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LinkedGolfers: In researching your work, I consulted a variety of knowledgeable sources with first-hand experience of your designs. Each of them counted courses for which you’re credited among their all-time favorites. (One even said he’d never played a Doak course he didn’t count among his best ever.) What do you consider are the top reasons your work leaves that impression?
Tom Doak: First and foremost, I’ve been really lucky to establish a reputation for my ability to work on great sites, so now it seems like we are always working on a beautiful piece of ground. Also, for most of my career I was never considered an architect whose name added anything to real estate values; and that kept me from getting involved in projects where real estate was the priority instead of golf. For most of my clients, a great golf course is the one and only goal. You’d be surprised how often that’s not the case in this business.
LG: Would you call yourself an architect’s architect or do you think a “regular” golfer would have an adequate appreciation of your work?
TD: I’m not sure what an “architect’s architect” would be. I think one reason my work has stood out is because I can relate to the “regular” golfer more easily than some other architects do. Good design isn’t just about shot values and challenging the elite players; the majority of golfers carry handicaps over 10, and they want to have fun playing golf and not get beat up too badly. I establish that first, and then try to figure out how to make the course more challenging for the elite player inside the playing areas.
LG: Despite equipment and materials advances, research statistics frequently conclude that handicaps have not improved for decades. It’s clear the golf equipment industry dominates the “you’ll get better if you buy” market. Can golfers alternatively improve their scores by learning the styles of course architects?
TD: Being able to manage your game around the golf course is a huge factor in how you score. Most people don’t understand when to play safe or how safely to play, and they cost themselves shots all through the round. I try to build courses that allow the average player to get around that way, but to score really well, you have to think about where you want to play your next shot from.
LG: As a player prepping for a match or even a tour of Tom Doak courses, what knowledge would give me an edge?
TD: I will give you room to play off the tee, but my greens are generally more challenging than what other architects build nowadays. Many architects are afraid that the greens will be maintained too fast, so they build flattish greens, and then it doesn’t matter which side of the hole you play to. On my courses, there is always one side of the hole which will give you an uphill putt or a relatively easy up and down for par … but then if you miss it on the opposite side, even the best players may struggle to make par. You just have to get to know the greens and where the safe side is.
Results That Speak for Themselves
LG: We recently talked just before I played a round at Pasatiempo, a MacKenzie course you renovated. I can honestly say some of your “tips” opened my eyes to a new world within the game. Even in the ‘30s MacKenzie seemd to have a flare for messing with sight lines and other visual illusions. How do you bring similar tricks into play on the courses you architect?
TD: A lot more of the game is visual than people give it credit for. The best players all know exactly how far it is to carry a hazard or to get to the front of the green, but subconsciously, they still hedge away from areas they can’t see well, thinking that trouble might be lurking there. So, what you let them see is important, and so is what you don’t let them see. Sometimes, just having the green drop off at the back intimidates the heck out of good players, whereas average golfers are only ever worried about carrying the trouble in front, because they’re more inconsistent with their ball-striking.
LG: An author signs a book contract, a golf architect is hired for a new course development. What is the golf architect’s version of the “blank first page”? In other words, where is the impetus and/or routine that inspires your “start”?
TD: There are two main differences.
First, as architects we have a client, so we start by talking to the client about what their goals are. If you give them long enough they’ll say all the same things eventually:
“We want everyone to have fun,”
“We want a course that’s tough but fair,”
“We want to host a championship,” and
“We want it to be beautiful.”
It’s important to hear how clients prioritize those different aspects.
Second, we very rarely have a “blank first page.” We start with a piece of property that has its own topography, its own vegetation, and its own character. The more we can use those things to our advantage in the design, the better the course will turn out.
LG: Using the same parallel, have you ever experienced something along the lines of “writer’s block”?
TD: Sometimes when I am working on putting the puzzle together of where the holes will go, I will get stuck in a dead end and just have to put the maps away for a little while and work on something else, until I can come back to it with a fresh mind. But really it’s more like working on a puzzle than writing from a blank page.
LG: When and how do you begin experimenting with the playability of your courses, using a club and balls? Before the first sod is ever laid?
TD: I used to go out with the crew occasionally while we were building a course and hit balls around. One of my best memories of Cape Kidnappers is doing that with three of my associates before we’d really built much of anything there, because the land was all grazed down by sheep and cattle and it was like playing on finished fairways!
I don’t do that as often anymore, because I’m more comfortable that I know how the shots are going to play just looking at them. Plus, really the most important thing you want to know is where the ball is going to bounce and how it’s going to roll when it lands. You don’t get to see that in the dirt–you have to wait until the grass is mature and the course is finished.
LG: Architects of all varieties can discover a lot of history when working land for new developments. What are some of the most interesting things you have uncovered while developing your courses?
TD: At The Renaissance Club in Scotland, there were some remnants of ancient walls and settlements in one corner of the property, some of which is underneath the 17th fairway. Over there, if the archaeology isn’t at least 500 years old, it’s not worth worrying about. There was also a 10th-century castle on some of the old maps, but fortunately we never found it, or we might not have been able to finish the course!
At Lost Dunes, in Michigan, we were working on an abandoned sand quarry, and occasionally I would find a little pocket of what looked like glass ball bearings, except they had big cracks in them. I had no idea what they were for the longest time, I thought they must have had something to do with the mining equipment. Finally, somebody told me that they were the product of lightning strikes!
The sand on site was used for making glass, and when lightning would strike the soil, it would fuse some of the sand together into little balls of glass. I would not have guessed that in 100 lifetimes.
LG: In reverse to the previous question, what are some of the most interesting features of your courses that remain underneath the grass (I am recalling a previous anecdotes of yours, for example, describing how you and Jack Nicklaus had covered a former pitcher’s mound underneath a green)?
TD: That was the 11th green at Sebonack — there was a softball field where the green sits today. A lot of the landforms we use as features of our golf holes are natural, or just very subtly changed.
For example, the lower ninth green at Pacific Dunes, or the moguls in the 16th fairway there, are exactly what the ground looked like when we started.
LG: Do you find your developments—or in the industry overall–to be cyclical? More specifically, will courses created in the 70s, 80s, or 90s eventually come forward to request a renovation?
TD: Certainly, the development business is a boom-and-bust business, and we’re in the lull again now here in America. But if you’re talking about design styles and design relevance, changes in equipment have always spawned waves of new and tougher designs, going back from when they switched from featherie balls to the gutty and then to the Haskell ball.
In fact, one reason the courses of the 1920s are so revered today, is because single-digit handicappers today hit the ball as far as Bobby Jones and his contemporaries did, and those are the players the courses were designed for.
LG: Having become part of an elite community of designers/architects, can you identify some of the areas of study or experience that gave you an edge, for future golf architects?
TD: It helped me to travel so much when I was in school and just out of school, to see the great courses of the world and figure out for myself what made them special. That’s one advantage the players-turned-architects have on the young people who help them do the planning work.
The other important experience I had was to work for Pete Dye–who took charge of building his own designs–and to get comfortable out on a construction site and understanding everything it takes to get a course built.
That’s really what enabled me to start designing courses on my own when I was so young — the fact that I could say to my early clients not just that I was going to design something cool, but that I could get it built for them. In truth, any golfer could design a course, but not so many can get it built the way they want.
LG: Has your industry shifted over time to emphasize new skills—for example, a better understanding of state real-estate or preservation requirements? More of a need for knowledge over location and grass types?
TD: There are a lot of specialized parts of the planning and construction process and it’s important to understand how they all fit together — how the drainage of the land affects where you ought to locate fairways and greens, for example. Often, though, I think that all the consultants and the latest and greatest methods are making it too difficult to build what you want.
The simpler you can keep the design, and the more the course fits the lay of the land, the more chance you have of getting what you want.
LG: Your background comes from diverse sources, from working with Pete Dye and deeply studying Alister Mackenzie to publishing your own extensive books. What were some of the most enduring effects Dye and MacKenzie had on your style? And as a contemporary, what do you hope will be most enduring from your style on future architects?
TD: Dr. MacKenzie was interested in making courses fun for the average player and Mr. Dye [at least when I worked for him] had lots of clients who wanted a tough tournament course.
And yet, the types of golf holes they tried to include on their courses are very similar.They seemed to cluster their par 4 holes at the short and long ends of the scale instead of building a lot of “medium” par 4s that were easy for the good player and still quite difficult for the average member.
Most people pay more attention to the long and challenging holes, but really good short par 4s are the holes that keep the average player in the game. The good players expect to make birdie on a short hole, so if they don’t, they may get frustrated and lose their focus.
LG: In what areas have you developed a lasting attachment to any (some? all?) of the courses in your portfolio? Perhaps you have created a particularly memorable hole, worked on grounds with a memorable view, etc.?
TD: I’ve been designing courses on my own for 25 years now, and I’ve only built 31 or 32 courses, so most all of these projects represent a year of my life — they are a lot of work and they’ve gotten a lot of attention, not just from me, but all the guys who work for me shaping the greens and bunkers and details. We’re pretty attached to them all.
Plus we’ve worked in some of the most beautiful places in the world — not just in Bandon and at Cape Kidnappers and Barnbougle, but places like Stone Eagle in Palm Desert and Rock Creek in Montana and Ballyneal and Dismal River and Sebonack.
There are a lot of architects that would kill for just one site like those in their lifetime. Some of our best holes were just laying there for us, and it’s always cool when we find something like that. But really, some of my favorite golf holes are the ones which weren’t so obvious, where I really had to think for a while about how to make that hole interesting, and it worked out.
For example, on the first course I built, High Pointe in Michigan, I thought when we started that the 12th and 14th holes would be the best holes on the course, and I wasn’t sure about the 13th. But then we built a great green and it turned out that the 13th hole was the stand out of the bunch. In fact, it was one of the best I’ve ever built.
I really miss that course — it closed for play four years ago, and someday–when my travel schedule slows down a bit–I may try to put it back together.
LG: What can you tell us about new projects? For example, what can we expect from the new book edition you’re working on or new courses you’ll soon unveil?
TD: Well, we built a new course at Dismal River in Nebraska last year. That’s just opening and I think it is going to be something special. It’s a beautiful, open, sand hills property that works its way down to the edge of the river, with some of the most natural holes I’ve ever found … I think there were eight or nine greens that didn’t take more than an hour to build, because the undulations were already there. I’m excited to get back and play it this fall, and get a sense of where it stands.
This year we’ve been working much further from home — we’ve been building projects in Hainan Island, China; in St. Emilion, France; and on the north island of New Zealand, about an hour-and-a-half north of Auckland, a links course along the beach on the east coast. Each of them is different and pretty special, but I’d guess you and other writers will be opting for photos of the one in New Zealand once it’s completed next year.
It’s also true that I’ve started work on an update to The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. I will most likely publish it in several volumes, over three or four years, because I’ve seen so many more courses since the book went public 20 years ago. It’s been an impetus for me to get back to traveling to new parts of the world, and seeing some of what other designers are building, instead of just what we are up to.
Hopefully it will be more than just a book, and provide more inspiration for my next batch of designs. And hopefully no one will be too upset with my opinions of all the things I’ve seen.
Each of the courses in the Tom Doak/Renaissance Golf portfolio has its own personality. We crafted this “Tom Doak Trail” map partly to provide some perspective on the growth of his career but mainly to give you some ideas for planning a Doak destination vacation.