The Course Whisperer

The Course Whisperer

Doak recently checked in on his latest project, the Renaissance Club in Dirleton, Scotland.
Matthew Harris/TGPL

One evening last month, while I was playing the Old Course, the cellphone in my golf bag went off. There was plenty of light at 9 p.m., and not another soul was out there, not where I was, a mile or so from downtown St. Andrews. The ancient links is confounding, with greens the size of an Iowa Wal-Mart and disorderly holes and strange toothy animals darting among the gorse bushes. Somewhere between the 7th tee and the green, I got lost. On the other end of the line, as luck would have it, was a former St. Andrews caddie, Tom Doak.

I gave Doak my bearings, and he could see, over the phone, what I had done: taken the wrong line off the 7th tee. He got me back on track. He had me aim over the highest point of a nearby hill, sending me over one hole en route to another. “Seven’s a double green — it shares with 11,” he said. “You play the white flags on the front nine. Your shot’s more uphill than it looks.”

Nearly all working course architects pay lip service to the Old Course, the mother of all golf courses. Doak goes further. When interviewing for jobs, many course designers will cite various members of the Dead Architects Society, dropping the names Donald Ross or George Thomas or Alister MacKenzie or even Old Tom Morris of St. Andrews. Doak doesn’t drop names.

He’s different, all the way around. After graduating from Cornell in 1982, he spent two months caddying and photographing the Old Course. It’s his temple, and the dead architects are his high priests. For Doak, MacKenzie is not a buzzword, a quick way to attach oneself to the work of a master. (MacKenzie’s greatest hits include Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne.) MacKenzie’s list is Doak’s grail.

From the mid-1980s through the mid-’90s, Doak, who is 46, was better known as a writer and contributing editor for Golf Magazine than as a course designer. ( Golf and Sports Illustrated are owned by Time Warner.) One Doak book, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses , has a cult following (page 30) ,and used copies sell on Amazon for more than $500. The book is comically frank. Describing P.B. Dye, Pete’s son, Doak writes that he “needs encouragement to make his courses hard like Madonna needs a dating service.” He lists the Augusta National holes he “could do without.” There are four of them: numbers 1, 9, 15 and 18, although he also has problems with numbers 2, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12 and 13. Doak believes the Augusta czars corrupted the MacKenzie originals. The desecration of Augusta National — Doak was on to that theme long before it became fashionable.

But in the new millennium, Doak’s status as an iconoclastic architect of the old school has been shaped principally by his 25 courses and his renovation work. Since 2000 Doak has built a handful of courses that are likely to inspire course architects a century from now. There’s Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Ore., too craggy to be called a resort course, although technically that’s what it is. There’s a public course in Tasmania, Barnbougle Dunes, which he built with the Australian architect Michael Clayton. There’s a cliffside public course in New Zealand, Cape Kidnappers. There’s a remote and sandy private course, Ballyneal, in Holyoke, Colo. And there’s Sebonack, private and uberexpensive, on Long Island (next door to Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links), which he built with Jack Nicklaus. Talk about an odd couple. A Nicklaus course, typically, is as smooth as a Doak course is rough.

All five are walking courses, bumpy and natural, with stay out! traps and drunk-at-sea greens.

“There really are only two architects today who are doing anything truly original, building traditional courses that will endure,” Clayton, a former European tour player, said recently. “There’s Crenshaw-Coore,” referring to the team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore as a single entity, “and there’s Doak.” Clayton’s work with Doak has colored his opinion. “He’s doing what MacKenzie did. He’s working all over the world, on a variety of terrains. He’s making each one count. And if he doesn’t like the client or the piece of land or the terms, he’s out. He’s willing to say no.” (Doak usually has three courses in the works at the same time. Nicklaus right now has 50.)

Being a course architect is a lot like being a movie director. You need the right piece of land (or script), the right client (or studio), the right shapers (or actors) and good karma during construction (or during the shoot). As a director’s stature grows, he is offered better scripts. For course designers, the same. Doak, once a renegade, is now an A-list architect. He’s being offered prime spots.

