Lean and Green

From his perch in Traverse City, Tom Doak has designed some of the most famous golf courses in the world. But his latest project is, in Detroit and , could serve as a model for renewing interest in a game that’s struggling to attract younger players.


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Tom Doak of Traverse City is among the leading golf course designers in the world.

It’s a long way from West McNichols on Detroit’s west side to Oregon’s Pacific Coast, and even farther to the soaring cliffs of Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand, but thanks to Traverse City resident Tom Doak, these three disparate areas are linked through the game of golf.

Although he is little-known in Michigan, Doak is a superstar among golf course designers in this country and around the world. In a recent listing by Golf magazine of the 50 greatest golf courses built since 1960, three of Doak’s designs — Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon, Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, and Barnbougle Dunes in Australia — were listed among the top five courses. Two other Doak designs made the top 25.

The growing list of accolades includes praise from Michigan, most recently for his work on a unique golf practice facility at Marygrove College on West McNichols. Last summer, while rebuilding the tee boxes and greens at the famed Country Club of Detroit in Grosse Pointe Farms, Doak and two members of his Renaissance Golf Design firm donated their services and created the practice facility, now the permanent home of the Midnight Golf program and the Marygrove golf team. In addition to four holes, there are two practice tee areas with 26 hitting bays, a large sand bunker, and a putting green.

Detroiter Reneé Faulker, a single mother concerned about the dangers of youth violence, founded Midnight Golf 10 years ago. The after-school motivational and mentoring program uses the game of golf to inspire inner-city kids to strive for academic and personal achievement.

Youngsters sign up for 30-week sessions during which volunteers conduct workshops that focus on topics such as college prep and scholarship counseling, life skills, financial responsibility, and the ins and outs of corporate culture. Local PGA professionals donate their time teaching the game, while the PGA of America, the United States Golf Association, and local corporations provide financial support.

Of 425 students who have completed the Midnight Golf program since 2001, 83 percent went on to college. Although Marygrove officials like program director David Gamlin admittedly didn’t know Doak when he stepped forward to design the practice facility, the architect has since made a lasting impression. “The kids now have their own place, and no longer have to struggle to get out to the suburbs for practice,” Gamlin says.

For Doak and his team, the effort was merely a neat way to give back to the game they revere — a game they fear is becoming prohibitive for less-affluent kids.

“All of my associates and I grew up playing public golf courses in towns where junior golf was affordable and close at hand,” Doak says. “If it wasn’t for that, we might never have found this work we love to do. Being involved with Midnight Golf was just the icing on the cake for us.”

The program has since been replicated in south Florida, and other regions of the country are looking to develop their own Midnight Golf curriculum.

 

Amazingly, in a 22-year career that has seen Doak build 29 courses in 15 states and in countries from Australia to Scotland, the Marygrove and Country Club of Detroit projects are the only ones he has undertaken in Michigan in more than a decade. His last in-state course design was Lost Dunes, a highly-rated private club that opened south of Benton Harbor in 1991. His other Michigan credits include the acclaimed Black Forest course at Wilderness Valley Golf Club in Gaylord.

At age 50, the still boyish-looking Doak is no longer the wunderkind of golf who began writing for Golf magazine while in college and, at age 23, talked the magazine into hiring him as a contributing editor. In that assignment, he was charged with critiquing golf architecture and compiling the magazine’s annual listing of the Top 100 courses in the world.

Celebrated as one of the world’s foremost practitioners of the art of minimalist course design — where the natural flow and features of the land, not a bulldozer, dictates the holes, greens, and bunkers — Doak sculpts in the classic style of the traditional courses he intently studied in the United Kingdom.

In the last year, Doak’s work has taken him to far off places, such as China, Japan, Spain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the Dominican Republic.

“Part of that travel has to do with pursuing really good properties, and part of it is [the fact that] there isn’t much work close to home these days,” Doak notes, reflecting on the toll the challenging economy is taking on golf and resort development. “I’ve looked at only two or three potential projects in the U.S. in the last 12 months. There is still plenty of good land, and there are still people who have money, but it’s hard to be optimistic about developing a new course when the old ones are on fire sale.”

Doak’s latest project is an 18-hole course on a 16,000-acre Florida property called Streamsong Resort. Under development by Mosiac Co., the world’s largest producer of phosphate-based fertilizer, the course, in Polk County between Tampa and Orlando, is being crafted and will utilize the topography from one of Mosaic’s former mining operations. The course is expected to open in 2013. Tailored to business clients, Streamsong Resort will offer 140 guest rooms, restaurants, lounges, meeting space, a spa, hiking trails, a sporting clays range, and along with bass fishing.

 

The Son Also Rises

Doak may have been a journalistic tenderfoot when he joined Golf magazine in 1984, but he came fully armed for the task. As a boy growing up in Stamford, Conn., he got an early start appreciating golf courses by accompanying his father on business trips, and took an interest in diverse courses around the country. Before he was a teenager, Doak could discuss what he liked and disliked on some of America’s best-known courses, including the Pebble Beach Links layout on the Monterrey Peninsula in California and the iconic Pinehurst No. 2 course at Pinehurst in North Carolina (site of the U.S. Open in 2014).

