Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ever hear of High Pointe?

High Pointe, from Doak's infamous book 'The Confidental
Guide to Golf Courses' (1996).
The educated taste admires simplicity of design and sound workmanship for their own sake, rather than over-decoration and the crowding of artifical hazards.

- Tom Simpson, 1927.

Three golf courses immediately come to mind when I think about those that really inspired me to pursue a career in golf course architecture at a relatively young age: Donald Ross' Essex, in Windsor, Ontario, where I grew up playing; Pete Dye's Harbour Town Golf Links, in South Carolina; and High Pointe. 

Opened for play in 1989, High Pointe was Tom Doak's first solo design. After reading Doak's treatise, The Anatomy of a Golf Course, shortly after it was published in 1992, I excitedly rushed up to Traverse City, Michigan to see and play High Pointe. The course was a revelation. So much that's talked about, and now practiced by many in golf course architecture - working with the land, designing holes to give maximum advantage to imaginative shot-making, bringing a Scottish approach to maintenance and fescue grasses to North America - began, or was at least resurrected on this side of the Atlantic at High Pointe.

Doak has since risen to the top of our profession. The popularity of his subsequent design work at places like Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers, Barnbougle Dunes, Ballyneal, Sebonack, The Renaissance Club, and Old Macdonald - compounded by the recent, and terribly unfortunate closure of High Pointe - has rendered his first course a fond memory for those of us who learned about, and experienced it early on.

I'm no fan of the term 'minimalism'. It's used too frequently and often incorrectly these days. In a modern context though, the now popular 'minimalist approach' to golf course architecture began at High Pointe. As he describes in his infamous book The Confidental Guide to Golf Courses, Doak opted for "the least possible disturbance, even in building the greens" at High Pointe. As a result, the course was an incredibly natural looking one, with every hole simply draped over the existing landscape. High Pointe was without contrivance.

Instead of over-decorating the course with bunkers, Doak smartly used natural slope and contour to present playing interest and challenge at High Pointe. His goal was to utilize "steeper undulations for the fairway landing areas and green sites, so that the golfer would be forced to consider the slopes in playing the hole(s)... and counteract and minimize the bounce of the ball." This idea was contrary to what was going on in golf course architecture pretty much everywhere else at the time. So many courses built during the 1980s and '90s involved flattening out borderline slopes in the interest of 'fairness' rather than using them to advantage. When a course is flattened out, golfers tend to approach every hole the same. Boring.

As a means to emphasize the importance of considering slopes and contour in playing the holes at High Pointe, Doak also elected to grass the entire course with fescue. At the time, many experts thought this idea was simply foolish. Now it seems every new course we hear about - from Sagebrush to Cabot Links - is being planted with fescue. Doak's aim was to promote a firm playing surface at High Pointe, but also to create a course that could be playable under less-than-perfect conditions so that, as he puts it, "the budget could be kept austere and the green fees affordable". This philosophy is even more applicable today than during the late 1980s, considering current economic conditions.

Doak's 'experiment' at High Pointe was gutsy, if not a complete success. I understand much of the fescue disappeared or was eventually eradicated over time, for example. But, looking back, his 'experiment' was a revelation, and inspiration to a generation of future golf course designers, including myself. High Pointe encouraged 'out of the box' thinking, illustrating some innovative and interesting possibilities for golf archtiecture and course maintenance moving forward.

Most important though, High Pointe was a fun course to play; and, its simple appearance yet complex challenges were an incredibly beautiful contradiction to what golfers had come to believe golf course architecture to be over the previous three decades and more, before High Pointe.


  1. Good blog Jeff. We sure had fun at High Pointe except for that one incident.

  2. Jeff--I don't know the story of how High Pointe ended. What happened?

  3. I don't know the details of the story either. Only that it's no longer open for play, unfortunately.