A few weeks ago there was an opening of a Doak course in Scotland, the Renaissance Club, built on heaving land smack-dab between Muirfield and North Berwick, along a celebrated golfing coastline. Doak spent the afternoon in a white tent with an open bar. Jay Haas, in Scotland for the Senior British Open, drove over to have a look. The former Ryder Cupper introduced himself to Doak. Many others did the same. “The course visits have become way more time-consuming,” Doak said later. “There are more people who want to talk to me.” That’s not a protest. Every artist likes attention. At the Sebonack opening, the Nicklaus team was flabbergasted by Doak’s firm grip on the microphone.

Doak has not read How to Win Friends and Influence People, and he’ll never become a tie-wearing member of the golf establishment, in the tradition of Haas, Tom Fazio or Jim Nantz. Doak’s company, with eight employees, gets $1 million for some of its courses, but Doak still thinks of himself as a kid willing to sneak on to play the best courses in the world. (When he does now, it’s to take pictures.)

I met Doak in 1992, when he was building his first private course, Stonewall, on rolling farmland in semirural Elverson, Pa. (about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia). During construction he lived near the course with his first wife, Dianna Johnson, and their young son, Michael, in a drab town house with rental furniture. The client wanted the long entrance road to be invisible from the course and vice versa, so Doak built a berm, a protective hill, along the road, sometimes operating the bulldozer himself. It was perfect. But the client, in Doak’s mind, spoiled the whole thing by adding a split-rail fence along the top of the berm. Doak was livid. They were killing his art.

Around that time I took him to play my home course, the Philadelphia Cricket Club, which has an A.W. Tillinghast course that we (the members) are very proud of. Doak, who shoots in the 80s and hits the ball well, drove it solidly on the par-4 2nd, then hit a big push-block for his second shot onto the roof of an old barn that sits beside the green. When he wrote up the course for his Confidential Guide, he cited the course’s cramped front nine. He wrote, “I casually pushed my approach shot onto the roof of the men’s locker room.” Herbert Warren Wind used to say you may sooner insult a man’s wife than his golf club. Reading Doak’s words for the first time, my ears got hot.

Some years later — in the parking lot at Southern Hills — I was talking to Ben Crenshaw about golf in Philadelphia. He said, “You still at the Cricket Club? I love that course. I love that number 2 hole, the way that old barn comes into play.” Crenshaw has that gift, to make you feel good.

But it’s not really fair to compare Crenshaw and Doak this way, as Crenshaw is one of the most charming people you could ever hope to meet, and Doak seems to relate better to land than human beings; he’ll tell you it’s easier to get a piece of earth to do what you want it to than a person, although not much. The two men are simply built differently. But Crenshaw and Doak each admire the other’s talent and work. (“I don’t consider Crenshaw a player-architect,” Doak told me. “I consider him an architect.” That’s about the highest praise he gives.) Years ago Crenshaw used to worry that Doak’s career would stall because he was such a poor salesman. Among other things, course design is a p.r. game, an aspect that is not a Doak strength.

Johnson was married to Doak from 1990 to ’98, a period during which they were living, she said, “from golf course to golf course.” Doak’s father, Tom Michael, now 16, in a small two-door Ford and slept in a room over a pub where he ate supper nightly and where the urinal was one of those large metal troughs. It’s hard to picture Tom Fazio in there.

Despite the good work being done by Crenshaw-Coore and Doak and a few others, this is not the Golden Age of Architecture, Part II. (The Dead Architects dominated the real Golden Age.) Since the height of the Palmer golf boom, courses have often been built for the wrong reasons, and Doak, in an unwitting way, has contributed to the problem. Doak, admirably honest, knows it too.

The problem stems from the high-profile lists that rank courses, particularly the Golf Digest list of the 100 greatest U.S. courses and the Golf Magazine list of the 100 best in the world, a list that, from 1983 to ’95, was Doak’s brainchild.

“The client will say, ‘Build me a course that gets on the list,'” Doak said last month while we walked his Scottish course. “Or, ‘Build me a course that can get me a major tournament.'” The developers, usually rich men in a rush, want instant cachet. They aren’t typically worried about slow play, lost balls, high greens fees, cart golf, scorecards crowded with X’s. “They want long, hard courses. I’ve never had a client say, ‘Build me a short, wide, playable course.'” A famous example of short, wide and playable is Augusta National — or it used to be. A famous example of a course that is still like that is the Old Course.

So that’s where Tom Doak will sometimes start, trying to educate the potential client about St. Andrews and what he learned there as a caddie, which is that practically anybody can play the Old Course. If that doesn’t work, he has one more move at his disposal. He can always say no.