Geeked on Golf


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CREATIVITY WITHIN CONSTRAINTS AT LOST DUNES

A look at the relationship between design constraints and creativity at the Tom Doak designed Lost Dunes Golf Club

Spend any time on GolfClubAtlas or Twitter, and it becomes apparent that many armchair architects live in their own world. It’s a place without limits, where any tree can be cut, budgets are infinite, interpersonal politics don’t exist and government oversight agencies are on permanent holiday. In short, it is fantasyland. The real world in which the designers we revere operate is filled with a variety of constraints—timelines, boundaries, environmental regulations, budgets, client desires, infrastructure needs, player abilities, endangered species, maintenance profile, wetlands, specimen trees, roads and building locations, among others. The most experienced and talented modern architects find a way to create great golf holes and courses within the constraints, rather than taking their ball and going home because they don’t like the rules of the playing field.

Tom Doak has a strong personality and, along with his associates at Renaissance Golf Design, a design portfolio to match. He has also been outspoken about his willingness to walk away from potential jobs if the client, site or circumstances don’t fit his eye. It is therefore understandable that a myth has developed wherein Doak is not susceptible to the same constraints as his contemporaries. Although he is steadfast in his belief in himself, his team and the principles that underlie great courses, he must still deal with reality. Such was the case with the opportunity to create Lost Dunes in southwest Michigan. Rather than be hampered by the numerous constraints of the site, the Renaissance team produced a course as creative and varied as any of their other works.

Finding Lost Dunes

Doak has a book on routing in the works which includes a focus on Lost Dunes. Without giving away the story, he allowed me to pick his brain about the site he was given, and the inherent challenges of laying out the course.

The site of Lost Dunes, before construction

Lost Dunes was built on an old sand quarry. The mining operation left behind large ponds with a unique characteristic. “All the ponds on site are un-lined and the water level varies with the level of Lake Michigan,” explained Doak, “which has gone down and back up more than four feet since we built the course.” Fairways and greens could not be built too close to the water’s edge because the level was and is in a state of constant flux.

To complicate matters further, the original service road and Interstate 94 cut through the property, crossing to subdivide it in conjunction with the lakes. The land presented a complicated routing puzzle for which there was no perfect solution, but also an opportunity for variety. Each of the sections has its own topography and character, which give players the feeling of visiting distinct zones. Lost Dunes has a feeling of adventure.

Water and roads subdivide the Lost Dunes property

The map had a few tricky red lines to deal with, but it was still a sandy site with dunes, so the rest of the job should have been a tap-in, right? Not exactly. “The Michigan Critical Dune Act, written to prevent future companies from mining the sand dunes along Lake Michigan as they’d done prior to building Lost Dunes, actually prevented us from filling up against the steepest slopes on the clubhouse side of the highway,” said Doak. “This had everything to do with how and where #14 tees, 14 fairway, 15 green, and 16 tees and green are built.”

Zooming in from the macro picture revealed another set of environmental challenges to sidestep. “The mining company had dedicated big portions of the site as ‘conservation areas’ when de-commissioning the mine, so there were lots of wetland and wooded areas we couldn’t touch,” recounted Doak. “Even the little ditch and trees to the left of #18 green are a conservation area!” And lest we forget, the flora had a say in the matter as well. “There was a threatened wildflower scattered about the site, which we had to mitigate by creating a separate habitat for it left of #12, because there was no way to work around all the little patches on other holes. The wildflower is listed as threatened in Michigan, because it only grows in that corner of the state, where it’s hottest. They actually told me its native habitat is ‘an abandoned sand quarry’, which makes me wonder where it got its start,” Doak recalled while still scratching his head.

This scenario tends towards the extreme end of the constraint spectrum, but it illustrates the reality faced by modern architects. The redlined map, with mitigation and infrastructure requirements, has to be overcome to create interesting golf. That is exactly what Tom Doak and his team accomplished for the owner and membership of Lost Dunes, and in the process, the argument can be made that the constraints drove creativity down the line.

