Ben Van Hook

Tom Doak does not believe in signature holes or, for that matter, the sanctity of his own solitary brand. He thinks Bill Coore and a handful of his other competitors are great architects, and freely admits, "Maybe half of the coolest greens I've done, a guy on the bulldozer came up with the idea."

Course design is wholly collaborative, he says, but because of the vagaries of the business, course owners and magazine editors don't always give credit where credit is due. Doak has plenty of other beefs with the industry, too. Those so-called "random-looking" bunkers at his courses are not so random. The other architects who talk behind his back? Not cool. And he's still not sure he understands exactly what's going on in China, even though he's building there.

Fresh off a trip to Australia, Doak opened up about the state of the industry in these hard times, which course he wishes carried his name, and why your backside is the first thing to know if you're a rookie on a bulldozer.

In 2004, you told Golf Magazine, "In five years I'll be disappointed if I haven't built five of the Top 100 Courses in the World." The Old Macdonald course at Bandon Dunes, which debuts in the Top 100 this month, makes five. Can you retire now?
The way the economy is going, I've been thinking about it. But I think it'll be hard for me to ever retire as long as I can find projects that look interesting to do.

What are you working on now?
We're finishing a course in Florida called Streamsong, a 36-hole resort project. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are doing one course and we're doing the other. It's been a neat project. And in Nebraska I'm doing the second course at Dismal River, around the corner from Sand Hills.

How many courses have you done now, and which would you like to take a mulligan on?
Streamsong will be 31. There are two that are closed and gone, so I'd like to have a mulligan on those, especially the one in my hometown here, High Pointe [in Michigan], the first course I did.

Robert Trent Jones told us recently that he's eating a lot of Chinese food. Are you?
We have one client in China, who has a couple of projects on Hainan Island. And we're getting ready to start building the first of them.

The Chinese government is apparently attempting to enforce a 2004 moratorium against the construction of new courses elsewhere in China, yet there's a golf boom afoot as well. How do you explain the inherent contradictions for golf in China?
I can't say that I understand China completely. I don't think anybody from the West ever will. But they're masters at making big rules and then making exceptions. Their government thinks golf sends the wrong message. Their president doesn't play, but a lot of state or regional party officials do play golf, and they sort of look the other way about golf projects because they like golf. Hainan Island is an exception. It's the only place in China where the national government has said it's okay to develop courses. Because it's an island, it doesn't make sense to develop it as an industrial place. There are 100 golf courses in planning in Hainan Island, which is crazy.

You've said your objective when designing a course is that "it should look like it's been there forever." But there's also an epidemic of overdesigning in your business, with the waterfalls and whatnot. Which side is winning?
Neither side is winning right now because there aren't enough projects [laughs]. Name a course designer whose work you just don't relate to? There are a lot I don't agree with philosophically. I read interviews with Rees Jones, and we kind of sound like the same person, even though his philosophy is the opposite of mine. He's worried about what's fair and about tournaments that will be played on his courses. I'm not. Jim Engh is interested in building courses that are fun, like I am, but he's not interested in what's natural and making it fit into the landscape. He might be the only architect I've seen like that.

Which Tour pro designer has the most talent?
I've known Ben Crenshaw for 30 years and learned quite a bit from him talking about architecture. I've worked with Jack Nicklaus on a project at Sebonack [in Southampton, N.Y.] and I can tell you he understands an awful lot about it, even though we never agreed philosophically 100 percent.

Was it enjoyable to work with Nicklaus?
[Pauses] It was good but awkward. To his credit, he understood our client wasn't paying for me to agree with Jack all the time. He wasn't offended when I disagreed. We agreed that we both had to be happy with every hole. The downside of that, and it would be true of any architect I worked with, is that you finish the course and you're not in love with it the way you'd be if you'd made all the decisions yourself. The course has been pretty well regarded, so I think it was successful. But I think Jack and I both feel like we've done courses on our own that we like better.

