Tom Doak on What Makes a Great Golf Course and Updating His Cult-Classic ‘Confidential Guide’

September 21, 2014

Before he had a platform, golf course architect Tom Doak had opinions — sharp, incisive views on the charms of classic courses and the troubling tendencies of modern golf design.

In 1996, when he was still a relatively minor name, Doak made a relatively major splash with the release of The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, a frank, unflinching look at layouts around the world that helped shape Doak’s reputation as a rarity in his trade: an architect unafraid to speak his mind.

While generous in his praise of iconic and lesser-known layouts alike, Doak was unforgiving where he saw foibles, pedigree of the course be damned. In one of his emperor-has-no-clothes moments, he dissed a Tom Fazio design as “absolutely vapid.” He depicted Sherwood Country Club, a Jack Nicklaus course with multiple man-made waterfalls, as an example of “classic Nicklaus-client overkill.”

Nearly 20 years later, having joined the pantheon of his profession with designs like Pacific Dunes, No. 1 on Golf Magazine’s list of the Top 100 Courses You Can Play, Doak, 53, now enjoys a broader platform for his opinions, which will come to light in print again next month with the publication of The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Volume I.

An update on the original, this new work — the first of a planned five-volume series — turns the architect’s attention to Great Britain and Ireland, where Doak and three collaborators review 288 courses, assigning a zero-to-10 grade to each.

The book is intended as a traveler’s companion, helping golfers select courses they want to visit while opening their eyes to layouts that don’t always make the Top 100 lists. Great Britain and Ireland being what they are, Doak finds a lot to like. And Doak being who he is, he isn’t shy when he sees flaws.

With golf across the pond on all our minds this week, caught up with Doak to ask for his reflections on his writing and his reputation; his list of favorite (and least favorite) UK and Irish courses; and his honest take on Gleneagles, the host venue for the 2014 Ryder Cup. You’re a busy man already. What made you want to take on another book?

DOAK: Mostly I just wanted to get back out there. I’ve been so tied up over the last 10 years on my own design projects that I haven’t had the chance. When I do get out, I’m often seeing the more acclaimed courses, but there are so many cool courses that I wanted to revisit, or see for the first time. There was also the fact that my kids were out of school and out of the house, so I wasn’t always rushing home from the office. And this time, I had collaborators. That sounds like a pretty good gig, traveling around and playing lots of courses. How do you get a job as your collaborator?

DOAK: Well, in this case, nobody pays you to do it. These are guys who have already done the travel on their own. They liked the original book, and I think we all understand one another’s views without being carbon copies. It’s good to have second opinions, but it wouldn’t work so well as a book if everyone were coming from an entirely different place. This next volume is coming out at a time when your original is something of a cult classic that fetches steep prices on Amazon. What do you make of that?

DOAK: I’ve always been amazed at the collectors’ price for the previous edition of the book, considering how many were in circulation. But I’ve never liked the idea that it was unavailable to people who wanted to know my recommendations for where to play, because of the price. The new book is not free, but you can buy the whole set for less than what it costs you to go play one disappointing course.

(DISSED! Doak Gives Rival’s New Castle Course at St. Andrews Course a ‘Zero’) Great Britain and Ireland make obvious sense as destinations. But was it also a relief to be writing about those places because so many of the architects are dead and you didn’t have to worry about offending them?

DOAK: For a while after I did the first book, I would keep it updated on a computer file. I used to joke that my son would publish it posthumously for me. Keep in mind that this is just the first of five volumes. It’s probably the least controversial because there just aren’t too many scathing reviews to be written. When we get to the American courses, I’m already on the record with my opinions about some of them. And the new ones I see, I’ve got to be honest about them too. My opinions may have mellowed a little over time. But I’m not going to sugarcoat them. One architect you didn’t sugarcoat your opinion of in the first book was Desmond Muirhead. You called him a “quack.”

DOAK: I never really did understand what was going on with his courses and the marketing around them, which was all about symbolism and had nothing to do with golf. That’s why I used the word “quack.” I included the Webster’s definition of the word as someone practicing something that they don’t know anything about. Muirhead died in 2002. You ever hear from him about that?

DOAK: No. I never met him. Muirhead also did a lot of work for Jack Nicklaus. You and Nicklaus went on to design a Sebonack together. What did Jack have to say about your “quack” comment? Did he agree with you?

DOAK: Jack and I never talked about [Muirhead]. It’s been nearly 20 years since the original Confidential Guide was published. Has your outlook changed? Your way of evaluating courses?

DOAK: I don’t know that I’ve changed my world view. I wrote the original book having seen a ton of courses, so I really do have an appreciation for different styles. But the more you see, the more I think your views skulk away from stylish, tough and fair, and more toward quirky things that you don’t get to see every day. I felt that way when I wrote the book but that feeling is even stronger now. What I’m looking for are courses with a character of their own. A stylish, no-flaws golf course? That’s not what really interests me, and that’s not we’re looking for in this book. Hopefully, you already have one of those close to home.

(GOLF MAGAZINE: The Top 100 Courses in the World | The Top 100 Courses in the U.S.) So what fits the bill for you in Great Britain and Ireland?

DOAK: One of the first that comes to mind is North Berwick. I always loved that course, but it took me a long time to get over the fact that it’s only 6,400 yards. It’s not really a hard course. I’m about a 10 handicap and I can still break 80. The consensus was always that a good player could destroy it. But you can’t dismiss a course because you can shoot a good number. Where does it rank on the Doak scale?

