The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Volume 1: Great Britain and Ireland.
Courtesy of Brian Lewis
By Joe Passov
Thursday, September 25, 2014

As a nascent golf-course architecture geek in 1989, I thought I knew a thing or two about courses. Then I read Tom Doak’s original Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. His incisive 200-plus-page compilation of over 700 course reviews opened my eyes to how little I actually knew about the nuances of the craft.

Twenty-five years later, Doak is at it again, releasing an updated version of The Confidential Guide, to be rolled out in five editions covering five regions of the world. After perusing Volume 1: Great Britain and Ireland, I can report Doak has delivered again.

Doak self-published his original Confidential Guide in 1988, distributing it to 40 select friends and associates as a holiday gift. It was so well crafted and so honest that bootleg copies soon began surfacing. (That’s how I secured my copy.) At the time Doak had a relatively low profile. He was a budding architect, having spent time in the employ of Pete Dye, but he was perhaps more renowned in golf circles as an architecture scholar and the administrator of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Course rankings.

What made the original Guide so special? Two things. First, it was splendidly written. His critiques were concise, intelligent and at times highly controversial. Doak took shots not only at courses but also at their designers. Humor washed over many of his critiques. So did candor. Never had anyone in the design business so harshly criticized his peers and predecessors, certainly not publicly. Second, Doak had visited so many courses worldwide that it was hard to question his credibility, even if you took exception to his conclusions.

The book changed my thinking about course design, from Doak’s emphasis on contour and roll to his insistence that Alister MacKenzie’s principles of naturalness and risk/reward options are centerpieces of good design. When Doak noted that Chicago’s acclaimed Kemper Lakes had fairway lines “that looked like they came right out of the blueprinting machine,” he altered my opinion about that course and others.

Still, Doak’s reviews irked insiders. Some maintained that the book cost him a place in the American Society of Golf Course Architects. But Doak told Golf Magazine in a 2011 interview: “Not quite true. I’ve never applied to be in, so you can’t say 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.”

The Guide was catnip to design fanatics. It still is. Doak published a version for public consumption in 1994, with additions to his original musings. From a printing of 1,000, he said he sold 700 of them by word of mouth, without the benefit of e-commerce or social media.

In 1996, he expanded and updated the book. Sleeping Bear Press published it, complete with Doak’s photos, and all 12,000 copies were snapped up. In the past decade, as Doak’s stature has grown, hard-to-find copies have sold for as much as $500 on eBay and Amazon.

So, for folks in pursuit of their own copies, good news: The new Confidential Guide has arrived. Well, the first volume at least. Doak says the other four volumes—The Americas (winter destinations) , The Americas (summer destinations) , Europe/The Middle East/Africa and Asia/Australia/New Zealand—will be released annually over the next four years. (“I need time to do the research on the rest,” he says.)

To evaluate so many additional courses [1,738 to be exact], Doak has enlisted the assistance of three other experts: Ran Morrissett from the U.S., the founder of golf architecture web site www.golfclubatlas.com; Darius Oliver from Australia, author of Planet Golf; and Masa Nishijima of Japan, a respected course critic, who like Doak and Morrissett sits on the Golf Magazine Top 100 Course Rankings Panel. Doak does virtually all of the writing in the new edition, though for each course each reviewer provides his own grade, from 0 through 10. In some ways the new critics improve the reviews, infusing them with more perspective. In other ways, they dilute the end result, because Doak’s strong, frank voice was the lynchpin to The Guide’s success.

For his latest edition, Doak re-wrote the entire book. It has benefited from professional editing, though I miss some of the quirky throwaway lines from past editions. For instance, in the new Guide, he writes of a course called Piltdown, in Uckfield, East Sussex, England: “Like Royal Ashdown Forest, this common-land course has opted to go without bunkers. There are quite a few big two-shotters with carries over heather-filled valleys for the second shot.” In an earlier edition, he added, “wouldn’t you just love to live in a town called Uckfield?”

The Guide still succeeds brilliantly at both educating and entertaining. It hasn’t lost its bluntness either. My colleague Josh Sens has already documented Doak’s reserving a lone “0” grade for David Kidd’s Castle Course at St. Andrews. Other designs also fall prey to his biting descriptions. For Lindrick, in Nottingham, England, he writes, “the difficult inland layout is punctuated by gorse and trees, but its fame rests much more on the result of the 1957 Ryder Cup Matches than on any particular architectural merit.” Of Royal Cromer, he opines, “The lighthouse and chalk cliffs give this course a fine sense of place, but the golf holes themselves leave little to remember.” Agree or disagree with his assessments, Doak is uncompromising.

Some architects and industry insiders will continue to take issue with many of Doak’s reviews. But if you’re a golfer who thrives on debating courses, The Guide is required reading.

The first volume of The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses is available at www.renaissancegolf.com for $60 plus shipping and handling. You can also pre-order the entire five-volume set for the discounted price of $280.

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