A Course in Creativity

Constraints aside, the dune and lake setting of Lost Dunes is visually stunning. Doak’s routing does a terrific job of first introducing players to the themes of his design before moving into the more dramatic area of the property.

One-time visitors have been known to criticize the course for being “tricked up”, especially the greens. Those critiques miss the point that the design is not primarily for them. It is for the members, many of whom log dozens of rounds annually over a period of years. For the membership, the course’s holes, features and greens are not tricks at all. They are puzzles to solve in which failed attempts are often just as fun as the successes.

After multiple loops around Lost Dunes, several strong themes emerge. First, there is great variety in the questions posed on the tees of the two and three-shot holes. Angular, straight and shaped driving requirements are all in play for those of us mere mortals who don’t carry the ball 300 yards. Second, the highly creative tee-to-green hazards—bunkers, mounds, wastes, water—are employed to tempt and deceive, rather than to punish. This course is much more Dye than Jones. And finally, the greens do live up to their reputation as evocative. They vary is size, shape and orientation, and the contours throughout reward those who smartly play the positioning game, while rejecting the less strategically-minded. This combination of tee shots, hazards and greens makes every day at Lost Dunes different, and every hole a pleasurable challenge.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

The opener is a short four that provides a great intro to the course. The drive is up to a fairway rise that then turns left and works down to a small contoured green running away. The 2nd is Doak’s fantastic Leven hole, with a huge green fronted left by a sandy mound. Positioning and use of slopes are critical to have a good birdie look. The par-3 3rd has a green set quietly in a corner of the property with contours as loud as they come. The yardage on the card at the par-5 4th has players thinking birdie or better, but misjudged approaches will lead to bogey or worse. The opening stretch concludes with the long, downhill 5th, a one-shotter that demands a confidently struck tee ball in the face of its intimidating look.

The next two par-4s work out and back to conclude the exploration of the section east of I-94. The 6th begins with a tough drive to a fairway with trees left that make the corridor appear narrower than it actually is. The green is equally demanding with pronounced tiers. The 7th turns back, playing up to a wide fairway flanked by bunkers right, and then to an elevated green with more subtle contours.

Players next head back under the Interstate toward the clubhouse. In fairness, holes 8-10 do have green to tee gaps that Doak probably wishes were much shorter. However, knowing what we do about the reality of the constraints, it was a brilliant move to deal with this awkward part of the property in the middle of the round, when the flow of play would be interrupted by the turn anyway.

Looking more closely at the holes in this stretch independent of the routing, they are quite good. The par-5 8th is stout, beginning with a forced carry over water  and ending with a ticklish approach into a tiered green. The one-shot 9th has an angled green set beyond a wetland with the clubhouse as a backdrop. The 10th is a par-5 that can be reached in two if the wind is right, but not without a healthy dose of risk provided by the water around the green.

The next stretch of five holes is one of the best in modern American design, working around the flat shores of the lakes left behind by the miners. Players are afforded jaw-dropping views revealing the scale of the property from the elevated tee boxes while taking on a series of thrilling drives and approaches. These holes are, in a word, outstanding.

The par-4 11th plays uphill to a massive bowl green set in the saddle of a dune. The tee shot on the 12th plays significantly downhill from the top of the dune to the wide fairway below, and then back up to an elevated green. The par-3 13th is reminiscent of the 3rd at Crystal Downs, with its green resting in a hollow at the base of a dune. The bunkerless par-4 14th snakes around the water to a tricky putting surface at grade. And to cap this stretch off, the three shot 15th heads diagonally over water to a heaving fairway and then up to a green benched into the duneside.

A forgettable set of closers would be forgivable, but Lost Dunes brings the round home in style. The par-3 16th plays over the wetland and demands a precisely judged shot from a tee exposed to the wind. Players then head into the woods for the two-shot 17th, culminating in a stellar green with a slope that feeds weak approaches into a front left bunker. The home hole has a wide fairway largely hidden by a set of forebunkers. One final solid approach is required to hit the home green which plays smaller than its footprint.

Would Lost Dunes have been a better course if, like Donald Ross and other Golden Age masters, the crew had been free to fill in wetlands or disregard sensitive flora and fauna? I’m not so sure, even though Tom Doak leans toward suspecting that it would. “A couple of my associates have noted in the past that our designs turn out to be more interesting if we have to work around constraints like these and find a way to make the golf compelling,” he reflected. “I’m not sure that’s the case—negotiating the nature of the red lines on the map is time-consuming and often leads me to feel that the lines are quite arbitrary.”

A group of talented artisans has a certain capacity for creative output on any given project, and the deeply committed are sure to expend that entire capacity, one way or another. When constrained, they will find another avenue for expression. In the case of the compelling tee shots, variety of hazards and complex putting surfaces of Lost Dunes, it is clear that the capacity of Team Doak found its outlets. Regardless of the final conclusion on the relationship of creativity to constraints, Doak makes the bottom line clear, “I am pleased when golfers play the course and aren’t aware of them.”

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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As Good As It Gets – Lost Dunes & The Dunes Club

Last season, I screwed up royally.  I have access to Lost Dunes, the Tom Doak gem in SW Michigan, and I did not go.  Pathetic, I know.

Determined not to make the same mistake twice, I wrangled two Superintendent homies, Scott Vincent (Onwentsia) and Brian Palmer (Shoreacres) for a spring outing.  And since we were in the mood for adventure, we also lined up The Dunes Club (thank you Michael).  If one outstanding course is good, two in a day must be great.

We set off before sunrise, and returned well after sunset.  Everything in between was pure golfy joy.

Scott and I both love to take photos (and Brian calls us a couple of Wangs).  I take a lot of photos in the hope of getting a few good ones.  Scott is a legitimate stud photographer (follow him on Instagram @srvpix), and he has graciously given me some of his photos to add to mine and share.  Before the course photos and commentary, a thought or two about the trip.

As you know from my previous posts, Desert Days and A 1,537 Mile Drive, I do not hesitate to hit the road solo on golf adventure.  I enjoy the solitude of the open road and an empty golf course.  As I grow older in the game, I find it much more satisfying to share these experiences with fellow geeks.  It is invigorating to riff on architecture, travel, music, family, business, and I everything else I find interesting.  It is a blast to celebrate the good shots and rib each other for the clunkers.  It fills me with gratitude to spend time in the company of kindred spirits.

Scott and Brian are genuinely good dudes and they are certainly kindred geek spirits.  Their company was a gift, and made what would have been a good day into one that is as good as it gets.

Now, Lost Dunes and The Dunes Club.


LOST DUNES

Tom Doak rightly gets accolades for Pacific Dunes and his subsequent courses.  Lost Dunes may be under the radar for the masses, but folks who have played it repeatedly appreciate it at multiple levels.  I count myself among those who consider it among my favorites in modern architecture.  It is creative, beautiful, strategic and challenging.  From the first tee until the 18th green, there is no point at which a player can afford to take a mental holiday.

The club straddles I-94, and always tugs at my heart strings when I drive back and forth from Northern Michigan.  Every time my itinerary involves stopping for a play, my love of Lost Dunes is renewed.

Lost Dunes Aerial.png

(click on images to enlarge)

#1 – Par 4

Lost Dunes opens with a short 4 playing over the entry road from the tee.  After hitting the green, the player gets a taste of what’s to come – a green with contours that produces 3-putts like the spring Canadian geese produce, well, you know…

LostDunes1-Greenabove.JPG

#2 – Par 4

This hole is my favorite on the outward nine, and illustrates the principles of strategic golf at its best.  Taking on the right side bunker from the tee yields the best position from which to go for a left pin.  The safer route down the left leaves the player with the option of playing short, on, or long of the green in two.

Every position presents its own challenges in getting down in two.  Par is a good score on this hole, which requires both thought and execution.

LostDunes2-Greenback.JPG

#3 – Par 3

LostDunes3-Greenback.JPG

#4 – Par 5

The first 5-par offers the player a multitude of routes to take on the drive, second, and approach.  There is no “right” way to play the hole, but it does require confidence to score.

