The greatest golf courses reward creativity and an ability to work the ball

The greatest golf courses reward creativity and an ability to work the ball

The 13th hole at Tom Doak's Pacific Dunes course in Bandon, Ore. Doak didn't initiate the retro-style design movement, but he is one of its finest practitioners.
Wood Sabold

My fondest memories of playing golf as a kid didn’t happen on a golf course. They happened in a leafy park a block from my house in Irving, Texas, where, with a shag bag at my side, I practiced all kinds of shots, from gust-busting stingers to flops over an aging oak.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was falling in love with a brand of course design that rewards creativity and an ability to work the ball. I was also developing an aversion to the brand of design that demands certain types of shots to specific targets, with little chance of recovery after miscues.

The modern architects who perhaps best represent these contrasting styles are Tom Doak (wide fairways, maddening greens) and Pete Dye (pinched fairways, moated greens). Both men have a handful of credits among Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses, but to me, Doak is in another class. From Colorado’s Ballyneal to Oregon’s Old Mac, his designs recall the sensibilities of Alister MacKenzie, whose layouts (Augusta National, Cypress Point) encourage golfers to manufacture shots, think imaginatively, and push their own assumed limitations.

Doak didn’t initiate the retro-style design movement. Long before he first unfurled a blueprint, designers like Jay Morrish and Bill Coore—who later teamed with Tom Weiskopf and Ben Crenshaw, respectively—began popularizing “throwback” design elements, ushering in what has blossomed into golf’s second Golden Age of architecture. They widened fairways and shaped raw, random-looking bunkers that blended in with their surroundings. They coaxed greens from the terrain, built drivable par 4s and created tempting angles into greens that could fill golfers with self-satisfaction—or self-loathing.

This shift away from the more geometric and punishing courses that first appeared in the ’50s derived, I believe, from designers like Coore and Doak and Gil Hanse’s proper reading of what makes golf enjoyable. But it also has come from another deeply ironic source: Pete Dye.

While stationed at Fort Bragg in the 1940s, Dye honed his game at the Donald Ross–designed Pinehurst No. 2. In 1963, he traveled to Scotland to study the great courses, drawing inspiration from the Old Course at St. Andrews, as MacKenzie had before him. Dye then developed his own brash style, defined by pot bunkering, man-made water hazards, and bulkheads galore.

As Dye’s courses garnered attention, he joined forces with many aspiring architects, including Jack Nicklaus and Coore and Doak. Nicklaus has credited Dye with influencing the Golden Bear’s work. Fresh out of graduate school, Doak spent three years working with Dye and his sons, learning all sides of the business, including how to handle a bulldozer.

But Doak developed his own eye. There’s a tendency for artists to imitate their precursors, but the derivative is rarely as good as the source. To be truly original and great, painters/sculptors/writers/course designers must overcome the anxiety of deviating from their mentors and find their own “voices,” just as Dye did after studying the Scottish classics and Doak did after working under Dye.

Many golfers like Dye’s courses. I don’t. That is, I don’t like what they do to me, which is remind me of my weaknesses. But I appreciate what Dye has done for the game. Without him, designers like Doak might never have been inspired to return to more natural, old-school designs, and I might never have found courses that, like that park near my house, let my imagination run wild.