Tom Doak, Traverse City’s Course Whisperer

The result, because of the land he was given to work with, was an open front nine routed in a links style and a back nine that climbed and fell through forested terrain. Doak designed High Pointe in the figurative and literal shadow of The Bear, the much-ballyhooed golf course Jack Nicklaus had built for Grand Traverse Resort in the early 1980’s. "I don’t like to second guess other architects, but The Bear is an artificial golf course. They try to market it as a Scottish-style golf course, but they moved earth to make it look like they thought people thought Scotland looked like," says Doak. "It’s not that I don’t think The Bear is a good golf course, it’s just not my philosophy of golf at all, so when we started High Pointe, a lot of the decisions I made were because I wanted to do something really different from The Bear. The Bear made it that much easier to pinpoint and say, "Let’s not do this and not do that. Let’s not build ponds if we can avoid it. Let’s not build a bunch of mounds. "

High Pointe was well-received and attracted attention for such innovations as use of fescue for fairways and greens — completely different from what was typically done here in the United States. Not long after, Doak was employing a similar contrarian architectural philosophy when he was commissioned to design the Black Forest Golf Course at Wilderness Valley in Gaylord.

"The original course at Wilderness Valley was a simple, 1950’s golf course. When I was hired to add Black Forest there in the late 1980’s, all the new courses in Northern Michigan, such as The Bear and Treetops, made a point in their advertising and marketing of touting how difficult their courses were," Doak explains. "My client at Wilderness Valley, David Smith, said too many people were coming off of the original course saying it was too easy.

"I don’t want to hear that about your course,’ he instructed me. So, whatever Black Forest is, it is not "too easy. "

While designing those early golf courses, Doak, in addition to honing his craft, was honing his business skills, also sometimes in a contrarian fashion. He’d designed the Heathland course for the popular Legends complex in Myrtle Beach, but, while building a second course there, he walked off of the job due to a disagreement with an increasingly hands-on client.

"Once I’m done with my work, the golf courses grow up on their own. The client owns them and a superintendent manages them. They’re living things that grow over time, and they don’t all evolve the same way. Some evolve for the better — some for the worse, some just different," says Doak. "High Pointe was especially difficult for me because it was my first love. I spent two years working on it, so I was very emotionally wrapped up in it, and I didn’t know how to let go. The owners had not been in the golf business before, so they asked my advice about some operational things, but I didn’t know when to stop telling them their business. So, at some point, we had a falling out, and I just had to watch what they were doing and not say anything one way or another."

Doak says he’s on better terms with High Pointe’s owners now that he’s recognized worldwide in the golf architecture business. "Having grown up and matured helps too. I was 26 when we built High Pointe. I’m 45 now. There’s a difference."

Tom Doak Courses Around the World

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