My season started with Streamsong Blue and will hopefully include a fall stop at Lost Dunes. Those courses have received considerable attention, for good reason. This season, through happenstance, I have been lucky enough to play 4 of Tom’s perhaps lesser-known courses – Black Forest, The Rawls Course, CommonGround, and Apache Stronghold. I thought it might be interesting to highlight, compare and contrast those courses here.
Tom has been gracious enough to add some commentary – a great complement to my novice perspective.
(Note: Click on any image set to open a slide show.)
BLACK FOREST AT WILDERNESS VALLEY
While up in Michigan in July, I made the trek over to Mr. Doak’s Black Forest course at Wilderness Valley. Sharing a few thoughts and some photos of this gem from Tom’s early portfolio seems particularly worthwhile because, given the competition and contraction in the industry, who knows what the future holds for some of these courses (e.g. High Pointe)?
At the time the course opened, here is what Tom had to say (according to the course website):
- “And then we came back to Black Forest…and started to build bunkers in the same style. That doesn’t seem too radical of an idea today because lots of architects are now building in the same style of bunkers, but in 1990 they weren’t and it got the course a fair amount of attention.”
- “The tilt and contour of our greens reward the player who is hitting his approach from a particular side of the fairway. There are also good and bad spots to miss every approach shot, depending on the hole location, so the player who knows the course can hedge to one side of the hole for safety, and the player who aims right at the flag will sometimes take his lumps.”
- “The very difficult stretch of starting holes needs to be accepted for what it is. Even a good player is likely to be a couple over par in the first five holes. But as long as he doesn’t let it bother him, there are a lot of potential birdie holes to make up for it later on.
A few of my observations:
- The course meanders over rolling hills through the forest. It truly feels wild and remote, which makes it easy to get lost in your round. I have played a few courses in hilly N. MI with goofy holes that misuse the hills and therefore create goofy shots. Not so with Black Forest. The routing is brilliant. It’s a tough walk, but well worth the effort.
- 6 of the 9 par 4s play under 400 yards from the Blue (regular) tees. If you like short 4s, this is your course. They are great fun and challenge to play.
- The closing stretch of holes is awesome with #16 and #17 working their way around a lake, and then the par 5 18th playing uphill through gorgeous bunkering to an outstanding green. These holes made me feel like I was at Lost Dunes (which I adore). In fact, setting aside the conditioning, the quality of setting and design of Black Forest is more than worthy of being in the same conversation with Lost Dunes.
- Through the green features bold bunkering. Playing Tom’s more recent work, (e.g. Streamsong Blue), I get the sense that I am experiencing the work of a team that has a specific creative voice and knows exactly what it wants to accomplish. Black Forest is different. There is almost a feel of a creative team cutting their teeth and working out their style right there in front of you. It’s really neat.
- The green surrounds are packed with humps, bumps, mounds, slopes and every kind of bunker you would want to see. And the greens themselves are a cornucopia of sizes, shapes, angles, and contours. #12 green is not just one of my favorite Doak greens, it is one of the coolest greens I have ever seen by any architect.
- Conditioning is a bit rugged, but the conditions do not obscure the architecture. If you are going to head to Forest Dunes to play the TW course, or Tom’s reversible course next year, I highly recommend adding Black Forest to your itinerary. Tough to beat a dose of early Doak in a beautiful setting for $25 (walking).
Final thoughts from Tom on Black Forest, specifically on the terrain and trees:
“Black Forest is cut out of the thickest forest I have ever looked at building a course in. Most of the clearings are about sixty yards wide, but the trees at the borders are so thick that it’s still tough; when you hit a ball into the woods, it’s hard to get out. #10 is the narrowest hole, it was a short par-5 and I wanted players to think twice about trying to overpower the tee shot.
There would potentially be some great views across the course if you could cut the trees off the ridges at holes 2 and 7 and 8, but if we’d started on that 25 years ago, there might still be someone working on it now!”
THE RAWLS COURSE
I had a family event down in Lubbock, so I snuck away on a steamy Saturday afternoon to take in The Rawls Course at Texas Tech.
I joined three locals/regulars and they shared with me that the site had previously been a University cotton crop test field, before the golf course opened in 2003. Given the surroundings, that is no surprise. Most of Lubbock is suburban sprawl on top of farm and ranch land that is as flat as a pool table. But stepping onto the 1st tee at Rawls is like stepping into a different world. What Tom’s team created looks natural and like it has been there forever. It is a beautiful, undulating oasis, with a large ravine snaking through the middle and a large lake around which some of the back nine holes play.
It’s dry and windy in West Texas, and so Rawls plays firm, fast and fun over those humps, bumps, and hills. I asked my partners if it was a windy day for them (it was for me) and they said, “It’s not windy if the flags aren’t bent over to the ground.” I love golf in those conditions. Creative shot-making is at a premium.
A few more thoughts:
- The variety of the bunkering on the course is outstanding, as you will see from the photos. I’m not sure which of Tom’s associates did the shaping, but they sure exercised their creative license with it.
- If you like run-offs and chipping areas, you will love Rawls. Quite a few of the greens have large run-off areas, which can’t always be seen when approaching the green. It is not uncommon to think you have missed the green by a few feet, and find your ball 30-50 feet from the green.
- The par 5s are great fun. The 2 on the front nine are attackable for birdie, the 2 on the back nine require a more measured, plotting approach.
- The closing 3 holes on both nines are stout. The back nine closes with a 240-yard redan par 3, and 2 consecutive par 5s that measure more than 1200 yards combined.
- This course makes you not only hit every club in the bag, but every shot in the bag.
I would not want to play the back tees every day like I did that day, but I could easily see myself happily playing this course repeatedly from the regular tees. With the wind whipping around, it would never get old.
Brief thoughts from Tom:
“I was interested to see what our $1 million landscaping plan has produced after +/- 12 years. It looks like the nursery trees still tend to stand out as individuals, instead of receding into a mass. And that’s the first I’ve seen of the clubhouse! They didn’t go small, did they?
The client did not want it to be flat anymore. And, since it wasn’t sandy, we had to make everything surface drain to somewhere.”
I caught a break and was able to sneak out for an evening at CommonGround when a thunderstorm quickly passed through the area east of Denver. Before getting to the architecture and photos, a few words about the facility.
As someone who is working on renovating a community golf facility along unconventional lines to attract more players, CommonGround is an inspiration. It is located in a solidly working-class area of Aurora, adjacent to a reservoir. I’m not sure about what the property used to be (perhaps Tom can comment), but it is now an outstanding 18-hole course, plus a par-3 course, driving range, putting greens and a short game area. There also seemed to be an element of wildlife habitat preservation. To me, it is everything that is right about the game in terms of fun, flexibility, and accessibility, without sacrificing quality.
On site, there is also a caddie academy and the commitment to youth golf is evident. The course is playable for beginners, and tough enough to host competitive events, such as being a companion site for the recent US Am at Cherry Hills. CommonGround is clear about its mission, and there is messaging everywhere that reinforces that commitment.
And oh, by the way, as soon as the sun came out, it was packed on a Monday evening.
I was blown away.
It is a relatively flat, wide open space, and it plays open. The fairways are wide and filled with gentle undulation. The day I was there, the course was soft, but I suspect that it is a blast to play in firmer conditions. In firmer conditions, the hazards would be more in play, which would increase the thrill of successfully navigating them.
Those who like to hit driver would love this course. There are almost always options from the tee for for an aggressive driver play or a more conservative play.
I cannot say enough about the five par 3s. They are my third favorite set of all time (behind Camargo and Crystal Downs). Variety of lengths and directions, truly creative features, awesome greens. I wonder if the average player at CommonGround has any idea just how all-world those holes are.
Throughout the course, there are bold features that bring to mind Langford and Raynor. Grassy hummocks, a wide variety of creative bunkers, and bold greens. I felt like I was walking through a greatest hits demonstration of the knowledge and talent that Tom and his team possess.
Bottom line, if you are ever in the Denver area, get out to this course.
The final stop on this little tour is Apache Stronghold. I played the course in the late afternoon, finishing the 18th in the dark, and unfortunately many of my photos did not come out.
