I must admit, when the Keiser family revealed Tom Doak as the architect behind a forthcoming third course at Sand Valley, I was a little disappointed.
I was hoping the Keisers would finally be able to hook up with Gil Hanse on a design, or maybe they would bring in Michigan native Mike DeVries to paint a(nother) Midwestern masterpiece. Maybe even take a chance on Tad King and Rob Collins of Sweetens Cove fame, or giving the slots to Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns to work their magic with a dramatically bigger budget than what they had to transform the Winter Park 9 in Florida.
But I'm never going to be upset about a new Doak course. Never.
And then I heard the concept. Doak will be building a shorter, more compact course. It'll be about 6,200 yards, and the par will be 67 or 68. There will be a number of drivable par 4s, and the mixture of holes will make for a routing which takes less time to play and covers less of the massive acreage available at Sand Valley. The Keisers didn't take a chance with their architect, but they are taking a chance on building a shorter course at a resort where golfers are thirsty to experience the sheer scale of the resort between the eponymous Coore and Crenshaw course and David McLay Kidd's Mammoth Dunes.
Americans are conditioned to expect their golf courses to have a par of 70, 71 or 72. Maybe 73. But a sub-70 par has a dinky sound to Yankee ears. That's despite the fact that scores of courses in the United Kingdom and Ireland are pithy, compact and brilliantly under a par-70 size. These courses were often developed with little machinery available, and they feature a genius routing on what land the architect was given. Doak set forth a routing at the dubbed Sedge Valley course which would take advantage of the topography and plant cover, running the best 18 available holes regardless of length and par considerations. Quality trumps quantity.
Perhaps, then, the Doak course at Sand Valley isn't an immediate opportunity for the young-and-hungry crowd to get high-profile work. However, it might an opportunity for the young-and-hungry crowd to take the concept into cities and municipalities wrestling with the idea of shuddering or leasing out their golf courses.
After all, it's rare to find a golf course like Winter Park, where golfers cross four streets to complete nine holes on four separate plots of land. Most municipal golf courses are on a single track of land. They're often basic in their nature, deeming them beginner courses because of the uninspiring, rudimentary presentation.
A boring design leaves the golfer wanting more of a challenge and a better walk. If they can afford it, they'll go elsewhere, to a more engaging property -- even if that means simply a flashier design, not a better, more playable one. That leaves municipal courses the favorite of golfers who can't or don't wish to pay more for a better experience. These are hardcore golfers, too, and they deserve a dynamic golf course which won't play the same way every time.
Tom Doak isn't going to make a boring par-68 golf course. It will be captivating, beautiful and unique every time through. The green complexes will be vexing, and the angles will make sense for golfers of all skill levels and physical abilities. That sounds like the opposite of most municipal golf -- frankly, most public golf -- in the United States. When the Doak course proves successful, and it will be since it's Doak and the Keisers, we have an American example to point at suggesting a playable, compact golf course is an upgrade worth paying for over a longer, more sprawling golf course with the same, repetitive design elements. A shorter golf course that's fun to play every time is undoubtedly better than a longer golf course with wasted teebox acreage to maintain for golfers who shouldn't be back there or wouldn't feel the need to be back there if what was in front of them were more compelling.
Of course, golf courses will continue to close around the United States. There are probably still several hundred to yet close before the industry matches supply and demand. However, with more golfers logging rounds on municipal properties, courses should look to compete for the golfer's dollar not by cutting the cost of golf on tee time-booking services but rather by charging a fair price for a better golf course. Cheap golf doesn't mean good golf.
The USGA and PGA of America, stewards of the game and the professional service of golfers, can help divert money to cities and other governments that might need a little carrot to do the right thing for their tax-paying players. If they can offer seed money to some of the worn-but-sturdy public-access golf courses, bringing in designers looking not for big bucks but to make golf fundamentally better, then they will be laying the groundwork for not only a revitalization of the game but its future success.