Located about 75 miles from downtown Chicago sits one of the most heralded private golf clubs in North America. The Dunes Club is located in New Buffalo, Michigan and is so unique and low key that there’s no signage anywhere on the exterior of the course. In fact, I drove right past the front entrance twice before recognizing the clubhouse and the secluded front gate.
The Dunes Club is the brainchild of designer Dick Nugent and Dunes Club owner Mike Keiser. Nugent, who passed away in January, was a prominent golf course architect who helped design the Dunes Club as well as Kemper Lakes Golf Club, both Harborside International Golf Courses, Tuckaway Country Club in Milwaukee and Koolau Golf Course in Hawaii.
Mike Keiser is the founder Recycled Paper Greetings, a Chicago-based greeting card company that he started in 1971 and eventually sold for nine figures. In addition to the Dunes Club, Keiser is the owner of several spectacular golf facilities around the world including Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Cabot Links in Nova Scotia and Sand Valley in Wisconsin.
Opened in 1995, the Dunes Club is a 9-hole golf course on a secluded, 90-acre parcel of land that plays at 6,965 yards from the back tees, according to the scorecard. However, it’s likely very few rounds are played on the course at the same distance since there aren’t any tee markers and there are also multiple tee boxes on every hole. Club tradition allows the winning player or team to dictate the tee box location and length of the next hole.
Groundskeepers will even change the hole locations during the round, cutting a new hole after noon. That was the case for my round, making the second loop for our back nine play dramatically different from the opening nine. It’s an incredibly unique back nine experience for a golfer, combining your familiarity of the layout from your first time around with entirely new tee box and pin locations.
Since there are less than 115 members, many of whom are also members at other courses, rounds played at the Dunes Club are less than 5,000 annually. It’s that slower pace that allows for extraordinary focus on detail, including twice daily pin cutting.
The New Buffalo area in southwest Michigan is known for its famous sand dunes, which are ominpresent throughout the property. The course features wide, undulating fairways bounded by natural, sandy waste areas.
The course is maintained at an extremely high level with immaculate fairways and fast, undulating greens. My Dunes Club experience took place in early May, before the course had reached its full growth for the season. However, I was reminded by our caddies that the greens will play exponentially faster towards the end of the month and throughout the remainder of the season as the turf reaches its true potential.
There are no cart paths on the course because there are no carts. Experienced caddies provide a highly valuable service as both tour guide and counselor. Their experience is vital on the greens, which can be quite tricky to read. They also can come in handy when it comes to tracking down an errant tee shot that finds the deep rough.
The clubhouse at The Dunes Club is quite small, to say the least. There’s room for a washroom and a couple showers, a tiny kitchen and a table or two. There’s a nice patio outside the clubhouse for golfers to share the experience of their round, along with a burger or what’s available on the limited menu and cooked on the course grille.
The first hole is a slight dogleg left that plays at 415 yards from the back tees on the scorecard and is listed as the number one handicap. Your first sight line off the tee features a large native sand area that you’ll need to carry on your first shot. You’ll quickly get used to the sight of sand dunes – this is the Dunes Club after all.The first green is protected sand bunkers left, back and right. However, you have the option to the run the ball up to the green, which features multiple tiers. It’s a good idea to become familiar with this, and every green that follows, since you’ll be playing them again and possibly with different hole locations.
The second hole offers multiple sets of tee boxes from two different locations – left and right. Depending on the tee box that you choose, the hole can play anywhere from 130 yards to 200 yards. The left and right tee boxes obviously offer completely different angles and obstacles around the green.Most of the greens at The Dunes Club are massive and the second hole is no exception. That’s important since there’s sand everywhere around this green.
The Dunes Club offers two par threes and two par fives, the first of which is the 534-yard 3rd hole that promotes a left to right shot off the tee. It’s important to avoid the rows of trees on the left and OB on the right. The 3rd fairway is generous, which is helpful since you’ll want to be as aggressive as possibly for the potential opportunity to reach the green in two.The approach miss on the third green is directly short or long right. A deep bunker guards the left side of the green, which is sloped from back to front. We played this hole with the pin front left for our first nine, which meant very fast downhill putts for anything on the back tier.
The second hardest hole on the course according to the scorecard is the par four 435-yard fourth hole, which is a dogleg left. There are a multiple tees from different elevations and distances to choose from. It’s essential to find the fairway so you can have an unobstructed look at the green, which is protected by bunkers on the right.The fairway slopes from left to right and the green is quite wide and deeper than you can see from the fairway. I hit my approach shot to the back of the green and was faced with at least 40 feet down to the pin in the front right.
The par four 420-yard fifth hole offers five different tee shots, all of which provide a different look along with different challenges. The top tee box provides an excellent vantage point as we aimed directly over our caddies, who were positioned in the middle of the wide fairway. The landing area for your tee shot is massive, but there is definitely trouble if you find the really deep rough on the left.The approach shot to the fifth green is directly over a large pond and there is a mound in front of the middle of the green that can hide a direct view of a pin location behind it. This is a big, beautiful and wide putting complex with diverse undulations that work from back to front and right to left. Approach shots that find the chipping area behind the green will set up some of the toughest short game challenges on the course.
The walk from the fifth green to the sixth tee is directly up the side of a hill and provides a magnificent view of the fifth hole. The par three 6th hole plays anywhere from 185 yards to 95 yards. From the main tee boxes, the green is located at the crown of a hill that quickly drops off to the left. The miss here is obviously right, but it’s easy also easy to three-putt this large and undulating putting surface.The 7th hole is a dogleg left that works uphill at the green and plays anywhere from 397 to 240 yards. Last year the club removed a large number of trees on the left, which opens up the view to the green from the tee box. There are assorted sand dunes on the left and the right side while the green slopes right to left and back to front. Choose your approach club wisely so you can hopefully avoid anything but a putt around this green. The par five 8th hole stretches to 513 yards and the tee box offers a beautiful view of the wide fairway. There is a dunes section that interrupts the fairway, so longer hitters be advised. Favor the right side on your second shot to allow an unobstructed third shot to the raised putting surface.
Since the 8th green is uphill and protected by raised bunkers on each side, it’s impossible to see your landing area and even harder to identify the exact distance to the pin. To add a little more challenge, there is also a wide strip of sand bunker behind the green, ready to catch any long approach shots.The final hole is a fairly straightforward par four that plays to another raised putting surface. The landing area for your tee shot is abundant, so it pays to lean on your drive for a few extra yards and a shorter iron in your hands on the second shot. There’s a large bunker on the left side of the green and the right side approach is closely mown, so shots that don’t make it to the putting surface will usually find their way back down the hill. The 9th hole provides another beautiful vista of the green and the course, with the clubhouse directly nearby. Once you’re done with the 9th, it’s time to take stock of what you’ve learned and prepare yourself for another loop around this magnificent layout.