I’d never met Tom Doak — at least until last week. Sure I’d spoken to him on the phone, gone back and forth by email, and even received a signed copy of the Confidential Guide to Golf Courses in the mail once. But I’d never actually met the designer behind Pacific Dunes, Ballyneal, Barnbougle Dunes and plenty of others.
But a couple of months back a note bounced into my inbox inviting me to the Renaissance Cup, the tournament Doak holds every year at a course he’s designed. This year’s was at Streamsong, the ambitious 36-hole facility about 90 minutes from Orlando just south of Lakeland. Doak crafted 18 holes there, while Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw created the second 18. The tournament is usually a relatively small affair, encompassing owners, pros, and superintendents from courses Doak has an affiliation with. This year’s event was much larger — 190 players scattered over two courses over three days. There’s an actual tournament that is ongoing, though that seems to be secondary to the general golf atmosphere and spirit of the event.
Rarely does a person interested in golf design get to spend a few days in a room full of people intrigued by the same thing. Imagine it as a Star Trek convention for people interested in Redans. That’s how I’d characterize the tournament and its ongoings. Everywhere you turned you either ran into an interesting media personality (“There’s Michael Bamberger. Is he going to call a rules infraction? There’s James Dodson. Oh, isn’t that the guy from the Golf Channel — Matt what’s his face?”) or a superintendent (grass growers for the likes of Dismal River and National Golf Links of America were kicking about) or architects (Ian Andrew came with me, but Mike Nuzzo, Bill Coore, and Steve Smyers were also around). In other words you couldn’t say the phrase Biarritz without someone turning to see whether you were discussing the hole at the Creek Club or some other par three they hadn’t had the chance to play. Needless to say, it was very cool.
I had plenty of fascinating conversations, meeting up with Brian Hewitt, the editor of Global Golf Post, an online publication to which I contribute, and the previously mentioned Dodson, whose books I’ve always very much enjoyed.
Much of the focus was on Streamsong, a very cool golf project that has opened when very few cool golf projects are even being envisioned. As I wrote in November, it is 36-holes, with 18 by Doak and the other by Coore/Crenshaw. On first glance I enjoyed the Coore/Crenshaw course most. But it is interesting to see how your perspective changes. My initial reaction, having played the Coore/Crenshaw course followed by the Doak course, was that Tom’s effort has overly penal as far as the greens went. Someone recently told me they felt Doak needed an editor — that left to his own devices he’s push things too far.
But my second (and in the case of the Doak, third and fourth) tours around both yielded a different impression. When I first played the Crenshaw course I started on the fifth hole, and as the gloaming set in I toured the first four holes. I guess I failed to recognize the difficulty of the opening holes. The first is a long — and by long I mean really long — par four that plays uphill on the second shot. In fact, for most it is more like a par five. The second shot has water down the right, making it a very difficult, though visually stunning, par five. The truth is the Coore/Crenshaw course is the most difficult design I’ve played that the pair have designed. The greens are subtle, but are often surrounded by aggressive slopes, making recoveries difficult. I still am really fond of the course and the aesthetic is unrivalled, but I wonder about playability. There were a lot of either very long two-shot holes or very short ones — and few in between.
The Doak course, on the other hand, does have some greens with significant slopes. That seems to be the initial knock against it — and it was my impression. But I also think it might have more great holes and the greens are a lot of fun if you have patience and are willing to use your imagination. The stretch of holes from 3 to 7 is some of the best I’ve ever played, and the course ends very strongly. I think it might not be quite as intriguing on some of the flat areas around the turn, but the holes there are fine even if they lack some of the visual appeal. I came away enjoyed the Doak course a lot more than I did on my first tour — proof that some designs become more interesting, attractive and engaging the more you play them.
The question of whether Streamsong will work as a business is another matter and subject of another post. There are things I can’t understand — why the hotel is located away from the courses, why the directions on the website aren’t stronger, whether people will drive to a remote area of Florida to play — but that doesn’t diminish the golf. Streamsong sets the standard for golf in Florida. The only question is whether the golfing public will seek it out.