Anyone who has played golf in Northern Michigan knows how truly special it is. Not only is it home to one of the greatest golf courses in the world – Crystal Downs – it is also home to some of the best golf course architects working today. Mike DeVries is one of those GCAs.
As evidenced by my previous post on the Kingsley Club, my love of Mike’s work is no secret. After playing the first hole at Kingsley the first time, I knew I wanted to play the course over and over again. My desire is just as great to play the rest of Mike’s courses, in Michigan and beyond.
That bucket list golf will remain on the list for now. In the meantime though, enjoy the following interview with Mike, with gorgeous accompanying photos by Larry Lambrecht (note: click any photo to open slide show).
How did you get into the business?
I grew up learning the game from my grandfather and then working in the pro shop at Crystal Downs when I was 14. At 16, I worked in the pro shop on weekends and on the grounds crew during the week. Tom Mead became the Superintendent when I was 17 and wanted me full time on the grounds crew, so I did that through college. After my undergrad, I worked for Herman’s Sporting Goods and figured out their mission and mine were not the same. I was getting married in Frankfort and went back to the grounds crew at the Downs prior to the wedding, and in that time figured out I always came back to golf. Tom Doak was finishing up High Pointe (sorry to see that wonderful course gone) and I met him and talked about my goals and desire to work in golf design and construction. After helping them to finish High Pointe, I worked with Tom for 2.5-3 years on the Legends – Heathland GC in Myrtle Beach and then the Black Forest in Gaylord, MI.
What do you admire the most about Crystal Downs?
Of course, the Downs is very personal for me, but the whole place is magical and has so many wonderful attributes about it. The rhythm and flow of the routing across the landscape, melding all these different, yet similar, landforms and vistas into one cohesive masterpiece is probably what I reflect on the most after thousands of days on the property.
Who has influenced you the most in your work, both within and outside of golf?
Family, parents and grandparents, instilled in me a strong work ethic and desire to always do the best I can. Certainly, my maternal grandfather taught me about golf and the respect for the game and the land. In the business, Fred Muller taught me about the game and playing (still does) and Tom Mead was the first big influence on understanding agronomy and the care of a golf course – the two, combined with the Downs as a canvas, gave me a great understanding of what GREAT golf is about. Tom Doak gave me the opportunity to learn in the dirt with him and we constantly talked about what this change or that change would do to the feature and golf course as a whole every day – that working style still impacts my methods today. Tom Fazio and his associates gave me a thorough education in the design and construction of high end projects and showed me their desire to always give their clients the best of everything. I have been fortunate to have had numerous, wonderful owners that have allowed me to try new things and push the envelope on projects. Dan Lucas and Joe Hancock continue to teach me about agronomy. Of the great architects, MacKenzie stands above all others due to my lifelong study of the Downs but Ross, Tillie, MacDonald, Raynor, Colt, Flynn, etc. all influence me to look at the ground we are working on. I like to see all kinds of different golf courses by different designers. Of the modern designers, I most like to see the works of Pete Dye, Doak, Coore & Crenshaw, and Gil Hanse, as they are always trying something and it is fun to try to figure out what they were trying to do here and there.
Describe your process for a design project.
First of all, you have to consider what the client is really asking you to do and make sure that is taken care of. But, if you are talking about an open-ended look at the design process, then figuring out the routing of the course is the most critical and important aspect to me. Without a good routing, even excellent holes and features can get lost in the process and then the course loses focus. With a great routing, the course has a chance to be something really special every time you play it (assuming you get the details of the greens, bunkers, etc. correct!).
Is there a particular element of a golf hole that you like working on the most?
Each and every element of a course is inter-related to the other features of the course, and especially those that are adjacent to them. I really like building the green complex, not just the putting surface, because it is the focus and culmination of a hole and what dictates the strategy a golfer takes as he stands on the tee. With a great green complex, the hole has a chance to be something really intriguing every time a golfer steps on the tee. But, importantly, the golf hole must be considered in relation to the other holes and features on the course and how this hole connects with the previous and following holes to create a flow that is invigorating and fun to play every day.
GREYWALLS (photos by Larry Lambrecht)
What should every Greens Committee member study/learn before undertaking course improvement initiatives?
There are certainly some good books on the subject [MacKenzie’s Golf Architecture, Thomas’ Golf Architecture in America, Macdonald’s Scotland’s Gift – Golf, and numerous modern texts that summarize the classics listed (Geoff Shackelford has done this many times)]. But, they must listen to their design consultant and Superintendent, understanding that they, as lay people, do not have the training or experience to really make decisions on golf design elements and features. They need to listen, ask questions, and provide input to the process but not direct it.
What are the primary challenges you consistently face in trying to deliver results that are up to your standards?
You often have decision-makers who cannot look beyond their own game with regard to features and playability. Everyone has biases and prejudices, even designers, myself included, but those have to be put aside to make the best decision for the most players on an everyday basis. I have not had the opportunity to design a course primarily for a championship venue, and those are rare indeed, so course design must be much more inclusive in its strategy and execution, not just for the low-handicap golfer.
How do you know when you have hit the sweet spot in your work?
