Tom Doak

Doak’s Pacific Dunes is a wonderful example of using the land to create a stunning course.

Doak’s Pacific Dunes is a wonderful example of using the land to create a stunning course.

I got interested in golf course architecture because I was fascinated there was such a difference between the little public course I grew up playing – Sterling Farms in Connecticut – and the courses I’d go to with my dad when he went to conventions. Some of the very first courses I saw were Harbour Town, Pinehurst, Pebble Beach... quite a bit different from Sterling Farms! Somewhere between Harbour Town and Pebble Beach I thought to myself, “I really love this”.

“I play off 11. The lowest I’ve been is four, which is low enough to know I’d never make it as a player. When I was 15, I knew I wasn’t going to pursue it, so architecture was the next best thing – a way to be involved in golf and in the parts of golf that really appealed to me. It turns out it was actually a better thing.”

“At college in upstate New York it was snowy all winter so there was no golf, just lectures and darkness. I wrote a ton of letters to people in the golf business asking “What would you do if you were me?” I got so much help. Other people my age were interested in golf course architecture – and a bunch are in the business now – but none of them wrote a letter to Ben Crenshaw asking for advice. I got to spend time with all of them, talked about design and what courses I should go see.” 

”If I hadn’t gone to St. Andrews for a year in the summer of 1982, my design philosophy would be very different today. The timing of that trip was perfect. I’d worked one summer on a construction crew for Mr. Pete Dye, I’d just gone through college, I’d seen a bunch of the best courses in the States, but I hadn’t been indoctrinated by anybody on design in terms of what you should or shouldn’t do. Nowadays, American designers come over here for their conventions, play six or eight great courses and say, “Oh you could never do anything like this today.” But I was too young to view it that way. My thinking was, “Why aren’t there more courses like this in the States?” So it was the perfect time to look at everything with an open mind. At Lahinch, I sat to the side of the blind par-3 ‘Dell’ – a hole some people don’t like very much – for a whole afternoon and just watched groups play it.”

”In that summer, I actually stayed in the Golf World house at The Open at Troon. I slept on a camp bed. Then, months later, after I’d travelled around the UK, I went to their office in London and showed them my pictures of courses I’d shot. I sold them a bunch of my photos and they started doing more features on golf in the UK, as before that they just hadn’t had enough images.”

”Renovating a course and building your own are entirely different things. We are very proud of our renovation work, but we only do it at clubs where we really respect the course and so
are really not trying to change them that much. We are just trying to get them back to where they are supposed to be. But is that as much fun as creating something new? Not really.” 

“When I spent my year overseas, I thought I would never get a chance to design a links or a heathland course. But I’ve built – depending on how strict a definition you want to have – between four and seven links. I’ve never had a chance to build a heathland; what I am doing at Woodhall Spa (see next month’s issue) is as close as I’ve got. It’s really exciting, to work with the real thing.” 

”My philosophy hasn’t changed much since my first course, High Pointe in 1989. I still prefer to err on the side of moving too little dirt as opposed to too much. I still believe the most important things are the routing and where you put all the holes in the first place. Then the greens dictate the design backwards towards the tee. If you do that well, you don’t need to do a lot else. That really hasn’t changed that much. But my clients have changed some over the years, both in the resources they have and the sites I’ve been given.”

”I can only enjoy a course as a player and not worry about its architecture if I know it well. Even on my own designs it takes three years of going back before I am comfortable playing them. The first couple of years I go back, the greenkeeper and owner have 50 questions for me. I learn more about my courses from watching other people play them. Although I can visualise it pretty well for myself, I’m looking to see what a really good player or what a really bad player does that I didn’t expect.”

”People ask me about the Confidential Guides a lot. It is a big part of my reputation, I suppose. On one hand it was great for my business because everything in the books is what makes me knowledgeable about architecture. So you might want to hire me because I’ve seen so much. But by the same token, the book is very controversial because the original version was written for my friends. I was just dead honest and wasn’t worried about being politically correct. That’s the appeal of them. I can’t neuter the book to make it more politically acceptable.”

“Just because I might have strident views on design, doesn’t mean that I am difficult to work with.”

 “People spend too much time thinking about the marks I give courses. Mostly I am trying to write little paragraphs – in the Confidential Guide, all those reviews are short. I’m not really trying
to explain every hole to somebody, I’m just trying to give a sense of whether you’d be interested in going to see it. There is no structure to how I assess a course. I find it much easier to write it down if I wait a couple months. If I try to write about it right away, too much detail. If I wait for two months, it boils down to the most important things. It’s ‘what makes this different?’ is easier to think about a little later than right away.”  

”While my philosophy has been branded minimalist – and I’m a pretty big believer in my own work – I don’t think that should be the only kind of golf course out there. But course architecture is a business of trends, so once people see someone getting a lot of attention for doing something a certain way, they start to make their courses look similar to that. Nearly all the young guys starting to get attention are doing that same style. I haven’t seen anybody do something different in the last 10 years, but it is a hard time to do that. Usually you get that kind of work when there is so much being built that the only way to attract attention is to do something different. Now, the few new courses that are being built, the client tends to want to do something more conservative he knows people will like rather than something wild he is not sure about.”

A lot of the people at the top of architecture now are friends or have worked together. Bill Coore and I both worked for Pete Dye a few years apart. I’ve known Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw longer than they have known each other. And then
Gil Hanse worked for me. Mike DeVries worked for me. There have been a lot of talented guys who have worked for two or three firms and are out doing their own thing now. There is a lot of talent out there and not enough to keep them all busy.”

”The par 4s are the strength of nearly every course I’ve designed. There’s much more strategy to a par 4 than a par 3. For a start, it makes a lot of difference which side you come in from – and I’m trying to accentuate that as much as I can. I look at a lot of famous par 3s and think to myself that it’s all so straightforward. When people talk about the par 3s they really like, at least half of them you could just describe as a small green surrounded by bunkers and a pretty view. I tend to look for the longer holes first and use the par 3s to bridge the gaps.”

I used to think about my legacy, but once you’ve built a couple of golf courses that you are confident people are going to remember you by, you don’t have to worry about that so much. It frees you up. You don’t have to try to build a Top-100 golf course in the world any more. I’ve built 35 courses now, and they don’t all have a chance to be in that celebrated Top-100. Even if they were all terrific sites, only a few of them will be rated in those lists. So I’ve stopped worrying about those lists at all.” 

”I’ve never been too bothered by opinions of my courses. I’ve always been happy if I am happy with how they have turned out. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. And it would be a mistake to start trying to somehow please everyone. I have this little niche of the business, where I appeal to only five or 10% of potential clients. A lot would just think me spending so much time on site tinkering with these fine little details was a waste of time and money. They don’t want to talk to an architect who is going to do all that. And that’s fine.”

”I like to travel, but I travel too much for my job. I like to go places for fun. When you are going back and forth to the same place seven or eight times over a year or two, it gets a little old. And when I am working on something that’s supposed to be really good, it’s hard to go and play golf or really enjoy stuff. While building Saint Emillionais in Bordeaux it was easy to enjoy some lovely meals but I really didn’t get to see much of the rest of the South of France. I was building the course too much.” 

Nick Wright