HOUSTON – Barely 24 hours after Jason Kokrak had won the televised tournament less than a mile away, a smaller, higher-handicap but no less golf-mad crowd was in the middle of its own spirited event.
Dozens of golf course fanatics in varying states of social lubrication spread out between the Memorial Trail Ice House’s high-top covered tables and fully outdoor picnic style tables, as well as some roaring fire pits. Taco and pizza food trucks stood by to provide nourishment between drinks. We mingled and meandered. The day’s golf at nearby Memorial Park Golf Course was over, but the real Renaissance Cup, an annual event hosted by architect Tom Doak at one of the golf courses he has designed, was just beginning.
Competition is only part of what makes the Renaissance Cup unique. In truth, its primary function is as a celebration.
“For me, the Renaissance Cup is partly a class reunion,” Doak said, “with friends from past and present getting together and enjoying the game.”
This year, a field of 32 two-person teams convened at Memorial Park Golf Course for two days’ worth of matches: best-ball the first day, with teams making it to the second day switching to alternate-shot. With the privilege of having the course practically to ourselves for two full days immediately after it hosted the PGA Tour’s Houston Open, losing early just meant the opportunity to get in as much golf as possible.
For teams who advance through the bracket, the tournament takes on something of a Member-Guest feel. The conclusion of this year’s final match drew a modest gallery of eliminated participants, often rooting on the teams that had knocked them out.
But there is much more to this gathering, both for participants and for Doak himself. “I also understood from the beginning that getting people to stay and play a course two to three times was of great benefit in getting them to understand and remember it,” he said.
Better-informed golfers give higher-quality feedback, and there’s no way to become better informed about a golf course than playing it repeatedly. On Monday, we were treated to the same hole locations the PGA Tour used on Sunday, albeit from tees set up around 6,500 yards. On Tuesday, several holes changed dramatically, not just by virtue of new hole locations but adjustments to the tees.
On Monday, the Redan-style par-3 7th hole played from an up tee to a rear hole location where we could feed a tee shot down toward the hole. On Tuesday, it was a bear: a front pin just over a false front and a back tee, making it play nearly 200 yards. It became two completely different but equally engaging challenges, showing us a flexibility we could not have experienced in a single play.
Doak is not just out to amuse Renaissance Cup players, but to learn from them. “I’ve also realized in recent years that what we get the most out of is watching other people play the course and seeing what they enjoy or don’t, and whether the bounces go the way we intended,” he said. “It’s hard to find much time for that when we are so busy with our present projects, but it’s also extremely important to doing better work in the years ahead.”
Like other great architects working in the all-encompassing design/build mode today, Doak trades “I” statements for “we.” His name may appear on the Memorial Park scorecard (alongside PGA Tour player-consultant Brooks Koepka), but it takes a village to build a great golf course.
Attending the Renaissance Cup hammered this point home for me, as I met several of Doak’s trusted associates from Memorial Park and other projects. Mike Nuzzo, whose Wolf Point course is one of Texas’ best – and most mysterious – served as Memorial Park’s on-the-ground project manager. I played nine holes with him on Tuesday and his pride in playing a course he had helped bring to fruition was palpable, even (especially) when some of the contours he helped coax out of the site sent his golf ball in unexpected directions.
Connor Dougherty works for Greenscape Methods LLC, whose principal Don Mahaffey has worked with Nuzzo. He relocated to Texas for the duration of the Memorial Park rebuild. “Memorial Park took all of my blood sweat and tears,” he said, “but as I look back, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a project.”
Nuzzo, Mahaffey and Dougherty are just some of the cast of Renaissance Cup 2021 characters who collaborate with Doak. There were several others whom you may not have heard of, but will soon, as they take the expertise they have gained from Doak and each other forward into their own projects. Brian Schneider, Kye Goalby, Brian Slawnik, Blake Conant, Eric Iverson and Don Placek were all in Houston this week, and all have both impressive resumes and bright futures in the building of golf courses. If you are interested in where golf course architecture is going, know that all of them will be involved.
Kyle Harris has played in four Renaissance Cups, going back to the 2013 edition at Streamsong Resort, where he was part of Doak’s crew and has stayed on as superintendent over the Red and Blue courses. He invited me to be his partner in this year’s event.
“It’s a celebration of the fact that it takes all kinds of people to make a good golf course,” he said. Having spent considerable time with Doak, Schneider, Placek and others, he has witnessed first-hand the communal approach to design that has produced so many sophisticated courses like Memorial Park, Streamsong Blue, Pacific Dunes and more.
“They just build off of each other,” he said. “There's a mutual respect for everybody's contributions. It's very energizing to be around.”
Which brings me back to the scene at the Memorial Trail Ice House: dozens of golfers, fresh off the course, exchanging ideas about the game they love. Some parts of those conversations may have evaporated into the Texas autumn night via Shiner Bocks and Old Fashioneds, but the new connections made, and old ones renewed, help to deepen the love of golf within people who are helping shape its future.