When people tell me they keep seeing new things on the course every time they play it. Personally, it is often something you feel creep into the finished product, not something that is always there at the beginning or planned.
THE MINES (photos by Larry Lambrecht)
When you finish a big project like Cape Wickham, do you need a little down time, or do you like to jump right in to the next project?
A very hard part of the job is trying to line up projects with a nice, even spacing. It just doesn’t usually work out that way. So, as much as you try to have one follow directly behind the current one, you work at new projects in pieces while completing one but often, there is time necessary to line up parts of the next project. Busy is a good problem to have, so if we are ready to go, then we get right to it – definitely better than the alternative!
What are some of your takeaways from your time in Tasmania?
First of all, it was an incredible experience for my entire family, since they were there with me for 6 months (well, only 2 for my daughter, as she had to go back to college). The chance to go to another part of the world for an extended period of time is really an amazing and wonderful chance that few get to do in their lifetime and that is something that we frequently talk about as a family. We made lots of friends and really loved our time there.
From a work standpoint, Cape Wickham is the most incredible site I have ever seen for a golf course and it is an honor to have been given the opportunity to work on it. It was also very challenging working on an island, where supplies and equipment are not easy to acquire or fix, so you have to be very creative in how you approach things and use all the good ideas of locals who know the conditions. It is a very resourceful place and the conditions were very challenging at times, so perseverance and a dedication by all those involved in the project was really what made it successful.
CAPE WICKHAM (photos by Larry Lambrecht)
What do you love most about practicing your craft?
Being in the dirt and shaping features, feeling the ground beneath you, and then sitting back at the end of a long day looking at what everyone accomplished (hopefully with a cold beer in hand!).
How did you land the job designing the Kingsley Club?
Fred Muller introduced me to Ed Walker, a Traverse City businessman and the managing partner of the project. Ed had found the property where the club is and he and Art Preston, his partner in the club, wanted to build a great course that could compare with the great courses in the country. They had this land but weren’t sure if it would be good enough to satisfy their desire for a great course and that’s when they hired me. I worked on the routing for several months and we discussed the merits of the project to make sure they were comfortable with the potential result – if it wasn’t going to meet their expectations, then we wouldn’t do it. Ultimately, everyone was on board with the course, club concept, and we got started.
What one word would you use to describe the courses you design, and why?
Reactionary. They are the result of my reacting to what is in the land and creating a unique and fun golf course out of that ground.
KINGSLEY CLUB (photos by Larry Lambrecht)
If you could only play one course for the rest of your life, what would it be, and why?
Crystal Downs is home and so personal to me, so that is the easy answer. Picking one of my own designs is like picking your favorite child and not really fair, but I might have to go with Cape Wickham, since it is so far away and I haven’t had enough plays on it yet, plus it is such an amazingly beautiful location, with such diverse climatic variances, that it is endlessly exciting and would be a candidate.
What are the top 3 courses next on your list to play for the first time?
Royal County Down – it is disgraceful that I haven’t made it there yet . . . gotta find the time to do so, as I am certain this is one place that will not disappoint.
Cape Breton Highlands – I have been wanting to get there for some time. So, since I am in that vicinity, I will have to check out Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links, too!
Jasper and Banff – like Cape Breton, these are hard to get to, but they are excellent courses from all I have heard and prime examples of Stanley Thompson’s work, of which I am a big fan.
Why do you like to play with hickories?
Each club has a personality of its own and therefore you develop relationships with each club that highlights its strengths and weaknesses, forcing the golfer to find a way to make his shot. When you execute what you are trying to do, with something not nearly as adequate as modern clubs, it is a great feeling of accomplishment. You can play very good golf with them but it is like when you were learning the game as a kid and couldn’t count on every shot being well struck. Also, hickory players have an appreciation for the history of the sport and its implements (they are gorgeous pieces of art to look at as well as play with) and show that enthusiasm through their spirit for the game.
When you are not playing golf or building golf courses, what are you doing?
Spending time with family and friends doing all the usual things, like card games, going to school functions, odd jobs around the house, skiing or sledding in the winter, etc.
What reaction have you experienced from your appearance on Architects Week?
All very positive about my comments and nice to see me on the show. Of course, the architecture fans want more time from the networks on golf architecture and I agree with them!
Any interesting or challenging projects in process or on the horizon for you?
Lots of consulting work with older clubs in the States, particularly in the NY Met area at this time – Siwanoy CC is complete and Sunningdale CC has one more big phase in the fall or 2016. Some other things are in the works but not confirmed for construction just yet, so you will have to wait on those.
Thanks for having me on Geeked on Golf!
Additional Geeked On Golf Interviews:
- Ian Andrew – Golf Course Architect
- Michael Clayton – Golf Course Architect
- Rob Collins – Golf Course Architect
- Brett Hochstein – Golf Course Architect
- Jeff Mingay – Golf Course Architect
- David McLay Kidd – Golf Course Architect
- Jim Nagle – Golf Course Architect
- Brian Palmer – Golf Course Superintendent
- Keith Rhebb – Golf Course Shaper
- Drew Rogers – Golf Course Architect
- Evan Schiller – Golf Course Photographer
- Andy Staples – Golf Course Architect
- Dave Zinkand – Golf Course Architect
Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf