By Tom Lang
Like many golfers, course designer Mike DeVries of Traverse City is a huge fan of legendary designer Dr. Alister MacKenzie – known worldwide for his historic designs in England, Scotland and Ireland before coming to America and creating Augusta National, Palmetto Golf Club (SC) and Cypress Point (CA) among a couple dozen layouts in the United States.
DeVries grew up in northern Michigan’s Frankfort area, home of MacKenzie’s masterpiece at Crystal Downs. The only other in-state course devised by the gifted doctor is the University of Michigan.
DeVries’ grandfather was a member at Crystal Downs and the young DeVries would join him and other family members there, before eventually joining its staff.
“That’s really why I ended up doing what I do,” he said of the private club. “It’s one of the great golf courses of the world. It’s unbelievable. It influenced my design career 140 percent,” he added with a chuckle. “It’s had a huge impact because I was 17 and raking bunkers and mowing greens and cutting cups. It’s that special of a place.”
DeVries has been called a master in trending minimalist designs. He got his introduction to the profession working with world-renowned designer and Traverse City neighbor Tom Doak, the first to show DeVries course design could be a career. He then did a few projects with Tom Fazio before branching out solo. DeVries credits both men, plus the time he spent working in the clubhouse as a teenager and on the grounds crew as a college student in summers at Crystal Downs, as his basis for success.
Fast forward to today, Devries spent his recent mid-winter break consulting at a handful of golf courses in Argentina – the more prominent being the Jockey Club in Buenos Aries. It has two 18-hole MacKenzie designs, two of a few courses he created in a 4-to-5 month visit to the country in 1930.
“There’s actual quite a golf culture down there,” DeVries said of the South American country bordering the Atlantic Ocean. “When the British came through and built all the railroads, they built a bunch of golf courses.”
He said the country has about 275 golf courses of varying style, ranging from very humble to prestigious, and DeVries estimated that is about half of all the golf courses on the entire South American continent. He said the economic challenges and equipment import laws there to maintain, renovate or build new courses relegates him mostly to a consulting role at this point.
“It’s quite an amazing place and the golf course is really cool,” DeVries said of the Jockey Club 36-hole property that has hosted several Argentine Opens.
But it’s what is not there that has DeVries the most excited – a design called the ‘Lost MacKenzie.’
Finding a New Home?
On paper, the ‘Lost MacKenzie’ is a unique design – but not entirely different from portions of the Old Course at St. Andrews – made up of 9 double greens that would comprise 18 playable holes on a smaller piece of ground. It was created by the doctor during his 1930 visit but was never built. A distant family member of the original requestor of MacKenzie’s double-green masterwork is a current member at the Jockey Club and has talked at length for many years with DeVries about building the ‘Lost MacKenzie’ in the Southwest U.S.
“It was originally designed as an estate course so it’s rather compact, but we could push it out in a couple of areas to handle more golfers. It’s a really neat concept,” DeVries said of the first intended location more than 100 miles from Buenos Aries.
“We hope to find a piece of land that has the same sort of feel; there’s kind of a hillside and then there’s a little crease in a valley, with some long distant views to the property.”
DeVries is not far removed from what some are calling his crowning achievement in golf course design.
In its inaugural season the year before last, Cape Wickham Links on King Island, Tasmania, Australia, went from nowhere to the No. 24 ranked course for 2016 on Golf Digest’s World 100 Greatest Courses list.
“From the first time I saw the property, it’s the most magnificent ground for a golf course that I’ve ever seen,” DeVries said about the Australian location. “What makes it different, having the coastline which is wonderful in itself, but also it has extremely diverse coastline. It’s not just the same 20-to-50 foot rock cliffs, or all beach, or dunes that separate the golf course from the ocean.
“It works its way across the property in different ways. So, we have cliff-top holes, we have holes that are right down in the water, tees that are out on rocks with waves that wash up to you, and No. 18 has a sandy cove beach that’s in play.”
Michigan golfers who want a treat at some local DeVries designs a try can find plenty of wonderful options in west Michigan – such as Pilgrim’s Run, Diamond Springs and The Mines, plus Greywalls in the U.P. (No. 77 on Golfweek’s Top 100 Modern Courses in the USA) and those with connections could play the private Kingsley Club (No. 21 on same list).
On the following pages we’ll take a closer look at Diamond Springs and Greywalls.