DOAK: 9. Why isn’t a 10? Because it’s only 6,400 yards?

DOAK: There are a handful of pretty forgettable holes, even though there are a lot of other great ones that you never see anywhere else. Generally, when I look back at what makes the difference between a 9 and a 10, the nines have seemed to lack the really great short par 4s. Augusta and Winged Foot. Great courses, obviously, but they’re nines. They’re missing the cool 340-yard holes. But Augusta has that great short par-4 3rd?

DOAK: Yeah, but the 10s have like four of those. St. Andrews has a half-dozen. You spoke recently about your re-assessment of Royal Aberdeen this time around, how you appreciated it much more on your recent visit. Any other instances where you felt differently about a course, either for better or worse?

DOAK: I’ve always loved Royal Portrush but they've been choking it with rough to prove that it's Open-worthy, and I am dreading what they might do to the course now that they've got the Open coming.

Other courses that I underrated in the first book were Lundin Links, Moray (Lossiemouth), Gullane #2. As with Royal Aberdeen, they probably just didn't seem very cool after two months in St. Andrews. There is always some hangover right after you play an awesome course — even Merion didn't look that awesome the day after I saw Pine Valley for the first time, and I rate Merion a 10 on the Doak scale!

One that I reconsidered was Shiskine, the 12-hole course on Arran. When I saw it the first time, I thought it was just too quirky and weird to be taken seriously by overseas visitors — there are seven par-3 holes out of 12, and maybe five of them are blind! But I still remember every hole, 30 years later, and the few readers who have gone to play the course all enjoyed it, so I bumped up its number to reflect that. In this day and age, given the modern game, do you think that great courses and championship architecture are incompatible?

DOAK: Not entirely. Pinehurst and Muirfield are both 10s for me. But it is harder to build a course that is fun for the average golfer and challenging enough for the pro game. The pro game is coming to Gleneagles this week for the Ryder Cup. What do you think of the host venue?

DOAK: I haven’t seen it so I can’t say. You didn’t go see a course that was set to host the Ryder Cup?

DOAK: When I was last in Scotland, there were a number of courses I wanted to see, like Askernish, among others. I had to make some choices and there were places that I wanted to see more than another championship course. Based on what you’re seen in pictures and read about Gleneagles, do you think you’d like it? (Two of Doak’s collaborators saw the Jack Nicklaus-designed course and wrote in their review: “Nicklaus' web site quotes him as saying it was the finest piece of property he'd ever been given to work with; if that were true, the result would be a tremendous disappointment. Its ugly concrete cart paths will be on display to the world at the 2014 Ryder Cup.”]

DOAK: I’ll take a pass on that and let my co-authors stand on their review. Another high-profile course is Trump International. My sense is that most golfers, hearing the names Donald Trump and Tom Doak, would think, “Now there are two guys who don’t see eye-to-eye.” Were you surprised by how much you liked it? And, if I’m a traveling golfer and have time for only one course in the Aberdeen area, do I hit Trump or Royal Aberdeen?

DOAK: Actually, I didn’t like Trump International that much. It’s a 7 because it was a beautiful piece of land for golf, but the design did not really make the most of it, in my view. If you’ve got time for only one course in the Aberdeen area, our consensus view is to go to Royal Aberdeen, but personally I’d still make the drive to Cruden Bay instead. You have a course in Scotland, the Renaissance Club, and it isn’t a 10. Where did you go wrong?

DOAK: I think we did a really good job on a site that is really not all that dramatic except for the new holes, which extend out toward a lighthouse and wrap the corner of the course. The course itself plays terrifically. It plays like a links. Obviously, I think pretty highly of it. I can’t give them all 8s, 9s and 10s. My clients don’t understand that, but, in this case, the course was built to host tournaments, and it’s kind of missing the cool short par 4s. One rating in the book that really stands out is your rating of the Castle Course. You gave it a zero. It’s been said that you and its designer, David McLay Kidd, have a frosty relationship. Is that true?

DOAK: No. I like David a lot. He’s very openly competitive and I admire that. He’s not like some of the backstabbers out there who will be very polite in person. David wants to do great work and I have no problem with that. I really like some of his courses. In the case of the Castle Course, I didn’t like it at all. Why not?

DOAK: I wouldn’t pin it all on David. It was a difficult site to work with and they had high-to-grandiose expectations for it. Part of the motivation of the [St. Andrews] Links Trust was to do something better than Kingsbarns and get some of that business back. There was that pressure, and it led everybody to build a pretty excessive design. They tried to transform the landscape. It was not a good site, and building something low profile wasn’t going to work. But they built something very complicated and it’s not appealing. It’s very quirky and it’s pretty severe. And what I like the least about it are the greens. When you miss a green, you’re eight feet below it looking up at the sky. The Old Course is so good because of the variety around the greens and the short-game shots it calls for. That’s the worst part of the Castle Course. Hypothetical: You run into David Kidd at a cocktail party. Do you turn your back and try to avoid him, or talk to him?

DOAK: I’d say hi. If he wants to have a chat about what I said, I’m fine with that. He’s welcome to write a book and pick on one of my courses. But that’s not why I’m doing this. I’m honestly reviewing courses and offering my recommendations. That’s not one I recommend people play.

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