Feature Interview with Tom Doak
June, 2009

1. You remarked two years ago that a true world class course could attract and hold a membership. Do you still believe that to be true in these uncertain economic times?

I guess we’ll find out over the next few years.  For certain, some of the more “remote” destinations which were some of our coolest projects will struggle in the current economy.  But their ultimate destiny has to do with their business plan and financial backing, as much or more than the actual design.

2. What did/does Pacific Dunes mean to your career?

It meant we would get more chances to work on great ground.  But I think we had to “validate” its success with our projects in Australia and New Zealand before developers put us in the upper echelon of architects.

Though Pacific Dunes was Doak's first world class site, many still consider it his best work.

Though Pacific Dunes was Doak's first world class site, many still consider it his best work.

3. Your new public course for the Colorado Golf Association, Common Ground, just opened this past month.  What can you tell us about it?

Everyone in my company grew up playing affordable public golf courses, and as we graduated to building projects like Stone Eagle and Sebonack, we all lamented not building something more for the public sector, and agreed that if the right project came along we wanted to do it even at a great discount to our normal fees.  It didn’t make sense to do that near Traverse City, where the course would compete with others we’ve built, so Denver was the next logical place, since Jim Urbina and Eric Iverson live out there, and Don Placek grew up there.

Then the Common Ground project came along and it was just perfect for what we’d wanted to do.  The CGA’s mission statement was to take a forty-dollar golf course and spend $4 million to turn it into a really good forty-dollar golf course.  That’s so rare nowadays … even in the public sector, most golf course developers are obsessed with outdoing the competition so they can charge more money.

I actually tried to convince the CGA just to let Don and Eric and Jim design the course without my involvement, but they wanted me (and my name) directly involved … I was a little disappointed by that, but I agreed to take my compensation in royalties over the next 20 years, so it wouldn’t crimp the budget for the golf course.  Don and I worked on the routing, and we all agreed on a general style, but after that I assigned each of those associates a few holes where they would be more responsible for the design, and turned them loose.

The results are what I would call an eclectic design, not quite as tightly styled as most of the other courses we’ve built lately; but I think the added variety helps compensate for a fairly plain site.  The par-3 holes are one of the best sets we’ve done, and there are a couple of excellent par fives as well, which is interesting because usually I think the par-4’s are the strengths of our designs.

The twelfth at Common Ground outside of Denver is a throwback to a simpler, less cluttered style of architecture.

The twelfth at Common Ground outside of Denver is a throwback to a simpler, less cluttered style of architecture.

4. How would Old Macdonald be different if you hadn’t adhered to the design principles of Charles Blair Macdonald?

It’s hard to say, because I never looked at the property from my own point of view.  Even though we’ve enjoyed a great relationship, I don’t think Mike would have hired us for that course, if we didn’t have the “story” of Macdonald to promote.

The design process for Old Macdonald was very different … instead of finding little features (like the wrinkly stretch of ground at the start of the ninth fairway, or the thirteenth fairway) and trying to figure out how to make best use of them, we started by trying to find the best places to drop in certain types of holes, and then we connected the dots from there.  So, some of the coolest features of the land fall in odd places on some of the holes … but we did our best to incorporate them at that point, instead of wiping them out to proceed with the template.

For example, there are two very cool shoulders of ground to either side of the 8th green, our Biarritz hole.  As you know, most Biarritz holes have rows of parallel bunkers to either side of the green … but there was no way we would wipe out those great shoulders to build a rote version of the hole.  Our Biarritz is reminiscent of the ninth at Yale — without the pond — because it plays so downhill and because the front hole location is interesting for it, but it’s not really like any of the holes that Macdonald and Raynor built. 

When Old Macdonald opens on the centenary of NGLA in 2010, tongues are sure to be wagging.

When Old Macdonald opens on the centenary of NGLA in 2010, tongues are sure to be wagging.

5. How does the loss of St. Andrew’s Beach, Beechtree, High Pointe and Apache Stronghold affect your psyche as an architect?

