Fanfare for the Common Golfer

Composed by Tom Doak in concert with the Colorado Golf Associations, CommonGround Golf Course is an affordable urban opus design

Tom Doak’s encyclopedic mastery of golf course design and his life-long, 24/7 commitment to the craft go beyond mere obsession. Exposed to the game as a youth on municipal courses in Connecticut, Doak vowed to become a world-class golf course architect as a teenager, back when the profession was relatively obscure. While others idled away their youth, Doak spent his free time touring the country and, later, the world, to study, critique, photograph and catalog  golf courses (now at 1,000 and counting). At age 48, Doak has arrived at the pinnacle of his profession, with his name affixed to some three-dozen acclaimed courses sited in exotic locales. Among them: Pacific Dunes on the Oregon coast; Sebonack in the Hamptons; New Zealand’s Cape Kidnappers; Tasmania’s Barnbougle Dunes; and The Renaissance Club at Archerfield in Gullane, Scotland. Doak’s modus operandi is to seek out prime sites in which to work, as he recently did in the rugged sand hills of eastern Colorado, where he unearthed Ballyneal, a links-style design that quickly ascended to the summit of Colorado’s best courses list. 

Now, the facility he’s designed on a fairly plain 250-acre parcel on the Denver-Aurora border—a property bordered by the strip malls and fast-food franchises of Alameda and Havana streets—could have a more powerful and lasting impact on the game than any of his earlier achievements.

CommonGround, the all-new Colorado Golf Association home course with the unusual name, isn’t supposed to be like Doak’s others. Replacing the marginal Mira Vista course at the old Lowry Air Force Base, it was built for the 65,000 members of the CGA, not for a wealthy titan or for real estate sales. When unveiled in late May, it will cost $40 for CGA members to play ($50 for non-members), not the $250 that many other Doak designs command. And it promises to be an eminently enjoyable, playable, walkable and strategic test—even if it doesn’t make the cover of glossy national golf publications, as Doak designs tend to do.

“We were looking for a project like this,” Doak explains while making a final walk through of the site last fall. He was accompanied by his two Denver-based associates from Renaissance Golf Design: Arvada native Eric Iverson, the lead design associate who had day-to-day responsibility for CommonGround, and Jim Urbina, a stocky ex-football player from Pueblo who is now Doak’s senior associate (the two met while working for Pete Dye on Brighton’s Riverdale Dunes in the early 1980s).  For the Renaissance crew, which dramatically discounted its fee to make the project viable, CommonGround represents a return to their grassroots. It also reaffirms Doak’s longstanding commitment to the game as the Scots first played it, in a natural and affordable setting. “All of us grew up playing public golf courses,” Doak explains. “Our only fee here is based on royalties. We’ll be paid over 20 years by greens fees.”

The new course has been a decade in the planning, beginning with a mandate from M.J. Mastalir, the CGA president from 1997-99. CommonGround mobilizes the ambitious plans of the CGA and CWGA to leave a permanent stamp on the game in Colorado—and to establish it as a leader among the other half-dozen state golf associations that have their own facilities.

“It’s pretty bold,” admits CGA Executive Director Ed Mate, who learned the game at City Park and played the critical role in bringing Renaissance to the project. “The path of least resistance would have been to sit back and just keep running our tournaments and junior programs. We think we can advance the game if we have our own laboratory. The whole idea is to create new golfers. In my humble opinion, this is going to be the best example of a state golf association course.”

When CommonGround opens to the public on May 23 (Memorial Day weekend), it will include a new 2,500-square-foot Starter Clubhouse with a pro shop and bar and grill; it’s envisioned as the eventual headquarters for the junior program. Long-term plans call for the construction of a larger clubhouse (the current facility, a former bomb shelter, is being demolished) and, eventually, offices for the CGA staff, which are now at the Denver Tech Center. Beyond that, the CGA wants to build a new maintenance facility and ramp up its turf research.

There’ll be no déjà vu for Mira Vista regulars when they step onto the new Doak routing this spring. With apologies to the original 1972 design and its author, Robert Baldock, “there wasn’t anything worth saving,” Doak says (though they did recycle the asphalt cart paths). The old military course was tight and tree-lined, with an abundance of dogleg rights to accommodate slicers. The terrain it utilized was flat, confined and offered little in the way of views.

Upon closer inspection, Doak and his Renaissance team found a more appealing canvas than anticipated, then improved on it by transplanting more than 100 trees and moving about 65,000 cubic yards of dirt, not a lot of earth by today’s standards. They found new hole angles and opened up impressive views of the Denver skyline and Longs Peak, Mount Evans and Pikes Peak, creating an urban oasis dotted by cottonwoods, spruce, ponderosa, ash, hackberry and honey locust. “Even with one million people within an eight-mile radius, there’s a wide open feeling,” says Dave Troyer, CommonGround’s director of golf, who notes that the property is also home to deer, herons, hawks, coyote and fox.

With four sets of tees, the course stretches from 5,543 to 7,198 yards (and again to 7,500 yards for tournament play), with a par of 71 and a card that features five par threes. The 50-plus strategically placed bunkers are deliberately unflashy and often quite small, making extraction testy at times. Holes were designed from the greens backward, with an emphasis on open approaches that encourage the Scottish ground game.  Green complexes, which will provide the greatest challenge for low handicappers, range from a cozy 6,000 square feet to a more than 10,000 square feet on the challenging 488-yard par-four fifth, which borders the west end of the property.