#5 – Par 3

The second par-3 at Lost Dunes is just plain hard.  The wind whips across this exposed section of the property making hitting the green from 225-245 a feat.

LostDunes5-Teezoom.jpg

The left side mound can be used by the creative shot-maker, and provides ground-game excitement as a reward.

LostDunes5-Greenleft.jpg

#6 – Par 4

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#7 – Par 4

#8 – Par 5

Lost Dunes offers numerous thrills, not the least of which is the tee shot to the angled fairway on the par-5 8th.

LostDunes8-Tee.JPG

The corridor narrows on this 600+ yard brute as the green is approached.

#9 – Par 3

LostDunes9-Shortright.JPG

#10 – Par 5

The back nine begins with the reachable par-5 tenth, which gives the player a first encounter with the large lake around which many of the best holes on the course play.

#11 – Par 4

The uphill 11th is my favorite hole on the course, and begins one of my favorite stretches of holes (#11 – #15) in all of golf.

LostDunes11-Tee.JPG

The green is brilliantly seated in a natural hollow in the dunes and is guarded by an enormous bunker short right.

#12 – Par 4

With a new tee higher up on the large dune that separates Lost Dunes from the highway, the tee shot on the par-4 12th is even more exciting.  Imagine a well struck shot rising against a blue sky and then gently falling to the fairway below.

LostDunes12-JWTee-SV.jpg

(photo by Scott Vincent)

This 390-yard hole packs plenty of challenge from tee to green.

#13 – Par 3

The setting and design of this par-3 bring to mind the 3rd at Crystal Downs, a source of inspiration for Tom Doak, and many other architects.

#14 – Par 4

The 14th features another one of Lost Dunes’s gorgeous, thrilling tee shots.

LostDunes14-Teezoom.JPG

This bunkerless hole lays upon the land and winds around the lake so beautifully, additional hazards are simply not necessary.

#15 – Par 5

Once again, Lost Dunes gives the player the option to decide how much risk they want to bite off.

LostDunes15-TeeBridge-SV.jpg

(photo by Scott Vincent)

The closer to the target line of the distant dune one plays, the greater the chance of getting home in two.

LostDunes15-TeeGrass-SV.jpg

(photo by Scott Vincent)

This roller coaster par-5 plays down and then back up hill to a well-defended green.

#16 – Par 3

LostDunes16-Greenback.JPG

#17 – Par 4

Walking off the 16th green, the player re-enters the more wooded area of the property for the final stretch.

LostDunes17-Tee.jpg

Approach shots must be hit precisely into this green if they are to avoid the nasty bunker left.

#18 – Par 4

LostDunes18-Approach.JPG

The walk up the fairway of the par-4 18th toward the clubhouse elicits mixed feelings – joy for the wonderful golf experience, relief at surviving the challenge, sadness that it must come to an end.   Like all great architecture, Lost Dunes is evocative, and it leaves you wanting more.


THE DUNES CLUB

As Lost Dunes tests all facets of a player’s game, the Dunes Club is also a test.  It tests one’s ability to throw off the conventions of modern, American golf and reconnect with the pure joy that originally hooked each of us.  This private playground of the Keiser family and their fellow members could not be more graciously inviting, laid back, and fun.

It has been my good fortune to visit the Dunes Club for three straight years, and every time I return, it blows my mind.  Under the stewardship of the Keisers and consultation by Jim Urbina, the course continues to evolve for the better.  Proactive tree management and brush clearing have allowed more air flow and sunlight, which Superintendent Scott Goniwiecha has parlayed into ideal playing conditions for firm, fast, and fun golf.  Cleared areas are now being converted into artful sandy wastes featuring fescue and native vegetation.

It would be reasonable to say that the Dunes Club could not get any better, but the trend of the last several years indicates otherwise.

 

TheDunesClub-AerialJWSketch.jpeg

There are no tee markers at the Dunes Cub, and each hole has multiple teeing areas, often at drastically different angles.  Holes can be shortened or lengthened as players see fit.  Throw in contours, ground features, and hazards that encourage creative shot-making, and the only limitations to variety that exist at the Dunes Club are those in the players’ minds.