Beechtree is gone, but Apache Stronghold has reopened, and I am still hoping that the other two survive.  I have been trying to put together a small group of clients and friends to make an offer to buy High Pointe — that’s the only one it makes sense for me to pursue, since it’s in Traverse City, I could be actively involved as the managing partner.  But the owner has no real urgency to sell it … there is no debt; he was just losing money operationally … so it will be tough to buy it for a reasonable price.

St. Andrews Beach is another one I’d really miss, because I only got to play it once, and that was well before it was in good shape.  That was maybe the most perfect site for a golf course I’ve ever had to work with … it reminded me of Sand Hills in that nearly everything was just laying there to be mowed out.  It will be a shame if they can’t figure out how to make it work.

My wife Jennifer was an art major, and she’s reminded me a couple of times lately that art is about the creation, not the legacy.  She’s right, of course, but it’s easier to remember that when you’re busy.

6. Who is the ideal owner for whom to work?

Well, I’ve been very lucky over the years to get to know a lot of the premier golf course developers of this generation, and not only my own clients.  I got to know both Dick Youngscap and Herb Kohler when I worked for Mr. Dye; and Walter Woods introduced me to Mark Parsinen just as he was starting on Kingsbarns.  So I have a pretty good eye for the kind of person who wants to build something great.

A couple of years ago, at a golf conference, a fellow named David Lee approached me and asked me if I was interested in working in China.  I told him we would love to work there someday, but it would only work for us if we could find the right client — someone who was interested more in the golf than in development, who had seen enough good courses to appreciate them from an artistic perspective, and would understand why we focus so much on detail work.  (Because if the client doesn’t understand the value of the detail work, then he will think we’re wasting his money.)  But I wondered aloud if there were any such people in China yet, because the game is so new there.

I didn’t hear from David for two years, but last fall he called and said he might have found the right client for us.  Mr. Han Xiding owns the rights to The Golf Channel in China, but he made his money in advertising, and before that he was a landscape painter, so he might appreciate what we do on an artistic level more than any client we’ve ever had.  (Dick Youngscap is an architect by trade, and I think that perspective is a big part of the success of Sand Hills.)  Mr. Han has been playing golf for four years, near-obsessively — he’s played 861 rounds of golf as of last Sunday at Sebonack, and kept track of every single course and shot!  He’s been to the TPC and The Masters and The Open to negotiate the TV rights, so he’s seen some great courses now, too.

We’re signed up to design two projects for him on Hainan Island, in the southwest of China.  The first should get started this fall, on an island in the Nandu River, right off the capital city of Haikou:  there will be a small luxury golf lodge, and a few home sites, plus the golf course on 300 acres.  The second is going to be a large project at the northernmost point of the island, at Mulan Bay, with lots and lots of rocky coastline and sandy hills.  Mr. Han is our kind of client.

7. As your work schedule became so full, your ability to see new courses had to be compromised. Was that a problem in trying to stay fresh and to keep evolving as an architect?

Having a family curtailed my travel schedule; I’m just lucky that I had the chance to see so much before I got married and had other responsibilities.  I was running out of great old courses to see, anyway.  And, although there has been a lot of great work done over the last ten years or so, I’ve probably forgotten more cool things I saw in the U.K., than I will ever see on all the new courses that will be built from now until Armageddon.  (Which reminds me, I should probably go back and look at my old slide collection one of these days.)

However, I think our growth as designers comes from tinkering around on each new site, more than from seeing a cool course somewhere else.  The most rewarding holes to build are the ones which are really an original product of the site … like the seventh or eleventh holes at Rock Creek, where we were fighting our way across a rugged stretch of terrain and came up with something really cool.  I wish more people got to see that course.

8. Is there an example of a hole or feature that you have built in the last five years that you wouldn’t have thought to do earlier in your career?

