Lately Doak and his team of seven design associates and architects have been putting their feet and handiwork on some of the world’s choicest pieces of otherwise inhospitable land: craggy, sea-smashed, windswept moonscapes, some choked with gorse and teeming with heather, most in lonely locations far-flung, such as Colorado, Arizona, New Zealand, Australia, and, most famously, the remote Oregon coast. Here, in 2001, Doak set the golf world on its ear by designing Pacific Dunes, a course that made the list of top 10 courses of the world its first year — an honor no course had ever achieved. His Cape Kidnappers Golf Club in New Zealand is built on breathtaking fingers of seafront land, and the raw texture of his Barnbougle Dunes Golf Links will make the northern coast of Tasmania a world destination.
"I’ve got this reputation for being a minimalist and not moving any more earth in the construction process than necessary, so if it’s a really special piece of property to build a golf course on, people tend to look to me," says Doak, 45, who runs his gourmet golf course architecture firm, Renaissance Golf Design, out of a house just west of Traverse City’s restored train depot. "The guys that work for me during the design process know that sometimes I want to get away from them and just walk around by myself and think and stare at the land. That’s when I come up with a good idea."
All told, he’s created 25 golf courses, but Doak hesitates to characterize his work as either art or science. Instead, he describes golf course architecture as "its own weird form of engineering."
"I can’t sculpt or freehand sketch to save my life. It’s about planning and figuring out where the golf course fits into the ground and how it’s going to work. You’re applying everything you know about golf to a piece of land and working by eye to build a course that looks like it belongs out there," he explains. "Some properties are way more complicated than others, so sometimes the answer to the puzzle comes in a weekend and sometimes it takes six months. Sometimes I have to step away and come back."
For Doak, "stepping away" often means leaving a site to travel to another project in a distant corner of the globe. "Some of my best thoughts about a course I’m working on have come while I was on the plane coming home, when I’m just resting and have nothing else to do," Doak says. Hitting the road, though, is a high price to pay to find his muse. Divorced and now remarried, Doak builds his travel schedule around fathering a teenaged son from his first marriage and the four stepchildren who entered his life when he married his second wife, Jennifer Florence. The two met at a Traverse City ice cream stand. "I travel 180 days a year, so home is "part time’ for me. It’s particularly troublesome because, especially in the summer, Traverse City is such a great place to live, but I’m so worn out when I get home all I want to do is rest. But my family is eager to see me and they want to do things."
On the other hand, Doak does allow that his hometown is a great place from which to live a commuter lifestyle — easy airport connections, no security lines, and the people at the airport recognize him. "But coming back to Traverse City from a trip to Australia and New Zealand is like getting whiplash. I have to adjust to crossing eight time zones and sometimes go from summer to winter. We’re getting clients in South Africa and South America, and that’s cool, especially when I can build a great golf course where there haven’t been any in the past."