Your relationship with Bandon Dunes architect David McLay Kidd has been described as frosty. Is that accurate?
I don't think that's right. I like David and sort of enjoy competing with him. Of the jobs I interviewed for in the last 10 years there were only one or two that David interviewed for. I'm not thinking as I'm on site, "Oh, I'd better do better than what David is doing or what Bill [Coore] is doing." I'm trying to get the most out of the property. David will always have a bit of a chip on his shoulder because if he hadn't built Bandon there wouldn't be three others there. And if I were him, I'd think, "I did so well on the first one, I should do the other ones." He's probably been in the business so long that he knows it doesn't work like that. The client wants to promote a new name.

Which of your courses are overlooked?
Stone Eagle in Palm Springs [California] is maybe the most dramatic site I've worked on, right up against a mountain and rocky, very hilly — spectacular place. It's hard to walk, which probably holds the course back from being ranked better.

Rock Creek in Deer Lodge, Mont., is one where I scratch my head and think raters don't know anything. It's a beautiful setting in the mountains.

 

What's your most overrated course?
That's one the owners don't want you to answer.

You were known as an enfant terrible in the business for your honest but pointed critiques in your Confidential Guide to Golf Courses (1986). Is it true that publishing that book kept you from being accepted in the American Society of Golf Course Architects?
No. I've never applied to be in, so you can't say that the book kept me out. I think it would have made it harder to join if I wanted to, but I don't think it would have kept me out.

Ever had an awkward encounter with a fellow designer whose work you critiqued?
Definitely — and I won't name names.

Can you at least describe one of these encounters?
In truth, this aspect of my career has been overplayed. Most architects have never said anything directly to me about the book. Some who were offended avoid me. But that's much better than pretending to be friendly, and saying derogatory things behind my back, as a couple of guys do. I've always been an on-the-record guy, so I don't have much respect for backstabbing. In social situations, I've been approached much more often by club members who were offended by my opinion of their home course — even when I liked it and just pointed out one little wart!

What's the one thing that most golfers don't understand, design-wise, when they play a course?
They don't understand how the holes all have to fit together. And there's a technical side most golfers have no clue about: How things have to drain, what grass works well, that on hilly ground the green might be 20 feet above eye level and has to be relatively flat. And also that what makes sense for one player doesn't make sense for another. If you hit it 270 yards, then you think that a bunker 250 yards off the tee — if you clear it and get 50 yards of roll — is a great strategic hazard. But if you only hit it 240 yards off the tee, that same feature stinks.

Fill in the blanks. "The one course I wish I had designed is _______, because __________."
Sand Hills [in Mullen, Neb.], because that was a perfect piece of ground for a minimalist golf course.

You can only play one of your courses before the world ends. Where do you tee it up?
Barnbougle Dunes, in Tasmania. I've only played it twice — not enough.

Is there a "signature" Doak look or course? If so, what characteristics make it so?
The one thing that Jack Nicklaus used to say when we did Sebonack that kind of offended me is that he was trying to learn this look of building courses that we were good at. I don't think it's a look at all. It's a philosophy of how you want courses to play. They need to be wide enough for people to find their ball and keep going; otherwise it's no fun. If you make it wide open you have to make the challenges around the greens to keep good players interested. Why some people think that philosophy means shaggy-edged bunkers, I don't know. Rees Jones said something just a month ago, criticizing all these modern courses with shaggy-edged bunkers. I've built some courses like that, but I've done others where the bunkers don't look like that at all.

If a college kid who wants to be a course designer came to you for advice, what would you tell him?
I get those letters about 30 times a year. The odds are always against you: If there are 30 a year who want to do it, even in the boom days there was room for maybe only a couple architects a year. But it's a cyclical business. I tell them that when I was in college in '79, '80, that was a bad recession, and any architect I sent a letter to was very pessimistic. The guys it's been hardest on are 30, 35, who have just gotten started, with young families.

Would you ever build or retrofit a course to fewer than 18 holes, perhaps 12?
I don't really understand why people ask me about 12-hole courses. I've only ever seen one, in Scotland, and nobody liked the last six holes because they were too hilly and they just abandoned them. There are tons of good nine-hole courses, and a few great ones. You don't need 18 holes.

