Tom Doak, Traverse City’s Course Whisperer

Golf course designer Tom Doak

Golf course designer Tom Doak.

Todd Zawistowski

To wander a golf course at night is an exercise in solitude. Though the acres are wide open, the midnight blue closes in and surrounds you, limiting your vision and your sense of space to feet, not yards.

While streaks of moonlight splatter the leaves of trees with dabs of ghostly white, any hardwoods or conifers that line the fairways seem like the towering velvet drapes of a darkened theatre. Any sounds, be they the birds or the breeze, sing in stereo to your heightened sense of awareness. But more than anything, it’s your footwork that grounds and guides you. Every step you take provides instant feedback. Every subtle change of terrain — elevation variations and changes of texture — are told first by your feet. The hillocks and moguls speak to your soles. It’s your toes that first feel the longer grass, tickling fescue or tangled rough growing from the ground.

For the average person, it’s the utter darkness that alights all of the other senses. But this is how Tom Doak "sees" a golf course in broad daylight — with the heightened spatial awareness, sensitivity to subtlety and directional certainty of a talented golf course architect. Doak doesn’t design new golf courses — he goes looking for them. He feels around for them and then, like a sorcerer or a shaman, connects with the great spirit of the sod. He then summons the golf courses to rise from the earth and make themselves known to those who might challenge them. Like a horse whisperer, Doak is a course whisperer.

But Doak’s soft touch with the land is balanced by an unflinching confidence, a steel will and a not-so-soft touch when sharing his views. In his 1996 book, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, he doled out blunt criticism to the lions of mainstream golf course design while unabashedly naming his own first course — designed when he was 26 — as one of the top 10 in the world. His assertions rankled many, but vindication of his approach would come soon enough as the Traverse City-based golf course designer rose to the world stage of design, watched others adopt his design principles and eventually saw one of his courses be voted by many — not just by himself — as one of the world’s top 10.

Tom Doak Courses Around the World

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