Architect Tom Doak Reviews Britain and Ireland’s Top Tracks in New ‘Confidential Guide’

December 31, 2014

Imagine if Bill Belichick offered candid reviews of every NFL team — and of each team’s head coach. That’s effectively what Tom Doak has done with course designs and their architects in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Volume 1: Great Britain and Ireland, a fresh update of his classic book, first published in 1988. Doak is among the most revered architects in the game, authoring Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers and Streamsong (Blue), among other modern classics. He’s also design’s most candid critic, and his reviews are catnip to course connoisseurs.

This updated guide adds grades and comments for an additional 1,700 courses, bringing the total to more than 2,500 courses reviewed in a total of five volumes. To assist in assessing the additional courses, Doak enlisted the aid of three other expert design critics — Ran Morrissett of the United States, Masa Nishijima of Japan and Darius Oliver of Australia. The four other volumes will be released over the next year or two and will span the globe, including the U.S., the Caribbean and the Far East. “Volume 1 will be the least controversial of the set,” Doak writes in the introduction, “because Great Britain and Ireland have largely avoided the monstrous displays of earthmoving muscle foisted upon the earth by golf architects in America and, especially, Asia. If there are bad courses in Britain and Ireland, we haven’t found many of them — though perhaps we’ve been smart enough to avoid a few.”

Still, Doak pulls no punches, as evidenced by the “O” grade he leveled at St. Andrews’s Castle Course in Scotland, a David McLay Kidd design. This first volume educates, entertains and engages. Whether you agree or disagree with his assessments, you’ll benefit by having them at your fingertips. Here are some of Doak’s sharpest insights on the best (and the rest) in Great Britain and Ireland.

ST. ANDREWS (The Old Course)
St. Andrews, Scotland
Forged by nature, with the help of Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris

“The greatness of the Old Course lies in the unrivaled number of unique holes it puts in front of the golfer. A lot of golfers make a single trip to St. Andrews, spend four hours on the Old Course without a clue what they’re looking at, and come away convinced that the reputation of the course is built on its history and tradition. I want to state this emphatically: History and tradition have nothing to do with it. I’ve included St. Andrews because I think it remains what it has always has been — the most interesting course in the world.”


ST. ANDREWS (Castle Course)
St. Andrews, Scotland
David McLay Kidd, 2008

“A friend of mine who had never played the Old Course waited for hours at the starter’s box in July 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 are looking away from it, across the bay toward town. Trying to one-up Kingsbarns turned out to be a formula for excess.”


Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland
Ron Kirby, 1997

“Eight of the 18 holes are built on the brink of the cliffs — sometimes the slopes are so steep that it’s scary to look for your ball in the rough. Many greens are so exposed that they had to build berms to keep the wind and salt spray from destroying the turf, and these berms are the most awkward feature of the design, since the top of them is the last thing your ball might see before the bottom of the Atlantic. But the inland holes are just mundane, and for all the spectacle of the cliff edge there really aren’t enough great holes to live up to the hype. It was a great place, but it’s not great golf.”


THE BELFRY (Brabazon Course)
Wishaw, Staffordshire, England
Peter Alliss and David Thomas, 1979

“Four times host to the Ryder Cup Matches, this Midlands resort course is full of great memories for European golfers. The course itself is almost completely forgettable except for two holes — the short par-4 10th, which Seve Ballesteros turned into the ultimate match play hole by driving over the water to the green and daring his opponents to do the same, and the long par-4 18th, with its drive across the water and a long second shot to a 3-tiered green, the scene of some nervous collapses at the end of big matches. It’s more proof that match play can yield dramatic results regardless of the venue, and that tournament courses are often overrated.”


