World-class golf course designers tee off from TC

TRAVERSE CITY – Being a world-class golf course designer doesn't mean you have to live half way around the world.

Traverse City works just fine, thank you.

That's the feeling of two designers – Mike DeVries and Tom Doak – who go head-to-head against the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer to win the right to design courses all over the country.

While DeVries and Doak will be the first to admit they can't compete against legends like Nicklaus, Player and Palmer on the links, they more than hold their own when it comes to competing against them in terms of designing courses.

"Even though we design courses all over the country, living in Traverse City works well for us," said DeVries, who owns DeVries Designs, Inc. and has designed courses from coast to coast.

"When we need to travel, we hop on a plane out of Cherry Capital Airport and then head to either Detroit, Chicago or Minneapolis. In many cases, we can leave Traverse City early in the morning and be on site by noon."

Doak, who owns Renaissance Golf Design, Inc., fell in love with northern Michigan almost instantly.

"I went to college at Cornell and one of the great designers, Alister Mackenzie, did Crystal Downs near Frankfort," he said. "So I wrote to Crystal's head pro Fred Muller about wanting to come and visit the course. I instantly fell in love with the design of the course and then this area. I could play Crystal Downs every day and never get bored. And Fred and I have been friends ever since."

Outside of Michigan, DeVries is currently doing long-range planning for country clubs in Scarsdale and Bronxville, both in New York, and he continues to consult other clubs in San Francisco and Winnipeg, Manitoba. He's also looking into potential projects in the Caribbean, Vietnam, China and eastern Europe. Doak has projects in Deer Lodge, Montana, Baja California, Mexico and in Gullane, Scotland.

But while both men have done international and national work, they take pride in local courses they designed.

DeVries did The Kingsley Club, which opened for play in May, 2001. It's a private course that is ranked 56th in Golfweek magazine's list of America's Best Modern golf courses.

"The design of a course is dictated by the land," said DeVries. "That's the way I try to work. And the land at The Kingsley Club was excellent. I was very happy that the owners let me carry out my vision. It's a layout I'm very proud of."

Along the way to establishing himself and his company, DeVries apprenticed with Doak.

"I enjoyed working with Tom and I learned a lot from him," he said. "A few years later, I decided to start my own company. It's worked out real well."

And one of DeVries' design associates is Fred Muller-the same PGA pro who was responsible for Doak landing in northern Michigan.

Another irony is that Crystal Downs is where DeVries learned to play golf growing up. DeVries' grandfather introduced him to the game at Crystal Downs. That's where he learned to appreciate the work of Mackenzie and Perry Maxwell.

DeVries is a 1987 graduate of Lake Forest College near Chicago. After doing his apprenticeship with Doak, he earned his master's in Landscape Architecture in 1994. He then began a stint as an on-site design coordinator with golf architect Tom Fazio before starting his own business.

Doak has studied great golf courses all over the world and applied that knowledge to High Pointe Golf Course in Acme Township, which was ranked in the top 10 among public courses.

"When I laid out High Pointe, the start of the back nine instantly worked itself out," he said.

"There was only one way into that 40 acres and that was up the valley of the 10th fairway. From there, I thought the 12th and 14th holes were naturals and the 13th was just a hole in-between. But we created a unique green complex on the 13th and it still might be one of the most original I've ever built. And since the course opened, most people pick the 13th as the best hole of the bunch. It's funny how those things work out."

Doak started playing golf at age 11 and, like DeVries, developed an avid interest in learning about layout.

"After my freshman year at Cornell, I knew this is what I wanted to do for a living," said Doak. "After college, I spent time studying courses abroad in England and Scotland. That was a huge experience for me, to have exposure to all the world's greatest courses when I was still learning about design."

Doak then got to work with fabled designer Pete Dye and his wife Alice.

"I owe whatever I have achieved in this business to them," he said. "The opportunities they gave me in the construction of great golf courses was my graduate school in golf design."

That's where Doak picked up his design philosophy, which is remarkably like DeVries'.

"Every architect says you try to work with the land," he said. "That's especially important now, because it's expensive to build courses in the modern era. We try to spend that money on what makes golf interesting-the greens and the areas around the greens.

We also like fairway bunkering to make golfers think, not just as a penalty for errant shots. We try not to do any more grading of the land than we absolutely have to."

So Doak and DeVries could both be called "minimalists" in their style of designing golf courses. That is, they try to let the land dictate the design.

"The best golf courses," said DeVries, "use the best technology available and combine it with great land and classic design principles to promote a playable course that's exciting for players of all skill levels. That's the true measure of a great course." BN