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Construction has begun on a Tom Doak course that will bring golf to kids in urban Detroit

DETROIT — Tom Doak has designed golf courses in the dunes of southern Oregon, on the sand hills of northern Colorado and along the edge of 400-foot cliffs in New Zealand. His latest project, a practice facility that is beginning to show signs of life here on the cozy campus of Marygrove College, may not inspire awe like some of his other credits, but it will inspire hope.

"It's rare for a piece of land like this to come up," Doak said Thursday, talking over the clatter of bulldozers and backhoes. "I think this facility could make a great difference."

It's rare because this five-acre plot is just 10 minutes from the center of a major city — a city, lest we forget, in the midst of a debilitating economic slump. It's a potential difference-maker because the mini-course will not only introduce thousands of Marygrove students and other urban-dwellers to the game, but also serve as the learning center for participants of Midnight Golf, a hugely popular Marygrove-based youth mentoring program that helps keep Detroit high schoolers off the streets and on the path to college.

Construction began a couple of weeks ago, and Doak's team has already carved out the hole corridors and sculpted dirt into plateaus that will become tees and greens; seeding will begin in a week or so. You won't soon mistake the site for, say, Pacific Dunes — it's flat and flanked on one side by a parking lot and on another by a busy thoroughfare — but the location does have its charms. There are a variety of large, leafy trees, and the college's gothic architecture will serve as a handsome backdrop.

"We spent a lot of time on this site because one of the things we wanted to do was save as many of the good quality trees as possible," says Brian Slawnik, one of Doak's senior associates who has taken the lead on this project. "The goal was to highlight the trees and find homes for holes among them."

When it officially opens for play next spring or early summer, the site will include a driving range, putting green and practice bunker, as well as up to six par-3s ranging between 40 and 80 yards. "The A-No. 1 goal," Slawnik said, "was to figure out how to build a facility that could accommodate as many kids as could play at the same time."

Golfers will be required to use limited-flight balls, which allowed Team Doak to also include two or three longer holes that will play diagonally across the property. Said Doak: "The design is intended to be as flexible as possible, so the users can design their own holes and have fun just batting the ball around."

"I'm curious to see how it goes," he added. "We'll do our best to goad our clients at the clubs down here to help support and maintain it, and to keep the standard up. I think if we keep the standard up, it's going to be a great asset not just to the Midnight Golf, but also to the college and the neighborhood." (Initial funding for the project was provided by the United States Golf Association, the PGA of America and local sponsors.)

Doak, who lives in northern Michigan, first heard of Midnight Golf and this opportunity late last year when the SI Golf Group asked him if he'd be willing to donate his time and expertise to design the facility. Two of his associates, including Slawnik, happened to have grown up within a few miles of Marygrove, so Doak's Renaissance Golf Design firm immediately signed on. "It was a no-brainer," Doak says now.

Welcoming Doak, arguably the world's hottest course designer, wasn't a difficult decision for Marygrove College either. At a press conference Thursday announcing the facility, the college president, David Fike, thanked Doak for his contribution but also stressed that the initiative "isn't just about golf." The facility fits within the college's mission of urban leadership, and part of that mission involves "developing young people and their talents and passions for leading in urban communities."

Minutes later, Doak took the podium. "With respect to Dr. Fike, we are here because of the golf," he said, drawing hearty laughter from the audience. "We'd like to think that the ethos of golf is a good fit for people and something that will bring positives to the community. And I think that's what everybody who's involved in Midnight Golf is really behind."

Check back soon for a video tour of the Marygrove site and an exclusive interview with Tom Doak.

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