Feature Interview No. 6 with Tom Doak
1. Far and away more Golden Age courses in North America are covered in Volume 3 than Volume 2 where population centers/golf languished before the air conditioner. As you drove across outposts like Maine and upstate New York, were you reacquainted with the work of a few particular Golden Age architects whose work stood out?
I was pretty unfamiliar with the work of Bill Langford and Wayne Stiles and Willie Park, Jr., previously. I’d seen one or two of their best courses, perhaps … now that I’ve seen five, I have a lot more respect for each of them. But far and away, the architect whose work stood out this trip was a familiar name — Donald Ross. There are 80+ Ross courses just in Volume 3, all over New England, and across upstate New York and Ohio, in the mountains of N.C., all around Detroit and Chicago, and even out to Iowa. So, I went into this book thinking that some of Mr. Ross’s famous championship courses were overrated … and I came out realizing that those courses might not even be in his personal top 25 or top 40.
2. When the first mainstream Confidential Guide was released, the term ‘restoration’ barely applied in the golf world. Now, countless courses have been restored from Boston to New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago. What are three favorite restorative works that you have seen that are covered in Volume 3?
You’ve seen more of these restorations than I have, by far! And a lot of the really good work I’ve seen, I can only project how good the recent work was, because I hadn’t seen the courses pre-restoration: places like the Country Club of Buffalo, or Barton Hills in Michigan, or Davenport in Iowa. The most-improved that I’ve seen before and after? It’s a pretty short list. The one that amazes me most is Shoreacres, because I had been consulting there for many years, and I had no clue how much it would be improved when they did their last round of work there 2-3 years ago.
3. Which of those five major cities above have lifted the overall quality of its golf the most since the first Guide?
Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten back to play much in Boston or Philadelphia in ages, so I haven’t seen a lot of the restoration work that has been done there recently. There’s some really good work around Detroit, but I’ve only seen a small portion of it. So I will have to give a shout-out to Chicago. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have even mentioned the Chicago courses in the same class as Boston or Philadelphia or New York, but there has been great work done all down the list there, from Chicago Golf and Shoreacres to Old Elm, Skokie, Flossmoor, Glen View, etc. It still may rank behind Boston and Philly, but it’s a way closer game than it used to be.
4. Which course(s) would you like an opportunity to restore?
Courses I’d love to restore: High Pointe – though that can’t happen now.
Oakland Hills – but they hired somebody else.
White Bear Yacht Club needs more trees out.
5. Are there course ‘restorations’ that are really ‘renovations’ that have devalued their rankings?
Can’t think of many that fit this description. The only renovations I don’t like are those where the consultant really didn’t respect the original design. There are fewer of those nowadays than 20 years ago.
6. There are more of your courses (x) in this book than the prior two combined. Is assigning a grade to your own work extremely difficult? Did you ever consider not grading your own work to avoid such conflict?
I’ve rated my own courses in this edition from a 4 up to a 10, the same wide range of grades that other architects have gotten. The hardest part of that is that I’ve got clients who think my grades are too low, at the same time readers think they’re too high. So it would be very easy to make “politically correct” grades for my own courses, if I was that kind of person. But I’m not. One or two of my best clients are not going to be happy with an 8 — even though most of my 8’s are usually ranked among the top courses in the world! I suppose it would have been easier to leave that to you and Masa and Darius, if that wouldn’t have been a real cop-out. But you all have only played those courses once or twice, when I know them inside out, so it would be stupid if I didn’t weigh in. I just looked back on the grades in Volume 3, and of my nineteen courses, there are only four that I rated higher than you did — and there’s one (Black Forest) which you rate two points higher than I do!
7. If confined to playing only courses in Volume 1, 2 or 3, which would you pick and why? As a backdrop, Volume 1 has the strongest walking ethos, Volume 2 has your favorite architect of all time and Volume 3 has more world top 30 courses.
The quantity of great courses in Volume 3 beats the first two by almost any metric. Probably the two most meaningful to me are 1) fully half of the fourteen courses I’ve rated a 10 are in this region, and 2) more than half of my own designs [19 of them, and it would have been 21 with High Pointe and Beechtree] are part of Volume 3. To be fair, though, this region is ten times the area of the UK and Ireland and has probably three or four times as many golf courses overall as the UK. I could be perfectly happy playing the rest of my days in the UK, too.
8. Your writings continue to glamorize worthy 9 holers. In this volume, Hooper, Whitinsville, The Dunes and Culver all get massive shout-outs. In general though, 9 holers stimulate little excitement and even less media coverage. Do you see this changing?
I have a fondness for great nine-hole courses, much more so than the bean-counters in the golf business, who can’t see how they can make as much money off nine holes as they can off eighteen. That’s not part of my equation. In theory, it should be much easier to pull off a great nine-hole course than a great eighteen-holer, so there should be a lot of them … but there aren’t because most people INSIST on also building the second, inferior nine holes. I admire the guys who were happy to settle for something small and beautiful. And there are a lot of small towns that can only support nine holes.
9. Are there more 7s and higher in this book than the other two? Does that mean that the average quality of the courses covered in Volume 3 is the highest yet or is it the product of selective sampling?
I believe there are twice as many courses in Volume 3 as in Volume 2, which at least one of us rated a 7 or higher … something like 120 courses. [It’s easy to count in the Gazetteer where I list the courses by their Doak Scale ratings.] But, again, sample size is important, especially if you are comparing this region to Volume 1. If we were really surveying every single course in the two countries, I think the average course in the UK would be superior to the average course in the USA.
10. Nobody thinks of Iowa as a hotbed for interesting golf, yet you had a great trip there. Tell us the highlights.
Well, I trekked my way across Iowa in three days in April … not the best month for golf there. The wind chill never got above 50 degrees for my entire trip! So I only played once, , with the superintendent at Keith Foster’s Harvester GC. But I thought Harvester and Cedar Rapids [D. Ross] and Davenport CC [Alison] were all excellent courses. And then the next tier includes Perry Maxwell’s Veenker Memorial course at Iowa State, and Wakonda [Langford] and Des Moines G & CC [36 holes by Pete Dye]. That’s a heck of a variety of good courses in a good, windy climate. But Harvester is really the only public course in that group, so they’re not advertising an Iowa Golf Trail or anything, and they fly under the radar.
11. Is that an example of going to an area that in all likelihood you might never have ventured to if not for the sake of the book?
I don’t know that I would have made any of the golf trips I made last year if it wasn’t for Volume 3. I guess I would have gotten to Banff and Jasper sooner or later, but Prouts Neck in Maine? Or Bald Peak in New Hampshire? Or all the Ross courses in upstate NY? Or Mt. Bruno in Montreal? It’s hard to make time for places like that, not knowing how good they are. But I like doing the legwork, so that others will know what not to miss.
12. You don’t mince words yet you know the press awaits to latch onto a review or a grade and try and cause a ruckus. Does that make it harder for you to speak your mind or is it a case of all publicity is good?
I do NOT come from the Donald Trump School of Public Relations [“all publicity is good”]. But like The Donald, I care more about reaching other people who agree with my point of view, than I worry about offending people who don’t agree. You can’t do that if you don’t tell people what you really think. I have grown weary of the stereotype that I’m “difficult” just because I speak my mind: any of my clients would happily refute that, but nobody ever asks them, because the stereotype is easy to repeat.
13. You state that Glens Falls wedges its way into your Ross top 10. That’s quite a statement, especially since it is an awkward piece of property with a big hill in the middle of it. How did Ross do it?
I liked Glens Falls because it is such a great solution for such an awkward property. The dimensions of the site make it impossible to route a course without playing up and over the hill. But necessity is the mother of invention, and Ross embraced a couple of great “up and over” holes that are nothing like any of his other courses I’ve seen.
14. Is it accurate to say that you (as an architect) look at a course in part based on how you would or wouldn’t have built it?
I try hard to avoid judging a course by thinking what I would have done differently there … for me, the great attraction is to see what the other guy did that I wouldn’t have thought of. We all have a fondness for certain types of courses and certain features, but I can appreciate something completely different, even if it’s never going to be a personal favorite.
15. Is there an example of a course that you really admire though you wouldn’t have built anything similar?
A good example from this summer’s travels is Pikewood National in West Virginia, which I walked around with Bob Gwynne, one of the two co-designers. Bob and his partner John Raese are both low-handicappers and Oakmont members, and their idea of “honest golf” was to build a course that rewarded good players for consistently solid ball-striking. It’s minimalist in a different sense than my work … they only built 23 bunkers [just three fairway bunkers!]. But their routing is an excellent use of the terrain, it’s a beautiful place in every respect, and some of the little details of the walk paths are way better done than anyplace I’ve seen lately. I really admired the piece of work, even though I don’t rate it as highly as the GOLF DIGEST panelists do.
16. Your co-authors know the definition of the Doak scale and are to grade accordingly. On the occasion when one of them disagrees by 2 points or more to your grade, is the mostly likely reason a time gap between the two visits during which improvements were made (i.e. the two people are rating a materially different course)? Or is it just as likely to be a genuine disagreement on the quality of the design?
Of course, everything about golf course architecture is subjective, so it’s not surprising that we disagree often. There are lots of courses where my first thought would be “it’s either a 6 or a 7,” and no matter which grade I wind up assigning, it’s likely that either you or Darius or Masa will give it the other one. Where there’s a two-point difference, I think you can attribute one point to that, and the second point to changes in the course over time, whether it’s been restored architecturally or just brought back into excellent shape. I am sure that there are plenty of other people who would assign a “5” to some course I think is an “8” — or, more likely, vice versa — but the four of us have similar enough tastes that it’s not going to come up too often, and I think that’s critical to the continuity of the book. If we had included someone with a completely different take on many courses, then you’d have to look much harder at the grades to see which of us had weighed in on each course.
17. What’s more irritating – a design where little thought was given or a design that wastes a very fine piece of property?
For me, personally, it’s a shame to see a great piece of property wasted. But in today’s market, the bigger shame is to find a new course that’s just mediocre. I think if you have a reasonable piece of property and a modest but sufficient budget, you ought to be able to build at least a 5 on the Doak scale, and hopefully a 6 … and there are a ton of young architects out there now who can do that. It’s a shame they don’t get the chance, in favor of veterans who no longer have a passion for the craft.
18. Conversely, which accomplishment impresses you more – a design that makes the most of a mundane site or one that lives up to the potential of excellent property?
The end product is the golf course, not the architecture of it. I don’t really care whether one course required more work than another; I just want to play the better course in the end, and so I just want to build the better course in the end. What golfer doesn’t? And if I can’t guess at what the limitations of the project were, I can’t imagine how anyone who’s not an architect would believe they can tell.
19. What was the most surprising feedback from Volume 2?
The one disappointment about the series of books so far has been the lack of feedback — what courses we’ve missed, what people have liked most, etc. Most of what I’ve heard are arguments that a particular course should have received a better grade, and/or that I need to get back somewhere because it’s way better now. For the original version of the book, and the limited edition version, I got long letters from readers sharing their favorites. That was even how I heard from you for the first time, as you’ll recall. This time around, there’s been a lot less of that, although the architect Paul Jansen has given me a long list of courses worth exploring for Volumes 4 and 5. If I go to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, it will be because of him!
20. Which part of the world will be covered in Volume 4?
Volume 4 will cover Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; Volume 5 will cover Asia and the Pacific. But at the moment I’m leaning toward completing Volume 5 before Volume 4, based on where my work takes me in the next 18 months. I plan to take a year off from the grind of getting another book out, to give myself time to travel, so you won’t see either of these books until 2018, and the last one in 2019.
21. There is a voluminous amount of territory to cover in Volumes 4 & 5. Let’s put it in perspective. Since deciding in 2011 to update the original Guide, how many miles did you travel for Volume 1? Volume 2? Volume 3? And how many miles do you guess you will for the last two volumes?
For volume 1, I made a brief trip to the northwest of Ireland, a longer trip to Birmingham and the western part of England, and two trips to Scotland: one to Castle Stuart/Fraserburgh and the courses in between, and a second to the courses in the far north-west. So, four overseas trips [25,000 miles] plus a fair amount of driving.
For volume 2, I made an 18-day trip to South America [I think we flew 15,000 miles for that one], a couple of stopovers in the Caribbean, a road trip through Louisiana and Mississippi and the Florida panhandle, and a smaller road trip to Arkansas and Oklahoma. Punta Arenas, in Chile, was the farthest spot from home for any of the first three volumes, but even with that, I probably traveled the fewest miles for Volume 2.
For volume 3, my trips included Banff and Jasper, Washington, Oregon, Utah-Idaho-Wyoming, western Mass and upstate NY, Iowa, West Virginia-Ohio-Kentucky, Maine-New Hampshire-Vermont and Nova Scotia. That was probably the most car miles for any volume, and again right around 25,000 air miles, because it took nine trips to do it all.
Volumes 4 and 5 will be a tremendous amount of travel if I really go to all the places I’d like to go. I’m sure I won’t get to everywhere I’d like to go, but my to-do list includes 18 countries where I’ve yet to play golf: Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Bulgaria, Poland, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Israel, Greece, Morocco, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mauritius — and that’s just volume 4!
For volume 5, I’ve already made trips to Fiji and Samoa and King Island, and the dream list includes Guam, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia. I suppose I will rack up the most air miles for that one, although much depends on how many separate trips it’s broken up into for Asia, as opposed to Europe.
Good luck and safe travels!
Volume 3 (as well as Volumes 1 & 2) can be acquired at www.renaissancegolf.com/books/the_confidential_guide_to_golf/.