Prestwick, Ayrshire, Scotland
Old Tom Morris, 1858, with revisions by James Braid and John R. Stutt

“It’s eccentric and at times confusing. You may walk away from a round here with a new perspective on our ancient Scottish game. If I had to pick one course to play out my days on, this may well be it. Not because it’s the best course in the world, but because for even the longest serving member there remains at Prestwick more putts, pitches, stances and situations left unseen than on any other course I know. In every sense this is a links course one could not possibly tire of playing.”


Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, Ireland
Robert Trent Jones Sr., 1983

“The Cashen was built in the 1980s. Since the intent of the course was to cater to American visitors, the aging Robert Trent Jones was brought on board to tame some of the biggest dunes in golf. Under pressure from the club to keep the greens small, he over-corrected and built a bunch of tiny targets with few run-up options, so that the course is almost impossible to play in the wind. If you are on your game (and your legs are in good shape) it can be a great experience, but the fact that they make you buy a green fee at the Cashen in order to play the Old is a fair indication of what the market thinks of it.”


Southport, England
J.F. Morris, 1885

“Some of Hesketh’s holes around the clubhouse tumble promisingly over the dunes, but they are a bit awkward and unmemorable, even if they are the right stuff. The holes on the other side of the road are the wrong stuff — flat and monotonous.”


Worksop, Nottingham, England
Tom Dunn, 1891

“Lindrick’s 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.”


Balmedie, Scotland
Martin Hawtree, 2012

“Its owner declared it the world’s best course before it was built. It’s best to give it time to grow. The best aspect of the course are its outstanding, varied par 3s. But the par 5s are cluttered with too many bunkers. Worst of all, the turf is not a true links surface. Mr. Trump will have his staff eagerly working at these things because he wants the course to achieve what he’s already claimed for it.”


Machrihanish, Scotland
Charles Hunter, 1876, with revisions by Old Tom Morris and Sir Guy Campbell

“The best opening hole in the world is an open-and-shut case. The first tee lies just outside the pro shop door, on a small peninsula known as the Battery. To the north is a long cove of beach, with the Atlantic to the left and a fairway running diagonally from right to left, forcing the golfer to choose how much he can carry for the tee shot. The safer you play to the right to stay off the beach, the longer the second shot — and the worse the angle to the green, which slopes away from a high point at the front right. The anticipation of this tee shot is the strongest in the game, and it whets the appetite for an exhilarating run of holes that follow.”


Port Ellen, Isle of Islay
Willie Campbell, 1891, with revisions by Donald Steel, 1982

“Golf as it was played in the 19th century, Islay is a blast. If you can’t stomach blind shots, stay away — or come here to learn to love them.”


North Berwick, Scotland
Evolved with help from David Strath, Tom Dunn and Sir Guy Campbell

“Possibly my favorite hole in the world is the Pit, the 387-yard, par-4 13th. The hole uses an ancient stone wall as the most ingenious of hazards. The hole plays down the line of the wall, with the fairway on one side and the green on the other, so that the golfer’s position off the tee determines the nature of the approach shot. If the tee shot is played safely away to the right, then the second will have to carry the wall and stop fairly quickly; but if the golfer dares to hug the wall closely off the tee, then the second shot can be played over it easily on a long and shallow angle, affording an open look at the green in its natural hollow. Should you leave your second shot out to the right of the green, getting over the two-foot-high wall with your short pitch is a knee-knocker of a shot, even though it is the simplest of matters.”


St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland
Kyle Phillips and Mark Parsinen, 2000

“As a construction work, Kingsbarns is one of the best projects I’ve ever seen. It began as a flat field above a small bowl of linksland, but I wouldn’t believe that if I hadn’t seen it myself, because the reshaping and grassing of the landscape was so well done.”


Angus, Scotland
Allan Robertson, 1850, revised by James Braid, 1926, and James Wright, 1937

“The course known as “Carnasty” is deservedly famous for its difficulty; it wins few points for beauty, as the flattish links have almost no view of the sea. Its macho image has masked for too long the number of thoughtful design features: Hole for hole, there are few better courses.”


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