Tom Doak’s Latest Confidential Guide Offers His Usual Biting Course Critiques

October 17, 2015

Cypress Point scores a perfect “10.” Pinehurst No. 2 rates higher than Augusta National. And the Lake course at the Olympic Club, a five-time host of the U.S. Open, offers too few “risk/reward decisions” to be regarded as one of the best tracks in the land.

These and other insights are available within the latest installment of The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, a famously frank and feather-ruffling collection of course reviews by the acclaimed architect Tom Doak.

This book — Volume 2, The Americas (Winter Destinations) — is the second volume in a planned five-volume update of the original Confidential Guide, which Doak self-published in 1988 at the age of 27. It examines courses across the southern United States, California, Hawaii and the Caribbean, as well as a large handful in South America.

Crisply written and brimming with unabashed opinions, that first edition helped establish Doak as a force in the industry well before he’d earned design credits for such celebrated courses as Pacific Dunes in Oregon, Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand and the Renaissance Club in Scotland.

The book also set the mold for Doak’s reputation as the enfant terrible of a genteel profession, an architect-cum-critic who favors candor over convention. After all, no writer who dismissed a Tom Fazio layout as “absolutely vapid” or trashed a waterfall-adorned Jack Nicklaus layout as an example of “classic Nicklaus-client overkill” was playing by golf’s same old velvet-glove rules.

Over the years, among his peers, Doak has inspired a mix of respect and resentment. While his design expertise is unquestioned, some have scratched their heads at the comportment of a man who was once described in print as having “the people skills of an ostrich.”

Doak’s course critiques weren’t too sharp-beaked to attract collaborators on his latest printed work. Like Volume 1 of the updated edition, which was published in December and focuses on the courses of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 2 is co-authored with three other architecture experts, Ran Morrissett, Masa Nishijima and Darius Oliver.

Together the four critics cover 500-plus warm-weather courses in the Americas and the Caribbean, producing short write-ups on every layout and assigning a 0-10 grade to each.

Though based on input from all four authors, the reviews are written in Doak’s voice, and they find the architect in familiar form: generous with his praise when he feels praise is due, and unsparing in his criticism when he sees a bumbling design.

Of Shadow Creek, Tom Fazio’s feat of engineering in the North Las Vegas desert, Doak writes admiringly: “Until I saw it, I never believed that money and genius alone could be enough to create a course that would rival the greatest spectacles of Nature. Now, I have to.”

Of Heather Glen in North Myrtle Beach, however, Doak has this to say: “All the public relations materials about how this course is reminiscent of the ancient Scottish traditions of the game made me want to throw up.” Doak assigns Heather Glen a grade of 3, which he defines as “About the level of the average course in the world.”

The architect outlines his grading scale clearly. A zero-rating — which Doak reserves for a small handful of courses in this volume, like Renaissance Golf Club, a Michael Hurdzan design in Charlotte, N.C. — refers to a layout “so contrived and unnatural that it may poison your mind,” while a grade of 10 fits a course that is “nearly perfect; if you skipped even one hole, you would miss something worth seeing.”

When you come across a 10, Doak recommends taking swift action: “Drop the book and call your travel agent immediately.” Keep in mind, though, the only course in Volume 2 that earns a 10 from all four co-authors is Cypress Point, so unless your travel agent is Clint Eastwood, that phone call isn’t going to do much good.

This raises a broader point.

Doak describes the book as a traveler’s companion, designed “to steer you to fun courses you may never have heard of, and to save you from paying hundreds of dollars to play courses that we feel are overrated.” Fair enough, but because so many courses covered in the volume are fortress-like in their privacy, the book often functions less as a guide for average hackers than it does as a guide for well-connected golfers like the authors themselves.

The prevalence of insider allusions — as when Doak shouts out to particular green shapers, or refers to the architects Ben (Crenshaw) and Bill (Coore) by first name only — bolsters one’s impression of the niche audience that the architect has foremost in his mind.

Still, even for those of us who don’t have the Seminole pro shop on speed-dial, the Confidential Guide is mostly engaging. The writing is brisk and often entertaining. In a deconstruction of Wolf Creek, a course set on a moonscape in Mesquite, Nev., Doak notes: “I can’t rate it a zero because I do think someone should have built a course on this spectacular terrain — they just shouldn’t have built this course!”

It’s also fun to get a glimpse behind the gates of largely guarded grounds. If you’re feeling bad that you don’t have ready access to the Olympic Club, for instance, take comfort in the fact that Doak considers it “an amazing facility” but still doesn’t understand “how anyone could love it.”

And just because a number of big-name Tour pros make their home at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., doesn’t mean the course is all that special. “It is certainly a difficult test of golf, if that’s what you seek,” Doak writes. “But my only tour of the course was with a friend who wanted to show me how bad its set of greens was. Unfortunately, he was so right that I have a hard time remembering any of the rest of it.”

Then there’s the granddaddy of them all, Augusta National. In a rare lapse into laziness, Doak writes, “It’s much hillier than you imagine,” a phrase that has been repeated so many times in print that it can’t possibly be true.

More enlightening are his insights into the impact of tournament-driven changes on the venerable layout. In an attempt to guard itself against the modern game, Doak notes, “Augusta has been getting narrower while modern course have been getting wider … The plantings at holes like the 11th and the 15th have turned exciting holes into punishing ones, so that in unfortunate years the tournament starts to resemble a U.S. Open-style war of attrition. Eagle roars have been replaced by gasps; I suspect that’s the main reason that none of us could award it a perfect ten.”

The home of the Masters gets all 9s and 8s instead.

In fact, Doak finds greater merit in Coore-Crenshaw restored Pinehurst No. 2, which he awards a 10. (His co-authors give it 9s and 8s).

As much as it reveals about course design, this volume of the Confidential Guide also reveals something about Doak. In the introduction the author addresses the polarizing impact of his work.

“If anyone thinks I enjoy the controversy, they are badly mistaken,” Doak writes. “I get no kicks being vilified for putting my opinions into print.”

As Doak sees it, the golf magazines bear responsibility for fanning the flames, excited as they are “over the prospect of printing a hostile review of a course they dislike, while having me take all the heat for it.”

Unlike golf, blame-the-media is an easy game to play, but it’s a strange one for Doak to take up. One of his gripes is that the press pays “scant attention” to all the nice things he pens about his peers.

“There certainly aren’t many architects working today who have written more good things about others’ work than I have,” he writes.

True. But there are even fewer architects working today who have basked in more positive media coverage than Doak. Fewer still in the industry who have dealt with Doak would say that he lacks in self-regard. Reading the introduction, one gets the sense that a trace of narcissism may have skewed his view of what’s really going on.

“It would be much easier and more politically correct to omit certain courses, to pretend I was never there, or to pull punches and give a lukewarm review to a course you couldn’t drag me back to,” he writes. “But this book demands nothing less than my honesty; you are paying to hear my real opinion, no matter how much it may offend some architect or developer, and no matter how much b.s. I have to put up with for saying what I really think.”

What b.s. exactly? Doak doesn’t specify.

In Doak’s eyes, when he takes a stance, he is a bold voice, shooting straight; when others fire back with opinions of their own, they are spouting hogwash. Like a badly designed bunker, it’s a tricked up defense, but it’s consistent with the contradictions that lie at the heart of Doak’s reputation – not only as a golf media darling who complains about his treatment by the golf media but also as a brilliant architect and keen-eyed critic who can dish it out but doesn’t take it very well.

Paired with his course reviews, it makes for interesting if, at times, flabbergasting reading. And there’s more of it to come. Volume 3 of the Confidential Guide, which will turn its eye to summer destinations in the Americas, is scheduled for release around this time next year.