Cupp and designed and built by Kevin Aldridge with the idea to recreate what golfers find on UK links.
Opened in 1993, The Gailes is more than homage to golf in the Old Country. It's bringing Aldridge's research in Scotland to America's upper Midwest, which is a lot easier to reach for most golfers.
Aldridge cleared a huge swatch of land and began moving and mounding earth into heaving, tall grass-covered hills while placing various bunkers and burns around the track and ending each hole with the types of greens unlikely to be found anywhere on this side of the Atlantic. The Gailes plays fast and firm and is designed where every shot gives players at least two options to attack its huge greens.
Lake Huron isn't visible, but its presence is discernible thanks to the constant winds that sweep across the property. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to see water to be playing a links; for example, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, this year's British Open site, sits more than a mile inland and is as pure a links as the Old Course at St. Andrews.
The Gailes GC in Michigan
Gorse, Sand, Water & Wind
The five main aspects of a Scottish links-style golf course are mounding, gorse, penal bunkers, water and wind, and The Gailes GC has all these elements in spades. Following a "old school" links concept - a la the Old Course, The Gailes sports double-greens at Nos. 2 and 17 and at 11 and 14. Most tees are just steps from previous greens, and the only trees on the course are those along the edges of the site.
The par-72 layout plays at less-than-punitive 6,954 yards from its back set of four tees, where it has a rating of 75.0 and a Slope of 138. The real test is getting past the intimidating visuals and just playing your game.
"All the mounding on both sides gives the player the illusion that the fairways are much smaller than they actually are," said Craig Peters, Lakewood Shores Resort's general manager and director of golf. "Players feel like they have to thread a needle and that intimidation affects them mentally."
The bunkers at The Gailes are sod-faced and many are hidden. Course management is at a premium, and some of the holes, Peters said, are short for a reason. "The Gailes gives players a look they're not going to see at too many golf courses," Peters said. "You just have to have your wits about you. You have to control the height of the ball, and for the better players especially, it's a lot of fun."
The fairways at The Gailes are often generous, but approaches are guarded by fescue mounds that are tough to figure out. Green surrounds feature tight lies where run-up shots can be putted.
Find the short grass off the tee and every green can be attacked, but it's important to find the correct sectors as these huge surfaces are undulating and quick, with swales, crowns and bowled corners commonplace.
The Gailes' first five holes require focus and keen shot-making thanks to an ever-present burn winding next to and across fairways in all the wrong places. After this early gauntlet Aldridge lightens the load a bit, letting players settle into a rhythm highlighted by an occasional blind approach, the double-greens, a drivable par-4 (the 298-yard ninth) and a pair of par-5s that can be reached in two mighty blows (the 528-yard seventh and 500-yard 15th).
The Mounding Can be Severe at Gailes GC
Be sure to aim at the correct flag on the 183-yard, par-3 second, which is played from an elevated tee to a huge double-green shared by No. 17 and is ringed by fescue rough and mounds. The third (at 421 yards) is a challenging par-4 with small pot bunkers dotting the fairway, two crossings of the burn and a pond right of the green.
The 459-yard fifth is a long par-4 with a creek crossing in mid-fairway and fescue-topped berms on both sides. Mounds at the right block the view of the small green, which is guarded on all four sides by pot bunkers.
At the par-5 seventh more heaving fescue intrudes and surrounds the putting surface. No. 8 (586 yards) is the second of back-to-back par-5s and presents one of the widest fairways anywhere. The green is elevated and engirded by trouble.
Despite playing less than 300 yards from the tips, the ninth is all about the approach and not the drive. It has the toughest green here; a wedge to this small, crowned, well-trapped target is more desirable than a mid-iron.
The 10th hole, a relatively short and seemingly innocuous 348-yard, par-4, captures the essence of links golf. Hidden hazards lurk off the tee in the form of seven deep sod-faced bunkers. Thick, gnarled mounds of knee-high grass swallow any shot that doesn't hit and hold its partially hidden green. The 140-yard 12th has a similar look and ends at a "Postage Stamp" green with rolling mounds and deep bunkers ringing it.
The 489-yard par-4 13th is extremely difficult to reach in regulation, especially since a burn crosses about 175 from a green tucked tightly between mounds. More tall grasses line the 14th, which leads to the raised double-green shared with the 11th.
No. 15 is a 500-yard par-5 with 15 bunkers scattered along the way. Seven of these in the landing area are difficult to see from the tee. The small green drops down and slopes towards the back bunkers; any ball hitting the down-slope will roll off the rear.
The 18th is a beautiful par-4 with sculpted tees leading to a wide fairway infiltrated by numerous nasty pot bunkers. The approach is quite simple, but the putting surface here is one of the largest on the course, as much as a two-club difference depending on the day's pin location.
The Gailes has garnered numerous awards and kudos over the years. Golf Digest named the course as its "Best New Resort Course in the United States" in 1993 and in 1996 as the "Best Public and Resort Course in Michigan." It's a great taste of Scotland sans the long airplane ride and worthy of placement on any golfer's must-play list.
For more info, see http://lakewoodshores.com/gailes.htm.
Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's world correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports, covers the Longhorns for CBS Sports, is regional editor for Texas Golfer magazine and files stories for Golf Oklahoma magazine, Texas Links magazines and Golfers Guide. Habel's main blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com) features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com)chronicles his many travels, on which he has played more than 350 golf courses since 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.