As a part of my commitment to try and get people who work in the golf business to actually play golf, I managed to wrangle Dave Zinkand to come with me. As we walked, he was kind enough to share some of his thoughts about this special course:
- Apache Stronghold has wonderful contours, washes and gullies that wander through the fairways. Dave pointed out that by routing the holes such that those features are often at an angle to the tee, Tom created interest. The player can decide how much of the carry they want to take on, and they get the thrill of pulling off the carry on their selected line. An architect does not always need to use bunkers or hazards to create that challenge and fun. A ripple or ridge in the ground creates the same effect.
- Dave pointed out the interesting slopes and mounds of the green surrounds. He was particularly interested in the close proximity to the greens of some of the high-side slopes. A bold design choice that makes for interesting approach and short-game shots.
- We also discussed internal green contours at length, and Apache Stronghold has great ones shaped by Kye Goalby and the Renaissance team. Dave noted that a bold contour that might seem over-the-top on first playing can often provide more options to pull off a brilliant shot once the player learns to use that feature to his advantage.
- And finally, Dave put into words what I felt makes Apache Stronghold unique. It is routed in such a way that the holes feel very intimate and engaging. And yet, every so often, when ascending to a tee or green complex, the course reveals a vista that reminds one of the awe-inspiring expanse of the land on which the course is built. It is a choreographed walk that creates pure magic.
A note about the conditioning. From tee to green it was a bit rugged. The greens putted just fine, although structural issues were evident on some. The bunkers were in good shape – better than when Jim visited. I must admit, I liked the roughness of the tee to green conditions. Those conditions enhance the “found” feeling of the course and are a stark contrast to highly manicured golf that one often finds in AZ. This is obviously a taste thing, but I really enjoyed it.
I am grateful that I got to experience these courses, and the outstanding work that Tom and his colleagues have produced over the years. I have both a better understanding and a better appreciation of what makes it great. As is the case with Mackenzie, there is a blending of artistic flair with the natural surroundings that is awe inspiring to me.
Ranking the courses by individual elements:
- Best routing – Black Forest
- Best features – CommonGround
- Best setting – Apache Stronghold
- Most creative – Rawls Course
- Best par 3s – CommonGround
- Best short 4s – Black Forest
- Best 4s – Apache Stronghold
- Best 5s – Rawls Course
Breaking the courses down in this way illustrated to me the range and dynamism of Tom and his colleagues.
I am also grateful that I made the effort to visit these places. There is something to be said for adventuring a bit farther afield for golf adventure. If I hadn’t done so, I would have missed out on experiencing the wind whipping across the sun drenched fairways of Rawls, the peace of an early morning at Black Forest, the community spirit of CommonGround, and the late afternoon shadows in the valleys of Apache Stronghold. Those are special gifts.
More thoughts from Tom:
“So much of the discussion about our work is whether new course x or y is going to be the next big thing, but not many new projects really start out with the potential to be in the top 100, and that doesn’t mean the rest need to be dismissed.
Three of these projects [all except Black Forest] were built with the main goal of becoming an asset to the community above and beyond golf. Certainly that’s been followed through at CommonGround with their amazing junior programs; but it was also Jerry Rawls’ goal in donating money for the golf course to Texas Tech. He had attended both Texas Tech and Purdue, and when he was a grad student at Purdue, some of the alums he met while playing golf helped him to see his future more clearly and understand the business side of his engineering work … so he wanted to create the same opportunities for students at Texas Tech.”
I took a stab at comparing and contrasting these courses, which span 20 years of work for Tom and his team, and shared my thoughts with Tom. He took the time to respond, point by point. That exchange follows:
JW – Strategy from the tee seems to have evolved to create more options in terms of line and distance. The example that pops into my my mind of the most dynamic end of the spectrum is #8 at CommonGround. I can think of 5 different spots to place the drive based on hazards, and pin placement. This is far more nuanced and interesting than a simple matter of picking one side of the fairway or the other.
