Tom Doak is a golf course architect. He was a finalist for the Olympic Course commission in Rio De Janeiro, Brasil and has gained attention for his work at Pacific Dunes and Old MacDonald in Oregon, Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand. In 2012, his Renaissance Golf Design firm’s course at Streamsong in Florida will open. Mr. Doak answered nearly a dozen questions for BuffaloGolfer a few years back; we’d like to review those for you today.
1) Your Confidential Guide has attained a cult-like following and inspired many. Given years of reflection, what one or two things do you wish you had known before you published your first edition? Perhaps along a similar line, is there a single regret that stands out
The original book was written strictly to be shared with my friends, which is why it could be so blunt. If I’d known I was writing for a larger audience, I’m sure it would have been different — neither as controversial nor as popular. So in hindsight, that’s been a plus. I guess my only regret would be that not everyone who reads it imagines me as a friend,
thus they are more likely to take offense to my words.
2) In interviews over the years, you’ve indicated the major influence from Pete Dye was the importance of being on-site during construction and supervising the “3-D” Design Work. In 20 years or so, what do you think or hope will be your lasting influence on one of your staff?
I would hope that everyone’s experience on our job sites has reinforced the view that it takes a lot of smart and talented people to create something really worthwhile, and that none of them think they should do it all by themselves.
3) Throughout your years of design, on which project was it easiest for you to visualize the routing you knew was “right”?
At both St. Andrews Beach and Sebonack, I did a routing for the course before I set foot on the property and that routing turned out to be pretty much the final one. That was possible because at St.Andrews Beach, there were no offsite views which affected what we might want to do, and at Sebonack, the views of the water were easily predicted from looking at the map.
4) In a past interview, you mentioned how operating bulldozers often led you to change the shape of greens from the original intent. Can you think of one or two more memorable instances where a hole ended up dramatically different from your intentions during the construction phase?
I guess the most obvious one would be the ninth at Pacific Dunes … we built the lower (left) green as an alternate after the upper one was pretty much complete, once I realized the tee shot would play so much differently to one than the other. Another that comes right to mind is the seventh green at Ballyneal, which some people think is one of the coolest greens
I’ve ever built. It’s inspired by the seventh green at Crystal Downs, the Alister MacKenzie course where I’m a member; for wenty years I’ve had in the back of my mind that I would love to build a green like that one somewhere, someday. But the green site at Ballyneal was not at all an obvious place for it … it sits in a long, skinny valley, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out what to do with it, because if we left long grass partway down the banks a lot of balls would get stuck on the sides, but if we mowed the grass all the way up the banks then everything would just run down onto the green. I must have stared at that green site ten different days trying to solve that problem, and then one day, Eureka … I let the green run way up the bank on the left side, and cut a bunker into the right side that jutted right into the green, so you could use the bank on the left to approach (or putt) around the bunker. It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t obvious at all.
5) Design philosophies are often referred to as a continual evolution of ideas and influences. As you reflect on your career, can you think of some of the biggest “leaps in evolution” that you have experienced? Was there a particular course or discovery that profoundly affected your future design efforts?
I don’t think that my ideas on how to make a golf course interesting and challenging have changed a whole lot in the last twenty years. Most of those ideas come from having worked for Mr. Dye and from seeing all the best courses in the world, particularly in the UK — and I’d had all of that experience by the time I was 25. I think the biggest leap for me has been that when I started building courses, I didn’t pay too much attention to what they looked like — I was only interested in how they played, which I believed was the essence of the Scottish links courses. But, at some point, I decided that the esthetics
of the golf course were just as important to most golfers as the playability, and that if we tried harder, we could find solutions for the golf holes that were interesting and challenging AND beautiful and natural-looking. And I really think that’s been the reason for our successes in recent years; we’ve had some beautiful properties to work with, and we knew
how to focus golfers’ attention on how beautiful they are. That new focus has only been possible as my team of associates grew, and we had that many more eyes on the ground, committed to trying to make the golf holes work from all angles. A big part of “my” evolution as a designer is really due to their evolution and the additional contributions that they’re able to make to the effort.
6) What is the biggest misconception of your work?
The biggest misconception is that we don’t move any earth in building our courses, or that we don’t know how to. The truth is that I am RELUCTANT to move earth to build a hole if I don’t need to, because I recognize that every time you make that choice, it’s harder to put all the pieces back together and hide the work from view. But as we’ve gotten better at doing it, I’ve gotten more confident at it, too; and now I’m not at all afraid to move earth where I think it will really make a hole better. We’ve done more on some properties than people realize, and we take great pride in making it hard for anyone to tell. I guess a lot of that reputation comes from having had such beautiful properties to build on, so people think that’s all we can do. We could build courses on any kind of land. But we’re only going to build two or three per year, and all else being equal, we’d rather take the most beautiful sites we have to choose from.
7. Please let us know how you were introduced to golf and how (if at all) this introduction/these formative years played a part in your career selection.
I started playing like most young kids do … first miniature golf, then going to the driving range with my dad. When I was nine, a new public course opened a mile from my house, and all of a sudden golf became a real possibility, because my parents didn’t play much so we would not have joined a private club. The little golf my dad did play was on business for his company, and one of those trips was our summer vacation … so when I was 11-12-13 years old I got to play Harbour Town, Pinehurst and Pebble Beach. They were so much different than my little home course that I became fascinated by golf course
8. Discuss your program at Cornell University and how it developed/morphed as you went along.
There isn’t really a program in golf course architecture, and with good reason … if you had 20 graduates a year, they could never succeed. It’s a very individualistic pursuit. Most of the business is learned through apprenticeship, but Cornell had a good landscape architecture program, and I could take courses in turf management and ecology there, too, which is as good a foundation as you could have.
9. It is our understanding that a portion of the Cornell program was spent in Great Britain/Ireland. Clearly, those courses would have influenced your perspective on golf course quality. What USA courses had a prior influence (before you traveled abroad) on your sense of golf course quality?
My year’s study in the UK and Ireland was courtesy of a postgraduate scholarship, designed for someone who couldn’t study exactly what they’d wanted to in school. Golf architecture fit the bill pretty well. And I had already demonstrated I was pretty serious … from the time I got into college, I wrote to the best courses in the USA and asked if I could come and visit, so by the time I graduated I had already seen Merion, Pine Valley, Shinnecock, Seminole, San Francisco Golf Club, et al. The summer of my junior year I also started working for Pete Dye, so I had a little bit of knowledge about golf course
construction and what I should be looking for on all those great courses.
10. What elements (try to limit it to three or four, if possible) does the average golfer miss/fail to understand about your golf courses, that would help them substantially (to score better, to enjoy the round more, or both) were they to comprehend their importance?
On a good course, course management plays a big role in scoring. I try to make most of my golf holes to reward a player who is approaching from below the hole, whether he’s on the green or still off it; so to play them well you have to think backwards from green to tee, knowing where the hole is cut that day, and figure out how to approach the green headed
into the slope instead of having the slope sidehill to you or falling away from you. Every golfer has different strengths and weaknesses, and I try not to favor one skill over another. A lot of people think that my courses are focused too much on short game skills — chipping and putting — but that’s only true when you are leaving yourself on the wrong side of the hole.
11. What question have I (and every other interviewer) failed to ask, that you believe should be asked and that you wish to address?
Most people seem to think that golf architecture is a top-down profession, that we create this elaborate design in our heads on day 1, and then just go and build that. In fact, design is an ongoing process throughout the construction of the course, and you get opportunities every day to add small details and make the course even better. I think my courses
have been well-received because I’ve been willing to put several associates on the ground to work on all those small details. It’s anything but a one-man show.