Some of the best ideas have always come from my associates.  Usually the location for the hole in the routing is mine, and for some holes I’ve got stronger ideas about the details than for others, but even then one of my associates may add a wrinkle that makes it even better.  That’s why we are able to keep coming up with new ideas.

There are several holes at Old Macdonald that I probably never would have done under my own name … the Macdonald connection was a license to build holes that were even bolder, and to introduce a couple of blind shots which would make most clients uncomfortable.  But we’ll just have to wait and see if that affects what we build next.

9. What five courses do you wish to see the most that you have not?

When I wrote the private edition of The Confidential Guide in 1994, my top three to see were Banff, Jasper, and El Saler in Spain (because I’ve not seen a single course by Javier Arana).  Well, I still haven’t seen any of those!  I actually had a ticket to Banff and Jasper two years ago, and the day before I was supposed to leave, my father in law passed away.  (Turned out it was rainy and 40 degrees in Alberta that week anyway.)  Someday, I’ll get there.  Of newer courses, I’d love to see David Kidd’s new course at Machrihanish, and Gil Hanse’s course at Castle Stuart, but unfortunately they’re not on the way to China.

10. Is there any way of telling if the lofty magazine rankings of Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers, Barnbougle Dunes and Ballyneal have specifically helped you get more work?

I know we’ve had a couple of clients who were impressed by those rankings.  But most of our clients have gone to play one of those courses and loved it — so it’s about their personal reactions to those courses, and not really about the rankings.

Cape Kidnappers's enjoys a one-of-a-kind dramatic setting as the holes play along side soaring cliffs.

Cape Kidnappers's enjoys a one-of-a-kind dramatic setting as the holes play along side soaring cliffs.

11. Take a course like Newcastle in Australia which provides a great test but isn’t necessarily visually dramatic.  For instance, its small pit bunkers don’t feature big crumbling/wind sweep faces of the sort that look so good in magazines. If the club wanted to garner more international attention, what actions would you recommend?

No great course should make changes to try and succeed in the rankings.  Sure, some of the raters are attracted to flashy bunkers or seaside views or to certain styles or names … but eventually those things become overexposed, and people move on to other styles.  A great course has a style of its own.  If that’s not good enough to make the rankings, well, screw the rankings … there are a lot of terrific courses that don’t make them, anyway.

12. In their original form as I saw them in 1994, I would rate the six hole stretch of 10-15 at High Pointe among your top handful of six hole stretches, despite all your subsequent successes. Do you share a similar high opinion of those holes? If not, which three six hole stretches do you consider your best? 

I do love that stretch of holes at High Pointe, although the uphill climb to #13 tee and to the back tee on #14 always made it a bit hard to walk, and holds back the course a bit in being financially sustainable.

I think the stretch of holes at Pacific Dunes which starts at #2 is about as good as we can do.  I don’t even know where to tell you to stop counting there … certainly through #7, if not through 8 and 9.  But there are others.  Barnbougle from #4 to #9, in the biggest dunes there, is an awesome stretch of ground.  The last seven holes at Cape Kidnappers are probably our strongest finishing run, even if Hunter Mahan played them in six under last November.

13. Since our Feature Interview with you ten years ago (!), you have produced four courses in the GOLF Magazine World Top 100 (Ballyneal, Barnbougle Dunes, Cape Kidnappers and Pacific Dunes) and another co-design in the U.S. top 100 (Sebonack). That success is due to what exactly – you becoming a better architect? Getting better sites? More talented people working for you?

All of the above, plus a lot of practice.  I haven’t changed my design philosophy very much at all over the past 20 years.  But I think we’ve become much better at our craft — at implementing that style and at the detail work of shaping and finishing.  That’s because all my associates have gained so much experience, and because we keep attracting bright young talent to help us.

Still, I keep those rankings in perspective.  When we are working on an oceanfront site, we’re three for three on creating a top-50 course; when we’re not at the beach, we’re 0-for-27.  So those rankings are not just about the quality of work we’ve done; they’re about the sites we’ve had to work with.  I really think St. Andrews Beach and Rock Creek and Stone Eagle are just as impressive as the courses you mentioned above — maybe even better work, considering how rocky and difficult the latter two were.  But they’re private and inland, so they won’t get the same attention. 

Whatever the rankings, it’s been a pretty good run. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed that anybody could find that many great sites.

14. Speaking of Sebonack, what one thing would you have done differently had you independently designed the course? Conversely, what one design element did you gain from the partnership with Nicklaus that might not otherwise have transpired if Sebonack was strictly a Renaissance project?

First of all, Sebonack is a Nicklaus/Doak/Pascucci project.  Michael was much more focused on having a course that’s difficult for Tour pros than I am, so even if Jack had not been involved, I would have had to wrestle with Michael about all of those issues. 

There WAS one particular hole where I thought we had something rough shaped that was very cool, but Jack did not like it at all; and our agreement was that we both had to be happy with every hole, so that one had to be sacrificed, even though I liked the original version more than the hole we wound up with.  It was the only day we had out there that was really uncomfortable.  From beginning to end, Jack respected that I might have a different point of view and that Michael wanted to hear that side, too.

Above all, Mr. Nicklaus pressed us to add bunkering to distinguish different routes of play for the B and C and D player.  My own style would have been to give the C player a break here and there, but I am sure that people respect the course more because of those added features.  Apart from the hole I alluded to above, the one hole that is 95% Jack’s is the short par-4 fifth, which is one of my favorite holes there.

The fifth at Sebonak becomes a mean testy little par four the moment one gets out of position.

The fifth at Sebonack becomes a mean testy little par four the moment one gets out of position.

15. Designing courses next door to National Golf Links of America, Shinnecock, and Muirfield (all tens in the Confidential Guide) must be a daunting task. Do you take a different approach to such designs? Do you worry that they will be unfairly judged?

We started that run by building next door to Bandon Dunes, when it was the hottest thing in golf.  And from day one, we took the approach that we weren’t trying to build a course that was better — we were trying to build a course that was DIFFERENT, but just as good.  That approach has served us very well on each of the projects you mentioned.  As for how they’re judged, I wouldn’t expect Sebonack or The Renaissance Club to do as well in the rankings as some of our other courses, partly because of their neighbors, but overall, we certainly can’t complain.

16. Along with Coore & Crenshaw’s work at Sand Hills, your bunkering at Pacific Dunes captured the imagination of the golfers everywhere. Now that similar bunkers are popping up on rocky sites in metropolitan areas, do you feel the style is passé? For instance, your most recent bunkering at Renaissance Club is far more subdued. Does that honestly reflect the site, or is that a conscious decision to go in another direction with style?

There are settings where the “dune style” bunkers look great, but they are not for every site, and as the style starts to become too familiar we are consciously looking for different directions whenever our client will go along with us.  At The Renaissance Club, I thought really flashy bunkers would’ve looked very “un-Scottish” and out of place in that neighborhood.  Plus most of our maintenance crew came over from Gullane where they knew all about how to build and maintain the revetted faces, and it would’ve been crazy not to put their knowledge to work.

17. How many projects (or potential projects) of yours were/are affected by the recent economic downturn?

Pretty much all of them!  A year ago we had five projects headed for construction in 2009, each of them supposedly very well-funded, and yet NONE of those projects are still paying us today.  A couple of them may happen when things start to recover, but we can’t really count on any of them at this point — four of the five were real-estate oriented, and the fifth was a remote private club, and neither of those business models are very promising right now.

Since January I think we’ve had four legitimate new prospects — we used to get that many every month or two — and two of the four are in China.  Development has been affected in all areas, worldwide.  Judging from all the struggling land planners I talk to, I think the next 2-3 years are going to be even leaner than today.

18. Your frankness in the Confidential Guide is obviously still appreciated to this day. Since the publication of the book, what is the best course you have seen? How about the worst?

Keeping our own courses out of the equation, I would say the only course I’ve seen which I think is a clear 9 is Friars Head.  There are several more, all modern designs, which are an 8 — you could guess what most of those are, they’re the same courses that everyone on Golf Club Atlas routinely gives a 9 or 10 on their own version of the Doak scale.  But if you look at my other 9’s — places like Prairie Dunes, Pebble Beach, Royal County Down, and Oakmont — I just don’t think there are many modern courses which can be seen as their equals.  Now, I had great fun seeing Brora in Scotland, or Plymouth Golf Club in Mass., but I couldn’t rate them anywhere near that highly.

The worst course?  Well, the strangest course I’ve seen in a long time was a new course in China, designed by an American firm.  It was a pretty flat site to start with, and they just recontoured the whole thing and capped it with sand.  I was speechless … it just looked bizarre to me.  And that’s what Americans have been passing off as state-of-the-art design to Chinese clients who don’t know much about golf.  I hope that is going to change there very soon.

19. There is no way you could have anticipated that The Confidential Guide would be considered a bible by so many when you wrote it. Having said, are there any entries that you would alter given the scrutiny that the book receives (i.e. a drive by shooting of St. Michaels or Beverly hardly does either service)? If so, what ones?

I’m sure that there are several courses which I underrated, based on one swift visit.  Unfortunately, most of the ones I probably underrated are also courses to which I have never been back (and might not be welcomed with open arms!), and I don’t think it would be right to change my review based on other people’s assurances, even if they are probably right.  What made the book so successful is that it was completely personal, right down to its character flaws.

20. You did some excellent restoration work until your new work swallowed up your time. In the current economic climate, do you see going back to restoration work as part of the natural ebb and flow of business?

Possibly, although I question how many clubs today can afford to embark on big restoration projects.  And there are so many architects trying to get into that side of the business now — it’s become a big show, where you’re supposed to make five visits to the club and do all this “research,” a lot of which seems to be to justify the fees for a big master plan.  The cart is driving the horse now.  If the course was really good, you ought to be able to sort out 90% of the important stuff in the first day, with an old aerial photograph and a good eye.

The toughest part of consulting work is how patient you have to be to get a committee of people to understand your thoughts and act on them, when you know if they would just turn you loose, you’d have everything fixed in a month or two.  Personally, I can only go back to a course so many times to say the same things before it gets old.

21. Of the over 360 holes that you have designed, is there any one in particular that you would like to ‘fix’ and/or work on?

I’ve been dying to get back to Barnbougle, to see if my optional fairway down the left side of the eighth hole works the way it should.  I suspect it doesn’t, that we needed to do a bit more softening of the contours up there.  That hole is in such a dramatic setting, it really ought to play as good as it looks.

Golfers - and architects - frequently need to travel to remote spots to find the most thrilling land forms. Pictured above is the eighth at Barnbougle Dunes on the island of Tasmania.

Golfers - and architects - frequently need to travel to remote spots to find the most thrilling land forms. Pictured above is the eighth at Barnbougle Dunes on the island of Tasmania.

22. With far flung projects, you obviously must rely heavily on your associates. How hard is it to both breed loyalty while still giving them proper credit?

Loyalty has never been an issue.  Everyone who’s ever worked for me has loved being out there, and very motivated to do great work.  And I do rely on them a great deal.  When I go away from the site, I have given them a few ideas to work on the next few holes, and when I get back, those holes have to be ready to finalize.  On some holes I give them a pretty exact plan for what to do, and on others I let them be creative — that’s why they like to work for me, because I give them some responsibility to make decisions, although I can always veto their idea if it doesn’t look right to me.  As long as they are accepting of my role, it works great.

Credit can be more problematic.  I think I’ve been much more open than other designers about which of my associates have worked where, and about giving them credit as a group.  But once you start giving individuals credit, it can create problems within the group.  It’ll create problems for the business as well, if people on the outside start thinking some guys are more valuable than others they’re not as familiar with. 

Often, the most talented people I’ve seen in other firms are guys who aren’t well known at all.  A new shaper or a young associate may actually be the one who is giving the project some new creative energy, but someone above him is going to get the credit for that, because that’s the nature of office politics. 

Most people seem to think golf architecture is a top-down business, that the big-name architect visualizes the whole thing on Day 1 and his staff just implements those ideas; or, if not that, then the lead associate is really doing all the design work when the principal doesn’t have time.  There are some firms that actually operate that way, but to me, the best work happens when you have several talented people on site, and a free flow of creative energy.  A lot of the reason for our success is just that I’ve been willing to staff every project with 3-4 guys, whereas most architects place one or two at the most.

When you do things our way, there is just no way to do the credits “properly.”  I believe it was the same way back in the Golden Age, which is why I have so little patience for those Golf Club Atlas threads which try to rewrite the history of who was primarily responsible for certain classic courses.  Even the guys who did the work would disagree about that.

23. Which one course built in the last fifty years do you most wish you had your name on it that, alas, doesn’t?

Sand Hills, of course.  Dick Youngscap is a friend and a mentor to me, and I would have loved to work with him on a project. But back then I just wasn’t well known enough to help make the project happen.  And of course he had some pretty good alternatives.

There have been four or five other courses where we interviewed for the job and I thought I had routed a great course, but we wound up not getting to build them … those are always disappointing.  Erin Hills was one that everybody knows about; Karsten Creek, in Oklahoma, was another.  I did a routing for the Old Head of Kinsale, but it’s probably just as well we didn’t get that job; they went broke during the first phase of construction and had to reorganize, and the first architect didn’t survive that.  We also did a lot of work on a project on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland, which could have been really special, but the developer failed to get the permits to build it.  The most recent was a project north of Dallas, where we lost out to Jack Nicklaus — although it was a development project so I’m sure it’s on hold now, anyway.

24. Ten years ago you said you sought out Coore and Crenshaw’s work among modern architects. Would you add anyone to that list today?

There are lots of guys doing outstanding work today — I would name eight or ten, but I always manage to leave out someone important, so I won’t start.  I try to get out and see the best of it, especially when it’s by somebody new and different.  But, I just don’t have a lot of time now to get around and see other courses.  If we are building two or three courses a year, that’s 100 days on the road, and then there’s another 50+ days of working on the routings for next year’s projects, checking out prospects for the future, p.r., and consulting.  I feel like I owe it to the clients to concentrate as much as I can on their job, and I owe it to my family to get back home, too.  The entire time we were working on Sebonack, I only played five holes at National one evening, and I didn’t go over to Shinnecock at all [although I did drive through #12 and #13 regularly].  I’ve already had plenty of chances to play at those places.

25. Do you still go out and play golf for fun?

Absolutely, yes.  I just went out to Crystal Downs yesterday with one of our interns, and had a blast playing in high winds.  And I can’t even tell you how much fun it is to go out and play a course you’ve designed … but it generally takes a couple of years after it’s open before you can go out and play it without being asked twenty questions by the client or the superintendent about possible tweaks or problem areas.

One of the sad parts about building courses in all these cool places around the world is that I spend most of my time there before the course is done.  I made eleven trips to Australia and New Zealand when we were building those courses, but the last of them was for the Grand Opening at Barnbougle, and that was four years ago.  I wish it were easier to get back there, or to Scotland or Montana or even Tumble Creek or Ballyneal.

26. What courses do you have on the board right now?

Opening in 2010: Old Macdonald and Bay of Dreams.
In limbo due to economic factors:  The Highlands GC, South Caicos Island; Cacique, Costa Rica; Lake Luciana, Napa Valley, CA; Tropicalia, Dominican Republic; and two others I can’t divulge.

In planning right now: the second course at Black Mesa, New Mexico; The Island Club, Haikou, China; Mulan Bay, China; and a renovation of Keiyo CC, north of Tokyo, Japan.

In negotiation: projects in South Korea and in central Florida, plus one high-profile renovation in California.

The End