By the time he enrolled in landscape architecture at Cornell University, Doak had finagled his way onto most of the prestigious courses in America, taking notes and soaking up the many nuances of the design that made each one special. He also earned a scholarship for a one-year stay in the British Isles that shaped his professional life. While most visitors to Britain seek out museums and the island’s many historic and storied sights, Doak studied the region’s golf courses.

Staying in hostels, he crisscrossed England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, visiting some 170 courses and building up an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s greatest golf courses.

“Living over there for a year and seeing the attitude they had toward golf really had a profound impact on my idea of what golf is,” Doak says. “It is simpler than what we make it out to be in the states, and that had a huge effect on me and everything I’ve done since. In the U.K., golf is a daily recreation, not a weekend thing — it only takes two and a half or three hours to play, so you can go out and play in the evening after work. You bring your dog along with you and get him some exercise at the same time.”

While golf has earned a hard-to-shake reputation as an elitist sport in this country, Doak says the much-lower costs of all aspects of the game in the British Isles makes the game a pastime and not a business.

“[In the U.K.] it costs peanuts compared to golf in the U.S., because they don’t spend nearly as much as we do manicuring their courses, and they don’t waste money on big, fancy clubhouses to impress their guests,” he says. “It costs a few hundred dollars a year to belong to most golf clubs in the U.K., instead of a few thousand dollars. You don’t have club managers and golf professionals and superintendents trying to increase the members’ average spending so that those in the golf business can make a better living.”

 

As part of his graduate program in golf, Doak spent two months that summer working as a caddy on Scotland’s famed Old Course at St. Andrews. The course’s lasting appeal (it opened in the 1500s) is that it’s challenging enough to stage British Open championships, yet playable for every different level of golfer. “I caddied for one guy who I don’t think had ever played 18 holes of golf before,” Doak says. “I think he had only hit balls on the driving range, yet you could still get him around the golf course.”

Another of Doak’s summer jobs was working for Pete Dye, the dean of American golf architects. That experience led to a three-year apprenticeship, during which the strongly opinionated and sometimes controversial Dye rubbed off on Doak. Of all the modern golf architects, Dye is considered by many to be the top of the class.

“I started as a laborer, and moved up to running a bulldozer a little bit and helping run a project,” Doak says. “I was never one of his key guys, but I think I remember everything that man said to me over three years.”

Working construction for Dye exposed Doak to how best to build first-rate courses, including Dye’s specialty of producing offerings that had the potential to host tournaments. “Pete would spend a lot of time thinking about what you could do to make a course hard for really good players, but still have the average player get around it,” Doak says. “Not many of my designs have been about hosting a tournament. I start from the other end and figure out how to work up to the really good players.”

Although Dye is now 85, Doak says he continues to march to his own beat. “He has never really pursued a job at all. Jobs would pursue him,” Doak says. “He would be away from home for months at a time, with no one answering the phone. I remember being with him one time when a writer asked him, ‘Aren’t you afraid you’re missing out on some developer calling and wanting you to do a new job?’ and he said, ‘If they really want me, they will call again.’ ”

While it may be a strange way to do business, Doak concedes, the principle works for him, as well. “You only take the job where people really want you, instead of going out and selling yourself. Work just always kind of found me,” he admits.

Dye, who is completing work on Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, says he’s pleased to see his apprentice do well. “Tom’s a very bright guy and he’s done a great job on his courses in this country and all over,” Dye says. “He spent a lot of time studying courses in Britain and he’s put that knowledge to good use.”

 

Welcome to Michigan

In 1986, a shy and somewhat-introverted Doak showed up in Traverse City in a chocolate-brown Porsche 944 with an odometer nearing 200,000 miles, a testimony to side trips into remote areas around the country inspecting golf courses of interest.

As someone whose life revolved around golf, it wasn’t a surprise that it was a golf club, Crystal Downs in Frankfort, and an opportunity to join it as a junior member, that lured Doak to Traverse City. Crystal Downs in the 1980s was a little-known private club that had been designed in 1929 by Alister MacKenzie, another of Doak’s patron saints of golf course architects.

With his Golf magazine bully pulpit, Doak reintroduced Crystal Downs to the golfing public and created an industry buzz by having tour professionals like Ben Crenshaw visit and praise the rustic course perched on a hillside above Lake Michigan. In short order, the course was no longer one of golf’s best-kept secrets.

As word spread of his analysis of golf courses, a local developer hired Doak, then 26, to create High Pointe Golf Club in Williamsburg, just outside Traverse City. The course opened to great fanfare in 1989, and was hailed as one of the best new courses in the nation. A few years later, however, Doak and the owner had a falling out over design changes the owner had made over Doak’s objections.

Doak threatened to take his name off the course, and he didn’t return to the area for several years, until the rift was patched up. Ironically, after the owner died a few years ago, his son took over the operation but failed to make a go of it. The course is now closed, and golfers driving past the property on M-72 can only mourn when they see the unkempt grass and deteriorating bunkers.

