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  • Tom Doak’s Radical Minimalism
  • Michael Croley (bio) and Bill Zindel (bio)

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Illustration by BILL ZINDEL

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We slipped through the silver gates of the fence, turning sideways to slide our hips past the rails, ignoring a sign that warned against trespassing. The bright fall day made the hop farm shine green, the plants standing tall, tethered to poles by swooping coconut twine. Golf-course architect Tom Doak was taking me on a tour of what had been High Pointe Golf Club—his first design—just outside Traverse City, Michigan, a project he began at twenty-five years old. The course took three years to build and opened in 1989 and enjoyed much acclaim in the golf world before enduring a premature death just short of its twentieth birthday, brought on, in part, by the economic downturn. The course announced, from the start, that Doak would become a force for what would be termed minimalism in golf course design, a philosophy that sought to return the game back to its roots in Scotland by focusing on courses that weren’t built as much as they were found in the natural topography of what a piece of property offered.

But it wasn’t just his work in the dirt that forged Doak’s reputation as a minimalist, it was his architecture criticism and his willingness to always give his opinion, which has often involved tearing down some of the most prominent designers in American golf with blistering reviews. In a business whose model is dependent on the wooing of millionaires with money to invest, Doak’s reclusive nature and acerbic and unbending opinions have made him a rare bird, and he’s survived his transgressions because of his talent and the fundamental way he has remade golf in America.

Now in his midfifties, Doak sports a boyish haircut that requires no combing—just a small pat of the head to tamp it down when he removes his hat—and he carries the slight paunch of middle age. But as we approach the former golf course, his stride kicks into a higher gear, belying his years, as he moves well ahead of me up the hill to the former clubhouse, now used as an occasional venue for birthday parties and wedding receptions. The defunct golf cart charging stations stand like speakers at a forgotten drive-in and the perimeter outline of the barn where the carts were once stored is like a permanent shadow in the parking lot. From the hill’s apex, Doak tells me about the old course’s owner, its development, and how, once it was built, Doak found he couldn’t stay away: He visited almost weekly to check in, as if he might be able nurture the course toward success.

When we descend the hill, we head to the back forty of the property, which remains untouched by the farm. We follow a cracked asphalt path that leads into an overgrown grass field covered in gnarled weeds and scrub trees and see the vague layout of what was once the tenth hole. Nearly thirty years after it was built, Doak can still point out the challenges of High Pointe’s design and recall his decisions for shaping each hole. As he speaks, the tight-clipped fairways reveal themselves to me and the greens with steep contours appear underfoot. He explains bunkering and what are called “shot values,” showing me the ways he set up holes so that players always had a few options of attack. The terrain is hilly and surrounded by dense trees at what used to be the edges. And though Doak is beside me, walking every hole, detailing [End Page 80] the strategy and thinking behind each decision, I struggle to keep pace physically and mentally.

After we return to the clubhouse overlooking the hop field, a breeze riffles the spire-like plants. On the highway at the farm’s edge, sedans and trucks kick up dust as they speed past, their drivers indifferent to the fact that the land over their shoulders once held the first design of one of the greatest golf...