#1 – Par 4

The par-4 first illustrates the benefits of tree and brush clearing.  Width of the playing corridor off the tee has been restored, opening up different lines of play.  The hole is no less stout of an opener though.

DunesClub1-Approach

The first also gives an indication of the creativity of the bunkering and sandy waste areas throughout the course.  They are as beautiful as they are challenging.

DunesClub1-Greenback

#2 – Par 3

With two teeing areas at significantly different angles to the green, the second embodies variety.

#3 – Par 5

The third is separated into three islands, first by grassy mounding and then by a low waste area.  Only the longest hitters can reach in two – more often, it requires three precisely placed shots.  From the forward tees, it can also be played as a solid two-shotter with a fun tee shot to the center fairway section.

The area short of the green features a style of fescue clumping that is at once rugged and artistic.

DunesClub3-Approach-SV.jpg

#4 – Par 4

The fourth has always been my favorite hole on the course.  The dogleg left par-4 plays to a fairway sloped downward from left to right.  It requires a tee shot with a draw, or an extremely confident line down the left to get in the best position for the approach.

DunesClub4-Tee-SV.png

(photo by Scott Vincent)

The second shot is best played with a fade to access all pins, or the player can use the contours short and left to feed a running shot onto the green.

#5 – Par 4

DunesClub5-Greenshort.jpg

The only water hole on the course, the fifth features a beautifully sited green surrounded by wonderful contours.

DunesClub5-Greenback.JPG

#6 – Par 3

The short 6th takes variety to another level with teeing areas at numerous lengths and angles.

DunesClub6-LeftTee-SV.jpg

(Photo by Scott Vincent)

Recent rework to the green has also made it more playable.  Good shots are well received, and the green surrounds punish poor shots.

#7 – Par 4

The seventh is in the midst of one of the most dramatic transformations.  It is still a work in progress and I cannot wait to see how it turns out.

DunesClub7-Leftside.JPG

This bunker complex that borders the left side of the fairway is one of the coolest that I have ever seen.

#8 – Par 5

The wild par-5 eight has elicited a love-hate relationship among players.  Ongoing tree work has returned options to the hole and made it more a test of strategy than just accuracy.

DunesClub8-Fairwaybunker-SV.jpg

(Photo by Scott Vincent)

The tee shot can be laid up short of the waste area.  Or for the bold, a route left into the 5th fairway shortens the hole and makes reaching in two a possibility.

Big and bold – there is nothing subtle about the 8th green complex.  This hole does not yield birdies easily.

DunesClub8-ShortRight-SV.jpg

(Photo by Scott Vincent)

#9 – Par 4

This tough but fun, uphill par-4 can play anywhere from 425+ yards to 275.  Factor in wind and change of elevation and this relatively simple hole is packed with variety.

DunesClub9-ShortLeft.JPG

An argument could be made that this bunker guarding the center of the green has become a bit out of style with the rest of the course as it has evolved, but I like it.  It is a throwback to the course’s roots, and taking it on adds one last thrilling exclamation point to each loop around the Dunes.

DunesClub9-Bunkershort.JPG

We played 22 total holes on this particular day, which meant that we got three cracks at the ninth.  We played it from the back tees the first time, and then the forward tees on the second and third.  Old Man Way, as I am affectionately known, delivered in fine fashion by driving the green twice in a row.  As we high-fived and laughed at the mild absurdity of it, I felt like a kid again.

That, to me, is what golf does at its best.  For short periods, it makes the world melt away and leaves only the joyful present moment.  Great golf courses naturally produce those moments, and at that level, there is no greater course of which I am aware than the Dunes Club.


MORE GEEKEDONGOLF ADVENTURES

 

 

 

Copyright 2016 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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A Doaky Season

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.”


COMMONGROUND

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.


APACHE STRONGHOLD

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.


IN CONCLUSION

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.”


EPILOGUE

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