Doak’s growing reputation for artistic independence didn’t stop there. He became alarmed after discovering that whenever he was away from a project in Myrtle Beach, the developer would go behind his back and make changes to the design. When he complained and the developer persisted, Doak walked away, took his name off the course, and forfeited his fee — a major hit for a young guy just getting started.

He also walked away from a lucrative project for Tom Monaghan, founder and past chairman of Domino’s Pizza Inc. in Ann Arbor, and former owner of the Detroit Tigers. At the time, Monaghan was spending a fortune on building Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired cottages and a lodge at his retreat on Drummond Island in the Upper Peninsula. He also decided to put in a golf course — a major challenge, given the property was mostly hard rock.

 

Doak lost his shot at the job when he told Monaghan’s team it would be a waste of money to build the course. Another architect took the job and designed The Rock, an unlikely but attractive course. Construction crews used dynamite to blow out boulders so they could install an irrigation system, while tankers brought in thousands of tons of dirt for topsoil. “There are some places you shouldn’t build a golf course, and this was one of them,” Doak says.

After a decade of writing for Golf magazine, Doak gave up the position because it became increasingly untenable for him to critique the work of fellow architects who were also his competition. But his journalistic skills did not go fallow — he channeled his writing into a book that earned him even more controversy.

In 1994, his 361-page coffee-table tome, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, rocked the button-down world of the golf industry. It earned Doak a reputation as the enfant terrible of golf, a moniker that took years for him to erase. The guide was a no-holds-barred critique of some of the more than 1,000 courses and clubs he had visited.

On his personal scale of 1 to 10, a course that earned a rating of 1 was described this way: “A very basic golf course with clear architectural malpractice and/or poor maintenance. Avoid even if you’re desperate for a game.”

A course with a 5 rating: “Well above the average golf course, but in the middle of my scale. A good course to choose if you’re in the vicinity and looking for a game, but don’t spend another day away from home just to see it, unless your home is in Alaska.”

No one had ever put in print such pointed comments about golf courses or their designers. Take, for example, his review of Jack Nicklaus’ famous Bear course at Grand Traverse resort in Traverse City, which came in at the low end on the Doak scale.

 

“A classic mid-80s artifice, the Bear has achieved a big-name reputation in the Midwest for all the wrong reasons. Artistically, it’s one of the worst courses I’ve seen: all those mounds and strange greens are suspended in between flat decks of fairways and natural stands of fescue rough or trees so no one in their right mind could think this course is for real.”

The first confidential guide spawned a second volume, both of which are now out of print. The books have since achieved a cult-like status — copies listed for sale on the Internet go for as high as $2,200. “I never knew anything about that until The Wall Street Journal did a story about it and called me,” Doak says, still bemused by the attention his books have garnered.

So Long, Terrible Tom

The days of heat and controversy are well behind Doak. As evidence, the architect has learned to mingle with wealthy, headstrong businessmen for whom the “Terrible Tom” of the ’90s has evolved into the keeper of the game’s historic traditions.

Mike Keiser, the Chicago greeting-card magnate who made his fortune with Recycled Paper Greetings Inc., hired Doak just over 10 years ago to design the second of four courses at his Bandon Dunes resort on the Oregon coast.

Doak produced his signature design, Pacific Dunes, a stunning oceanfront links course that established his brilliance as one of the masters of his craft. Keiser brought Doak back to lead the design team for the resort’s fourth course, Old MacDonald, another blockbuster that opened to rave reviews last summer.

Keiser, himself a fan of the game’s history, described Doak in an interview as “the architectural giant of his time.”

Other jobs followed. Julian Robertson, the New York billionaire hedge fund manager, played Pacific Dunes shortly after it opened and was so impressed he immediately hired Doak to create his Cape Kidnappers course in New Zealand.

 

“I think they are comfortable with me because I’m kind of an entrepreneur. I started my own business and I’m very hands-on, and so are most of them,” Doak says. “I’m not a very corporate-mentality kind of guy and most of my clients aren’t, either. The corporate guys tend to go for the bigger corporate golf course architects. The individuals who want to do something cool once in their lives — that’s who I appeal to.”

He’s also picked up insight into what makes wealthy developers tick, and discovered that often, money is secondary to the design. “I found out, especially dealing with Julian and other top clients, that (saving money) is not really what they want to hear first in the process,” Doak says. “First, they want to hear what it will take to do something great.”

Not that rich folks don’t care about money, Doak notes. “They can say they don’t care about the money, but they did not get to where they are by not caring about the money,” he laughs. “It’s just not the first thing on the list. It took me a while to understand that, but I do now.”

Years ago, Doak had been quoted as saying his career would be complete only after he had designed five of the top 100 courses in the world. Now that he has achieved that career milestone, he has another objective to fulfill somewhere down the road. “I would love to have myself as a client,” he muses. “No matter how much freedom the client gives you, it’s still an architect-client relationship, and you can’t do the wildest thing you ever thought of without thinking about how would this go over, and will it be successful for this guy. You can only do that when you are doing it for yourself.”

 

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