A Tom Doak design in downtown Detroit? He's already on the job

A Tom Doak design in downtown Detroit? He’s already on the job

The preliminary plan for the Midnight Golf facility calls for a 16-bay driving range; a short-game practice area, including a bunker and a green; and four short practice holes with grass greens. <a href="http://www.golf.com/golf/i/tours/2010/02/doak-routing-detroit2_660x410.jpg"><strong>View full size</strong></a>
Renaissance Golf Design, Inc.

Asking celebrated golf course architect Tom Doak if he’d take time out of his globetrotting schedule to design a practice facility for a grassroots golf program would be a little like asking Frank Gehry to build a tree house for a troop of boy scouts.

We asked anyway.

Three months ago the SI Golf Group approached Doak to tell him about Midnight Golf, a wildly successful youth golf initiative based in a wildly depressed city: Detroit. The program, which operates two nights a week at a local college, employs a lively mix of life-skills workshops, classroom discussions and golf lessons to keep its participants—mostly high school seniors from city schools—out of trouble and on the path to college.

Of the 425 young people who have completed the 30-week regimen since its inception nine years ago, 351 have been admitted to one of more than 60 different colleges and universities, according to the program. That’s an 83-percent hit rate, an impressive statistic when you consider that the city’s beleaguered school system reportedly graduates only 58 percent of its high school seniors.

But back to Doak. When we heard that Midnight Golf had secured a parcel of land at Detroit’s Marygrove College on which to build a practice facility, our thoughts turned to the Michigan-based architect and whether he might be willing to design it pro bono. Doak is one of the game’s hottest architects—he masterminded Oregon’s acclaimed Pacific Dunes and has nearly 30 other original routings in five countries—so we weren’t expecting an immediate response. We got one.

“Absolutely,” Doak said. “I’m in.”

Actually, it was just the kind of project he had been seeking. Doak and his design team grew up playing public courses and have become increasingly determined to build more public-access tracks. “It seems like the last five years everything we’ve been doing is a high-end private golf course like Sebonack,” Doak says today, referring to the ritzy Long Island course he co-designed with Jack Nicklaus in 2006. “All the guys who work for me say, ‘These places may as well not be there as far as we’re concerned,'” he adds, laughing. “‘You’d think maybe they’d let us play it once.'”

Detroit itself was also a draw, and not just because Doak’s team saw this project as a way to help out a city that is enduring a crippling recession. Two of Doak’s associates actually grew up within 10 miles of Marygrove, so the job will be a homecoming of sorts. “It made a lot of sense for them to want to go back and do some work there,” Doak says.

Even the logistics quickly clicked, no small feat in this sluggish economy. Doak’s Traverse City-based firm, Renaissance Golf Design, Inc., was already planning to spend some time in the Detroit area this summer to renovate the greens at the Country Club of Detroit, so he and his team will be readily available to hop over to Marygrove. The Michigan State University turfgrass science department has also expressed interest in contributing its expertise to the project. To help cover the construction costs, Midnight Golf is applying for grants from the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America. “It was pretty easy for us to pitch in, and it’s nice to see others jump in too,” Doak says.

When Midnight Golf founder Renee Fluker heard that a world-class course designer had made a commitment to her program, she was thrilled, if a little uninformed. “I had never heard of Tom Doak,” she says with a laugh. “But then I did a little Google search on him, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ ”

In years past, the Midnight Golf kids have ridden buses to a driving range 20 minutes from Marygrove where the bays were often crowded. (During the colder months, the high schoolers whack plastic balls into nets inside a Marygrove lecture hall.) The new facility will eliminate both the commute and the hassle. “We won’t have to rush, we won’t have to push,” Fluker says. “It won’t be like, ‘Okay, this half go over here, this half go over there.’ We’ll all be out there together. It means a lot to us.”

Doak is known for working with what the land gives him. At the Marygrove site—a pancake-flat five acres dotted with trees—he will need to employ all his creativity. The preliminary plan calls for a 16-bay driving range; a short-game practice area, including a bunker and a green; and four short practice holes with grass greens. (See the plan.)

Doak warns that his putting surfaces will have some movement, so the kids had better hone their putting. “That doesn’t mean they’ll be running 11 on the Stimpmeter,” he says with a chuckle. “We won’t let them get out of control.”

Construction is scheduled to begin this summer, and Golf.com will document its progress.

The SI Golf Group is covering the Detroit golf scene as part of Time Inc.’s yearlong coverage of the city. For more information, visit the Assignment Detroit homepage.