I found Tom Doak right where I envisioned he’d be: sitting at a drafting table in his cozy Traverse City office combing over site plans of a golf course.
When I stopped in last fall, he was home in northern Michigan for a brief moment in between visits from some far-flung golf destinations. Even in this economy that is bleeding other architects dry, Doak and his Renaissance Golf Design firm remains busy. Last fall, Doak said he was the only golf architect he knew building two courses in America. Doak, who has designed 27 courses around the world (two have closed), is set to open a course at Streamsong Resort in central Florida later this year and is working to finish a second course at Dismal River in Nebraska this spring. He also has projects in various stages in Spain, France, Scotland and China. That’s a tribute to his past successes at Bandon Dunes (home to Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald), Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand and Barndougle Dunes in Australia.
Opening in late 2012, the Blue Course at Streamsong Resort (Photo by Larry Lambrecht)
Doak and I have an afternoon tee time at his home course, the famed Crystal Downs Country Club in Frankfort overlooking Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan. To say Crystal Downs is special to Doak would be an understatement. It is essentially why the native of the East Coast and Cornell University grad settled in Northern Michigan and ultimately helped launch his design career. A random phone call to Fred Muller, Crystal Downs’ head pro, led to Doak’s first design, the now-defunct High Pointe Golf Club in nearby Williamsburg in 1989.
Doak appreciates every curve of Crystal Downs, a 6,529-yard par-70 classic designed in 1929 by Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell. It’s a place he tries to mimic at times while building other courses. The first and 10th tee and the clubhouse sit on a hillside perch overlooking a demanding rolling layout that sprawls out below.
“It’s really not like any other golf course that I can think of,” he says. “That’s more important to me than most people. A lot of people don’t care that one Pete Dye course in Florida is like one in California because they are only going to play one of them. To me, who travels around, it’s important.”
We start the day with solid drives from the white tees of the 449-yard par-4 first, but neither of us is prepared for the unrelenting challenges on the greens. There are times when putts roll off precariously canted putting surfaces. That’s the beauty and bane of playing Crystal Downs. Thankfully, neither of us is keeping score. We’re more focused on mixing golf swings with golf talk.
Driving up the second fairway, Doak analyzes the hole, a 425-yard par-4. “This is the kind of hole that clients don’t want you to build anymore,” he says. “It’s a little plainer. It is not the sexiest hole on the golf course. So many people now want every hole to be the sexiest on the golf course. This is a really good hole. ... It doesn’t try to wow you at all. It’s also the kind of hole when you are on a great course and you go back the second or third time, you notice the holes you thought were the plainest holes the first time, they are really good, too. That’s when you know you are on a really great golf course.”
Doak offers advice on the 345-yard fifth. There’s not much room in the fairway with a blind approach to the green tucked behind a hillside. Doak has seen every blind shot imaginable, having lived in Scotland for a year in college, touring and playing more than 170 courses of the British Isles. His thoughts on blind shots might surprise you.
“I think blind shots are fun to play occasionally,” he says. “But very few people have tolerance for it in the United States anymore, and there is a safety problem. If you have a blind tee shot and you don’t know if the next group is out of the way or not, it is hard to do that in the modern world. You see it all the time on old golf courses and nobody thinks twice about it. Clients don’t want you to do that. But on a hole like this, if you put your drive in a certain place, it’s a blind second shot. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. We don’t have to go very far to find out if somebody is on the green.”
Tom Doak's most acclaimed design is Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Oregon (Photo by Brandon Tucker/TravelGolf).
The 351-yard sixth introduces another short par-4 with plenty of character. “I love the short par 4s out here,” Doak says. “Short par 4s in general are my favorite kind of hole. The best courses in the world have three or four short great ones. Most other golf courses are great to have one or two good ones. They are really important to the balance of a course to give members a chance to make par or birdie.”
Doak learned a lot of things from Pete Dye, a mentor he worked under for three years early in his career but being kind to the members wasn’t one of them. He later points out the punch-bowl green on the 330-yard seventh. “It’s like the seventh hole at Ballyneal (a Doak course in Colorado). Everybody loves it,” he says.
On the back nine I bring up the one hole in Doak’s resume: How much will he regret never designing a course good enough to host a major event? Most recently, he was a finalist to design the golf course for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, which was eventually awarded to Gil Hanse.
“People have asked me that for years,” he says. “It wouldn’t much mean that much to me as it does to other architects. To date all of my clients have wanted me to build something fun to play, not to host a big tournament. Any client, if that was their focus, it would be interesting to do a project like that. If that never happens, it would not be that big a deal to me.”
It’s safe to say Doak’s legacy as a golf course architect is firmly intact with or without the bid, just like the reputation of his beloved Crystal Downs. Both have already proven they’re among the best in the world.
Top photo of Tom Doak taken at Old MacDonald, courtesy of Brian Walters/Resort and Golf Marketing.