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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