Tell us about the ones that got away. Maybe a course or two that you thought you had the contract for and lost? Or a course that never got the financing or permitting to get done?
A project in Ireland on a small peninsula that juts out into Dingle Bay. The client abandoned the project suddenly just before submitting the plans for permits. I looked at a spectacular site in Antigua a few years ago. Unfortunately, the client was Sir Allen Stanford, who's in federal prison now. It did seem too good to be true. Each of those sites had the potential to yield a Top 100 course. I'd like to think that if I'd had the chance to build them, I'd have one or two more courses in the list. I came up with 18 courses that I'd done a routing for and was pretty excited about but never got built. Four or five [of them] were built by another architect, but the rest failed because of money, permitting or some combination. I thought five or six of those had the potential to be one of the best courses in the world. That's why it's such a hard business.

Your critics say that if Tom Doak is given a great piece of property, he does great work, but if it's a nondescript plot, the results have been less than stellar. How do you answer them?
Golf course architecture is not a level playing field the way golf is. If you're young, you're competing with more experienced designers with more money, better clients. In that position you fantasize about the level paying field and showing people what you would do, but I got over that a long time ago. Golfers only care about how good a golf course is. If somebody says to me, "Well, the only reason you've been successful is because you've had all these great pieces of land to work with," I'm fine with that. I just want to find another great piece of land!

Old Mac at Bandon Dunes has opened to great acclaim. It was billed as a Tom Doak/Jim Urbina collaboration, but already people are labeling it a "Doak design." To what extent did you two split the work?
First of all, I don't really know why the course is just being called a Doak design. I keep pointing this out. Barnbougle Dunes is a Tom Doak and Mike Clayton design, but because I'm a better-known architect, people tend to drop Mike's name. That's the only reason people tend to drop Jim's name. He was very involved. By the same token he was very involved with Pacific Dunes, too. One of the things I learned from Pete Dye is to take good ideas from anybody who suggests them. Don't feel like you have to take the credit. All the guys who've worked with me have always worked that way. Maybe half of the coolest greens I've done, a guy on the bulldozer came up with the idea. I'm the one who said, "Put the green there, and maybe put a bunker here," but they did a lot of the details, which I tweaked.

Critics describe you as a minimalist. Is that an accurate label?
Thirty years ago every new course was described as "links style," even though none of them played like a links. "Minimalist" has become the new buzzword. I guess I should be flattered, but once anything becomes a buzzword, it starts to become meaningless. I like to build natural-looking courses, and to let the natural contours of the ground generate the interest in the course. What's the most novel idea you've come across in the last 10 years? I'm not sure there are many novel ideas; to me, originality is a matter of one hole at a time. The best idea I've seen in setting up a course is not putting out tee markers and just letting everyone play from where they want. It gets the focus off your score and onto having fun.

Where do you see the game in 20 years in terms of the number of courses and participation?
A lot of courses were built in America over the past 15 years, and it's going to take time for them to be absorbed, so there won't be a lot of new ones for the next few years. Hopefully not too many have to close. As for participation, golf has to do a better job of encouraging women and juniors; they're the segments of the market that have a lot of potential to grow.

What's the best and worst initiative that the USGA has introduced in recent years?
They do a lot of great things behind the scenes that go unnoticed — supporting turf research and junior golf chief among them. But in the public eye I think the best thing they've done is mix up the tees for the U.S. Open, to require the players to think more about their strategy from one day to the next. It's too bad more clubs don't do the same on a daily basis; and the irony is, the USGA course rating system is the reason clubs don't do more of that. The worst thing they do is encourage great courses to make significant changes in preparation for majors. It's an admission that they have let equipment regulation slide too much over the years. It's silly for clubs to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to move tees back and add bunkers, just so the winning score for the week will be three shots higher.

Is pushing dirt around in a bulldozer as fun as it looks?
Only if you're good at it. If not, running a bulldozer is really hard on your a--. You start pushing too much dirt, and the dozer bogs down so you have to lift up the blade, and you wind up with a washboard surface that pounds on you when you back up to make the next pass.

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