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The New Golf Architecture

They did not solve the puzzle that day. When it got too dark to see, Doak and Placek went back to their rented cottage outside Castlegregory. They sat at the dining table with the topo map spread out before them, chins in their hands. Occasionally one of them would take a ruler and pencil in a new variation of one or two holes. Finally, late in the evening, they broke for sandwiches at a pub down the road toward Tralee. Doak, at dinner, looked a little subdued. I thought I recognized the symptoms of someone who spends too many evenings eating in restaurants, too many nights in strange beds.

"I'm on the road 150 to 180 nights a year," he admitted. Doak lives in Traverse City, Michigan, with his second wife, Jennifer, and her four children by a previous marriage. Doak's son from his first marriage, Michael, lives with them part-time. Doak said traveling did not cause the failure of his first marriage, "but it didn't help."

When he is home now, he spends as much time as possible with his family. That leads to a great irony: He doesn't play much golf. Michael, 12, isn't interested in the game, and Jennifer and her kids are novices. When Doak does get in a round at his home club, Crystal Downs, and posts it in the computer, he sees his last twenty scores. Some are three years old.

The omen that began Doak's second day on the property was less auspicious than the first day's rainbow. As he and Placek opened the pasture gate, a hearse drove by. Someone had died during the night.

And indeed, the second day in the dunes was less exuberant than the first. The rain changed from intermittent to steady, drenching and cold, and the property's flaws emerged more clearly. One was the way the larger dunes were arranged, roughly in the shape of the letter Y. It might have been better had the dunes run in parallel rows, providing natural corridors for golf holes the way they do at Ballybunion, which is twenty-five miles to the north.

Doak was also worrying about the restrictions that might be placed on the project by Irish and European environmental laws. The construction of Greg Norman's new Doonbeg course, up the coast in County Clare, was delayed many months by arguments with environmental regulators about oceanside dunes and habitat for a two-millimeter-long snail called vertigo angustior. In the end, Norman's routing had to be changed.

Doak wasn't sure how many compromises he would have to make to satisfy environmental concerns. He wanted to place the clubhouse near the road, but in the name of preserving vistas for people on the beach or the road, he might have to use ground he would prefer to use for golf. This seemed ironic in light of the trailer park next to the golf course site, but the trailers had been there a long time and could remain under a grandfather clause in the regulations. The clubhouse would be new construction. As he and Placek trooped around the property, getting colder and wetter, Doak chafed at these anticipated restrictions. "The damn clubhouse is ruining everything," he muttered.

Frustrated, he retreated to the cottage, where he and Placek again sat at the table pondering their map. Placek suggested creating a hole alongside a low stone wall built by the farmers, ending at a green site near the rocky beach that bordered the property. Doak rejected it because he thought it would seem like a copy of The Pit, the famous thirteenth hole at North Berwick. They discussed putting the clubhouse near a promontory on the eastern side where Tralee Bay begins to merge with open sea. It offered a commanding view, but Doak rejected it. "That would be a cliché," he said.

I asked Doak whether he was becoming concerned that there might not actually be a golf course, or at least a great golf course, on the Kilshannig Cross site. He was not, he said. This was in part because he'd had to make five or six site visits and tear up several drafts before he finally got the routing right at Pacific Dunes.

Pacific Dunes was the thirteenth original course Doak designed, and the number has been lucky for him. Doak's phone began ringing when word of what he'd achieved in Oregon started to spread. And it hasn't stopped ringing, even though the pace of new golf course construction has mimicked the stock market.

Increasingly, Doak is a man developers want to talk to when they have a choice but tricky piece of land on which they'd like to see a subtle, classic design. Julian Robertson, the Tiger Fund founder turned resort visionary, selected Doak for Cape Kidnappers, a new course on a coastal headland in New Zealand; it opens this month. In Tasmania, Barnbougle Dunes is just getting under way. Stateside, Doak recently opened the Rawls course at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and a second eighteen at Stonewall in Elverson, Pennsylvania; he is also developing a private club in Palm Springs. Additionally, his firm takes on a limited amount of restoration work of classic courses, which Placek insists is quite different from renovation. "We like players to hardly know we've been there," he says, adding that Renaissance Golf doesn't hire out for quick repairs, but stays with courses for years.

Over time, Doak's fees have risen. He received $75,000 for his first design, completed in 1989. He won't say how much he gets now, in part because he doesn't have a standard fee. The tab can be affected by variables such as the amount of time Doak and his associates will spend on-site and the amount of construction work they'll do. But he will say that in the business today, fees range from perhaps $100,000 for a simple project by a novice to well over $1 million for a major name like Jack Nicklaus—and "I'm somewhere in the middle."


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