Doak, a devotee of Charles Blair Macdonald (“Putting greens are to golf courses what faces are to portraits”) and Alister MacKenzie, outfitted the CommonGround greens with plenty of teeth and fit them to match each hole’s character. Because of their undulating nature, the greens will run relatively slow, at a Stimp of 9 or 9.5, even for tournaments.

The drive on the opening hole sets the tone: The landing area is twice as wide as the one at Mira Vista, but bunkering on the inside of the dogleg left challenges those who seek a short cut. The second is a short par three (148 yards from the back tees) with a devilish elevated green; it points due west toward the Denver skyline and mountains. The dogleg left fourth, which aims at two old Lowry hangars on the horizon and is the only hole that follows the old footprint (the former 13th), offers a classic risk-and-reward drive over high grass.  A small but menacing bunker awaits in the landing zone. The sixth recalls the 16th at Augusta, bordered on the left by a new irrigation pond that also comes into play on the par-five 11th.  The par-three 14th demonstrates Doak’s commitment to match the green with the shot: It’s 240 yards from the tips, but the green is generously sized and flanked by mounding that can be used to direct the ball toward the pin.

Mike Mounds has been on the board of the shrinking Mira Vista men’s club since 2003 and is now the president of the CommonGround men’s club. Membership has tripled since Doak’s arrival, and Mounds say he’s amazed at the transformation, with the proverbial silk purse emerging from a sow’s ear. He points to the new, cleverly bunkered, uphill closing hole, cobbled from land that used to sit between the 10th and 18th. “Somehow they made that ‘in between’ the new No. 18,” Mounds says. “When I walked it, I couldn’t believe it. It’s pretty amazing what they’ve done across the property.”

In an age when designers seek to outdo each other with features that are often costly to build and maintain, CommonGround, with a relatively meager $4.8 million price tag, focuses on subtle playability, backed by solid shot values. Native grass frames many holes, but it will mostly be out of play. “It’s going to be hard to lose a golf ball,” says the CGA’s Mate, who adds that golfers who can hit the proper side of the greens will go low—a concept he embraces. “People are going to shoot good rounds, and they are going to want to come back. The guy who is a 25-handicapper is going to enjoy it. There are some golfers who believe that low scores devalue a course. I couldn’t disagree more.” The CGA intends to host one of its championships at CommonGround each summer, possibly kicking off in 2010 with the men’s State Match Play—its oldest title.

Before earning his first design commission at age 26 in the late 1980s, the iconoclastic Doak made his mark as a writer of course reviews.  On the side, he compiled caustic capsules of some 500-plus courses for his friends. When he decided to publish these musings in book form, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses became a cult classic. (It’s out of print and difficult to find, but copies can be obtained on the Internet—for upwards of $500–and there is talk of another printing).

In the book, the demanding Doak ranks courses on a scale of 1 to 10, and there are very few designs at the upper end. Writing last fall in golfclubatlas.com, an online forum for golf architecture buffs, Doak described CommonGround’s distinct design charge and concluded that it likely would earn a “5 or a 6.” That may sound disappointing at first, but it puts CommonGround in the same strata as Broadmoor East, Castle Pines Golf Club, The Country Club of Castle Pines, Country Club of the Rockies, Denver Country Club, Keystone Ranch, Plum Creek Golf Club and Riverdale Dunes.

Even as annual rounds trend downward coupled against the backdrop of an over-supply of courses in the state, Mate is confident CommonGround wlll succeed financially and achieve its ultimate goal of sparking participation. Running an association that includes the state’s golf courses as dues-paying members may put him in a delicate spot, but he’s enjoyed strong support in the golf community. “Yes, we are the only golf course in the state charging all the other golf courses,” Mate says. “But for us it’s not, ‘Are we making money?’ but rather ‘Are we growing more golfers?’”

To that end, the new two-sided driving range and the sporty junior short course designed by Doak on the southeast end of the property are just as important as the main fare. Funded in part by a $175,000 USGA donation, the 840-yard junior links features holes ranging from 60 to 150 yards and is expected to introduce thousands of Colorado youth to the game (some of whom also may join CommonGround’s caddy program). Mate dreams of seeing traffic slow to a crawl along the busy Alameda-Havana corridor, with drivers rubber-necking to absorb the frenzied activity.

“Our kids’ course really is the front door, the metaphorical billboard for our facility,” Mate says. “It’s a wonderful message to send to anybody driving by. It’s not just golf, but kids’ golf. At the end of the day, that’s what the property is really all about.”

DETAILS
CommonGround Golf Course
10110 E. Golfer’s Way, Aurora
commongroundgc.com; 303-340-1520

YARDAGE
Black: 7,198
Gold: 6,721
White: 6,365
Red: 5,543

RATES

CGA/CWGA Members: $40 ($20 for 9 holes)
General Public: $50 ($25 for 9 holes)
Seniors (65 and over): $30 (Monday through Thursday only)
Juniors (18 and under): $15
Twilight: $30
Replay: $25

Colorado AvidGolfer is the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it. It publishes eight issues annually and proudly delivers daily content via www.coloradoavidgolfer.com.

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