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Perhaps the biggest test of Doak's maturity was being revealed during the summer of 2006 on the grand stage — a $100-million golf development in the Hamptons called Sebonack Golf Club. He had been hired to collaborate with Jack Nicklaus on the design. The Golden Bear has collaborated in the past, for marketing purposes, with consulting architects like Arnold Palmer and Tony Jacklin. But not since the early 1970's, when he was a design newbie tutored by Pete Dye and Desmond Muirhead, had Nicklaus been forced to work alongside a genuine golf architect who is a formidable competitor with a reputation for being strong-willed. Doak has been critical of The Bear, and other Nicklaus-designed golf courses. In his controversial book, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, he described one of Nicklaus's efforts as "lame" and took him to task for a lack of "any consideration of natural character."
But Traverse City's Brian Lewis, who published the book, says Doak's frankness was useful. "It ruffled the feathers of other architects because his critiques were quite accurate and his own courses were quite stunning," says Lewis, who now owns Petoskey Publishing. "But of course we all get older and a bit wiser."
Doak says that once they settled into the project, Nicklaus was cordial and treated him as an equal. "Jack and I were initially puzzled — we both felt we could do the whole project [individually]. We didn't really need the other guy there, but the owner, Michael Pascucci, thought we had different strengths and wanted us to collaborate," says Doak. "Because of who Jack is and how much respect he commands in the golf business, he's less used to getting outside input because most people are scared to speak up. Even the people that work for him are scared to speak up. I was in an entirely different position. I was being paid to speak up."
Doak's personal financial piece of the project is less than one percent, but he is aware of the extreme pressure. "Michael paid $40 million for the land and is charging half-a-million for memberships … and the project succeeds or fails based mostly on how good of a job I did." Note the singular pronoun.
Doak says the best way for people to know if they've played a good golf course is whether or not they had fun and want another crack at it.
"I've always felt I thought more about the average guy — I try to not put things out there that are completely frustrating for them. I don't ensure they shoot a good score, but I want to make sure they can get around."
Doak, himself, wishes he had time to play golf more — he plays about 30 rounds a year to a handicap of 10. But he is sure to make it over to Crystal Downs about six times each season, a pilgrimage of sorts, to a course of simple elegance that grew from magical ground. As he strides the fairways, he listens as they whisper their secrets to him.
Michael Patrick Shiels, a bestselling author and internationally published writer, is a Michigan native. He also appears on radio shows across the country.
Tom Doak Courses Around the World
Note: This article was first published in July 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.