Appeared in May/June 2002 LINKS
“That’s my goal every round I play here,” Tom Doak confesses as he lines up yet another four-foot for par. “Not to three-putt. I don’t think I’ve succeeded yet.”
Doak wears a serene expression on a cloudy October day at Lost Dunes Golf Club in Bridgman, Michigan, a half-mile from Lake Michigan’s gently breaking waves and 15 miles north of the Indiana border. Life at age 40 is plenty bearable when you’re a golf course designer whose star is rapidly on the rise.
Doak’s master work, Pacific Dunes, is already revered more than reviewed, inspiring in its infancy a sort of calm, speechless awe. Doak is unchanged on the surface by the Pacific Dunes phenomenon. But beneath his self-deprecating, low-key manner, one easily detects satisfaction—even vindication.
Lost Dunes is a private club of 150 members, mostly Windy City dwellers. A 70-minute drive from downtown Chicago, Lost Dunes is a realm away from the topographical paradise that Doak embraced at Pacific Dunes. There, the ground had been hand-tooled for ages by wind and salt water. Lost Dunes is built on an abandoned sand mine and split by a trucker’s stretch of I-94.
But that’s what they pay architects. The highway is barely visible or audible. And there are no unsightly remnants of the 250-acre site’s sand-quarry days. What you see, here and there, are foliage-covered dunes, patches of hardwood and catterings of pine. And lots of flat ground that, almost of necessity, spawned one of Doak’s signature course features: large, devilish greens and greenside collection areas.
“Golf isn’t just for guys who can pull off a 240-yard carry from the tee,” says Doak. “I want the short game to be a big part of the experience here. Some 20-handicappers don’t care if they three-putt once in a while from 10 feet over a hump. But the good players—it gets in their minds.”
It wasn’t mean-spiritedness that led Doak to put such bite into the greens. Rather, he wanted variety and challenge for a select membership. The confidence—and that's an understatement—Doak brings to any project was forged during his 1982–83 defining period, when he studied golf design in the British Isles. As a landscape architecture student at Cornell, where Robert Trent Jones Sr. had prepared a golf course design curriculum for himself years earlier, Doak pushed for a postgraduate scholarship that would allow him to gorge on golf design at the game's birthplace. He caddied at St. Andrews and personally visited 172 golf courses in Scotland, Ireland and England.
Then in his 20s, Doak amassed between 5,000 and 10,000 photographs, all personally shot, of courses, a catalog of images that honed Doak’s short-game imagination so vividly displayed at Lost Dunes. “I spend as much time visualizing recovery shots as I do tee shots or approaches,” he says. “I’m thinking about the guys in the trees, or the shot that went 20 yards right.”
Because the course was to be carved from such an unusual plot of ground, Doak understood instantly that Lost Dunes’ green sites would take on special stature. Another piece of Doak’s plan at Lost Dunes was elevation—there was precious little of it on this particular parcel, despite its location amid otherwise hilly, dune-rimmed acreage. Reduced by all the mining to a kind of amphitheater in a wind-protected bowl, the landscape had been left smooth and level by construction equipment. Doak’s analysis: “It was almost dead flat. We needed to jazz things up to make it interesting. At a place like Pacific Dunes you don't need a lot going on. But this place was different.”
Doak, the man who transformed Pacific Dunes’ dramatic seascape into a treasure, is equally gratified to know he could do the same on a nondescript chunk of sand in southwest Michigan.
Year founded: 1999
Architect: Tom Doak