Course designer Doak wants his style to depend on the land

By Michael Patrick Shiels, Contributor

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Tom Doak is currently golf's most fashionable course designer. He studied landscape architecture at Cornell University, and spent his post-graduate scholarship studying links courses throughout the United Kingdom - even spending months at St. Andrews caddying every day on the Old Course.

Doak worked for Pete Dye early in his career and then founded Renaissance Golf, headquartered in his hometown of Traverse City in 1989.

He has designed 18 golf courses, three of them overseas, including his first - Highpointe, his first solo effort, in Traverse City, and his most popular - Pacific Dunes, in Oregon.

Doak has written three golf books: "The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses," "Anatomy of a Golf Course," and "The Life and Work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie." caught up with Doak at his beloved Highpointe where he answered questions about his career and unveiled his next projects, including an unlikely collaboration with Jack Nicklaus.

Q: In your "Confidential Guide to Golf Courses," you rated Highpointe among the Top 10 in the world. Fifteen years later, is it?

A: "Highpointe was not conceived to be one of the great golf courses of the world. It was conceived as a place that was a really nice piece of land to build a golf course on and a relatively affordable place for people to come and play. Fifteen years later, that's what it is, and it's as rewarding to me as getting accolades for building golf courses around the world."

Q: You tried to transplant the ideas you'd seen in Scotland at home in northern Michigan? What worked and what didn't?

A: "The original putting green at Highpointe took up much more room and went all the way in front of the clubhouse. It was so severe. It was based on something I'd seen at St. Andrews that was like miniature golf on grass with severe contours. It took a heck of a lot of maintenance to just mow it. So we let part of it go eventually. But it's funny - I go to places now like Friar's Head and cool new golf courses and they have stuff like that, and I think, 'I know where they got that idea.' It wasn't from me. It was from St Andrews, where I got the idea."

Q: Were there some UK applications that stuck?

A: "When we started Highpointe we tried to plant fescue fairways, which honestly we had some idea of how to do and we thought was a neat idea based on what we'd seen overseas. But everybody told us it wouldn't work. And when we had trouble with it early, every one said 'I told you so.' Over the years the greens have matured into bentgrass-poa annua. There's still some fescue out there, but not very much.

"But I'm happy to say I was a part of that experiment because if you look now at what are considered the best golf courses built in the last 50 years: Sand Hills, Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, Whistling Straits, and Friar's Head, and they all have fescue fairways. So it did work, it just didn't work here back then. Fescue fairways create a different kind of golf where the ball bounces and rolls a long way in the fairways, and you have to be careful where you hit into the greens so that the ball doesn't bounce and roll over."

Q: You worked for Pete Dye after your world golf course study. Did Dye influence your style originally?

A: "Highpointe was the first time I tried to build bunkers that looked like old-style, flashed sand bunkers. Everything Pete built was just sand flat in the bottom with grass faces. I had never tried to do anything different. Over the years, we've gotten way better at building bunkers. I think Highpointe is some of my best work, but over the years, there are some things we've gotten better at. I've gotten better and more studied at what I'm doing. And, now I've got half-a-dozen guys who work for me who are better at certain things than I am. It's good to have real talented help."

Q: Finally, you're receiving the accolades some say you expected all along. Is making a name in golf course architecture and uphill climb?

A: "A lot of young architects ask me, 'Isn't that first golf course the hardest one to get?' It is and it isn't. I owe a lot to Don Hayden, the owner of Highpointe for letting me design a golf course on my own when I was as young as I was. I could never repay that. I should have done that for free.

"What I found out was that even though the golf course was well received, the golf business is very big and when you're very small nobody's ever heard of you. No matter how good you are and what you do the first time out, nobody's going to pay that much attention to you, even if you've got a lot of help marketing and promoting your work, because nobody knows who you are. They think, 'big deal.' The architects you're trying to make your name against have all done 100 golf courses and are doing five to 10 a year with much bigger budgets than you've even thought about. So it's not the first golf course that's the hardest, it's the third and fourth and fifth until you've actually established yourself as somebody who does this for a living and who is credible and has something under his belt."

Q: How did you get the opportunity to design Pacific Dunes?

A: "Several friends of mine knew Mike Kaiser who was the owner of the property. Mike is from Chicago and he was building a course in Oregon because it was the best piece of land he could find t build a course: sand dunes on a 100-foot cliff overlooking the ocean. It doesn't get much better than that. I'm still amazed they got permits to build golf courses out there, but the land was covered with gorse - the same stuff you see in Scotland, that somebody had brought to the West Coast and it spread like wildfire. It's a fire hazard and weedy, so their pitch to the environmentalists was that they were going clear the gorse off and plant native grasses and plants and control the rampant spread of gorse. So they got permits to do a couple of golf courses."

Q: You used your "minimalist" philosophy at Pacific Dunes to great acclaim.

A: "We've always prided ourselves on not having to move much dirt to build a golf course. I came up with that style in large part because I started on a piece of land where I didn't have to move much dirt to build a golf course. At Pacific Dunes, we wouldn't even let a guy get a tractor on that piece of land unless we were standing right there. Some of the fairways - the only piece of equipment that went on them was to smooth things out before we planted."

Q: Were you given any restrictions?

A: "Mike Kaiser was worried about my contoured greens because, basically, he's not a good putter. I can look at an Alister MacKenzie golf course and tell you what kind of golfer he was just by looking. You cannot help but be prejudiced by how you play. You let the client's input have an effect on what you do because it helps make your golf courses different. So at Pacific Dunes we built small greens with not a lot of contour."

Q: How important was Pacific Dunes to your career?

A: "The best thing about Pacific Dunes is that it is a public golf course. It's a resort. Forty thousand people play there every year. For my business, I can't tell you how valuable that is. People see it all the time as compared to other great golf courses that are private and have the same people play over and over. Lots of people get to see Pacific Dunes, and because of that, I've gotten a lot more opportunities over the past two years."

Q: Your course in New Zealand was a direct result of your work at Pacific Dunes.

A: "A guy from New York named Julian Roberts played Pacific Dunes the day after it opened, and thought it was pretty good. He called me and asked me if I'd like to do a course in New Zealand. