The 6th hole at the Castle Course at St. Andrews.
Larry Lambrecht
Thursday, September 18, 2014

Once regarded as the brash young voice of golf course architecture for his unabashed critiques of other designers’ work, Tom Doak may have mellowed into middle age. At 53, a looming figure in his field, he seems less enfant terrible than eminence grise.

But if the years have softened his sharpest edges, Doak still favors plain talk over politesse, and he rarely pulls punches with his opinions, a trait he’ll demonstrate in print next month with the publication of The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Volume I.

An updated version of a book of the same name, which, on its release in 1996, displayed Doak’s comfort with discomfitting candor, the new work is the first in a planned five-volume series of course reviews.

In this initial installment, Doak and three collaborators focus on Great Britain and Ireland, producing short write-ups on 288 courses and assigning a zero-to-10 grade to each.

The reviews, Doak says, are meant to serve as a traveler’s companion, helping readers decide where they should play while pointing them to more than just the usual suspects that populate Top 100 lists.

Not surprisingly, given the ground they cover, Doak and Co. don’t turn up a lot of stinkers.

One notable exception lies in Doak’s assessment of the Castle Course in St. Andrews, a layout designed by Doak’s contemporary and competitor, the Scottish-born architect David McLay Kidd.

Doak gives it a goose-egg, making it the only course in Volume I to earn a zero rating.

The grade appears alongside this review:

“A friend of mine who had never played The Old Course waited for hours at the starter's box in July to try to get out as a single, and as the day was starting to wane, he told the starter he was thinking of going up to The Castle Course instead. ‘No laddie, you don't want to do that,’ came the reply. ‘We'll get you out yet.’

I'm with the starter on this one. I feel for David Kidd because a lot of the criticisms of the course are things one might say about The Old Course if it wasn't so famous: the greens are huge and wild, and it's hard to discern the strategy from the tee. However, the severe tilt of the land and the size of the greens yields a lot of recovery shots to greens that are up over your head, and the moonscape of the course is only appealing when you’re looking away from it, across the bay toward town. Trying to one-up Kingsbarns (a heralded course just up the road) turned out to be a formula for excess.”

While Doak has penned far harsher passages before (in his original Confidential Guide, he called a Tom Fazio course “absolutely vapid” and dismissed the architect Desmond Muirhead as “a quack”), he couldn’t have handed out a harsher grade. Two of his collaborators, Darius Oliver and Masa Nishijima, did not concur; both awarded the Castle Course a 5. Doak’s third collaborator, Ran Morrissett, didn’t see the course and did not give it a grade.

In the world of golf architecture, as in golf itself, negative peer reviews rarely appear in public, which makes them all the more brow-raising when they do. This one involves two prominent names whose paths have intertwined before. Both Kidd and Doak enjoyed their first big design breaks at Bandon Dunes Resort, the architects, respectively, of the property’s first two courses.

Though an ardent fan of Doak, Bandon’s developer, Mike Keiser passed him over for the first job, partly out of concern for what he later described as Doak’s tendency toward “scandalous honesty.”

In Dream Golf, Stephin Goodwin’s account of the making of Bandon Dunes, Keiser is quoted as saying that “Tom had too many negatives to do the first course.”

Kidd got the nod to build Bandon Dunes, which opened to acclaim in 1999. But when Doak got his chance, the result, in 2001, was Pacific Dunes, which wound up ranking even higher on most official lists. Keiser tapped Doak again to design Bandon’s fourth course, Old MacDonald, which opened in 2010.

In industry circles, the Kidd-Doak relationship has been described as frosty.

Doak says that’s not so.

“I like David,” he says. “He’s got a healthy competitiveness that I respect. But do I recommend that people go play the Castle Course? No.”

Kidd, who lives in Oregon, was traveling overseas this week, but he rang in from London and was asked for his reaction to Doak’s Castle Course review. He said it was the first he’d heard of the “0” rating.

“That’s pretty ridiculous,” Kidd said. “Ok, so maybe it’s not a 10. But it is a zero? No way.”

He chalked up the grade to “Tom letting his emotions cloud his impartiality.”

As for the Castle Course itself, Kidd repeated what he has often said about the layout: that he knew from the start that it would polarize opinions, given its standing as the seventh course in the hallowed St. Andrews Links Trust, not to mention its setting, on a bluff overlooking the home of golf.

He acknowledged that the land itself was “relatively boring,” which nudged him toward a bold design approach.

“I knew that no matter what I built, it was going to piss off half the people,” Kidd said. “So at some point, you say, screw it, I’m going to go balls out.”

For every golfer who dislikes the Castle Course, Kidd said he could find another “who loves playing it.”

On a more philosophical note, Kidd added, “I don’t appreciate being reviewed by one of my peers. I think it's pretty childish. But I suppose any publicity is good publicity, right?”

Then there was this upside: “Maybe the next time a great site becomes available, I get the job.”

Kidd didn’t say what site he had in mind.

As you may have heard, though, Mike Keiser is developing a resort in Wisconsin, with permitting approved for 90 golf holes. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are building the first course.

It has yet to be decided who will build the next.

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