Tom Doak waited more than 35 years for the opportunity that was presented to him this summer, ever since he first saw Swinley Forest and Rye. Those two Harry Colt courses in England – renowned for being short on yardage but long on challenge – are the genesis of Sedge Valley, Doak’s recently announced course at Wisconsin’s Sand Valley Resort.
Great architecture exposes weaknesses in skill or judgment, and Doak’s proposed design probes the psyche even before a shot is struck. Sedge Valley is just 6,100 yards, par 68, guaranteeing that some will dismiss it sight unseen as too short to bother with, while others will assume it’s a pushover.
“It will be easier to break 90 than on a 6,800-yard, par-72 course,” Doak concedes, “but it won’t be any easier to shoot a low score. The hardest golf course I know in relation to par is Rye, and it’s 6,300 yards, par 68.”
Doak often has plowed a lonely furrow with his work – purists blanched at four par 3s on the back nine at Pacific Dunes and his reversible Loop layout at Forest Dunes. He knows quirk can be a tough sell, even with clients such as the Keiser family, who have demonstrated admirable enthusiasm for ingenuity at both Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley.
“The hardest part will be to convince them to let me make it somewhat challenging,” Doak said. “I don’t think they think that’s a really important part of their business model, and the feedback on Mammoth Dunes says maybe they’re right. I don’t think that’s a difficult golf course and people love it.”
Mammoth Dunes was designed by David McLay Kidd, with whom Doak has had a robust rivalry since they built the first two courses in Bandon. Kidd had lobbied for Doak to get Sand Valley’s third job (Coore and Crenshaw preceded Kidd).
“He’s really competitive with me and he really wants to beat me head to head, which he can’t do if I don’t do a golf course there,” Doak laughs.
Ever the iconoclast, Doak is pushing back against the trendy movement in course design that favors vast width and playability in the name of fun. Mammoth Dunes is the high altar of that church, and Kidd its most vocal missionary.
“I don’t think I’ve changed my idea on what fun is for the last 25 years: wide enough to play so you’re not looking for balls or chipping out sideways, interesting shots from tees straight through the green, interesting putting,” Doak said. “There has to be some degree of challenge for good players, and that’s the part I’m not sure David believes in.
“He’s changed his view and says he is trying to build things just to be fun. I can’t tell if he thinks challenging a player is still important or not. I still do.”
Kidd cheerfully dismissed his rival’s tweaking. “You can still have challenge but allow recovery,” he said. “Nobody is shooting 58 just because I built a course that’s fun.”
The relationship between Doak and Kidd is always competitive, sometimes convivial and occasionally contentious. (In 2014, Doak rated a Kidd course in St. Andrews a “zero.”) A few years ago they took part in a Q&A at Bandon Dunes, where Kidd’s original design opened to acclaim in 1999 but was overshadowed by Pacific Dunes two years later. What would you do differently, a questioner asked?
“I’d go second!” Kidd shot back, as Doak laughed.
“Usually it’s not an advantage because the first guy gets the best choice of ground. That didn’t happen in Bandon because Mike [Keiser] didn’t own all the ground,” Doak said. “Sand Valley is so big, I’ve routed golf courses on three different portions of it in the last five years, and they would all be different in character. David went second, but I get to go third!”
For all the philosophical sparring, Doak insists his goal at Sand Valley is to deliver on the dream he’s had for three decades, not to differentiate his work from Kidd’s.
“Mine really doesn’t have anything to do with his. They’re just next to each other,” he said, almost convincingly. “But they will be pretty big contrasts.”
Maybe so, but Mammoth Dunes and Sedge Valley are both intended to scatter creeds about fun and challenge that are held sacred by America’s golfers. I asked Doak what he wants those golfers to think when they walk off his final green.
“That they had the exact same fun as playing any other golf course,” he said quickly. “And the total yardage had nothing to do with it.”
Golfweek, October 21, 2018.