TD – “I think you could find 3 or 4 options from the tee on #6 at Apache Stronghold, or for that matter 3 options on #13 at Black Forest. [Obviously, Black Forest was more restricted by the fact it was cut from a forest.] Interesting that you chose #8 at CommonGround, though, because that’s probably the single hole I worked on the most. I tried to leave more of that course to my associates [Eric Iverson, Don Placek, and Jim Urbina] since all three had ties to the Denver area, and since that was inherent in our fee arrangement. [The reason you like the variety of the par-3’s so much is that three different guys designed them!] However, #8 was the plainest hole on the course, and we wrestled for a long time on what to do with it, placing and moving and removing pieces in the fairway over two or three different trips from me. I was really pleased how it turned out in the end … no one would pick it as the worst hole now.”
JW – Bunkering has gone from what seemed like experimentation with style, to confidently expressing style and creativity. It is somewhere between hard and impossible to find a bunker at Rawls that is not really cool and creative.
TD – “Part of this is personnel, and part of it is a change of equipment. The guys who shaped the bunkers on each project were Gil Hanse [mostly] and Mike DeVries [a little bit] at Black Forest; Randy Ray and Jim Urbina and Kye Goalby at Apache Stronghold; Eric Iverson and Brian Slawnik at The Rawls Course; and Eric and Jim and Brian and Jonathan Reisetter at CommonGround. It was at Pacific Dunes [in between Apache and The Rawls Course] that we started using trackhoes rather than bulldozers to shape the bunkers, and there is a lot more ability to do polished shaping with the trackhoe.
My philosophy on bunkers HAS changed over the years, and may come full circle yet. In the early days I was experimenting with styles — Black Forest was a conscious effort to try to build the sort of bunkers that MacKenzie and George Thomas did. But in general, I wanted my courses to be more about contour than about bunkering. At Apache Stronghold I wanted as few formal bunkers as possible, and we tried to make them look as if they were part of the natural washes [which are also in play on many holes]. The Rawls and CommonGround bunkers are both a bit different in style from what we typically do today — The Rawls bunkers are narrow to try to mimic erosion and to minimize wind erosion, while CommonGround’s are an attempt to produce a more old-fashioned look with less sand flashed — but they are also the work of highly-practiced bunker shapers who spent a lot of time on them with superior equipment.”
JW – Green sizes seem to have increased across the board. I don’t know what the technical square feet cutoffs are among small, medium, and large greens, but I do know that I was struck by how small some of the greens were at Black Forest (starting with the 1st). The greens at Rawls Course and CommonGround just seemed generally larger.
TD – “This is true, our green size has started to creep larger and larger over time, though I am constantly reminding the guys to cut them back. Budget has something to do with it — our greens are always smaller when the owner is on a tight budget, as more of our early clients were. Black Forest was certainly influenced by the size of the greens at Crystal Downs, and I don’t get over there as often now as I did in 1991. Also, some of the early greens I shaped at High Pointe and Black Forest had some hole locations that were crammed too close to the edges, so you could barely use them; if I see that we might do that again nowadays, I’ll just have them make the green a bit bigger to fix it.”
JW – Creativity and mastery seems to have gradually extended back from the greens and surrounds all the way back to the tee. There are hints of this attention to detail in the way that the fairways at Apache Stronghold blend into their surroundings. Rawls Course and CommonGround were at a whole different level. I felt like every square foot of those courses got equal attention to detail.
TD – “This is the influence of all the guys who work with me today, but especially Brian Slawnik, who I think they would all agree is first among equals at finish work. Behind the scenes, the Renaissance Cup at Apache Stronghold was partly a come-to-Jesus meeting for my crew about doing higher-quality finish work [Bill Coore was there and had something to say about it, too] and ever since then our standard of finish work has been through the roof high. Sometimes, I feel like it’s almost TOO high — there needs to be a certain element of scruffiness and randomness if the course is going to feel natural, and Ran Morrissett as well as Jim Urbina have always reminded me of that side — but there’s no question that the respect for our work increased considerably after we started to put in the extra effort on the finish side.”
Hope you enjoyed this Doaky season of mine. If I’m lucky, I’ll check Ballyneal and Dismal River off the list in 2016. Here’s to geeky golf adventure!
Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf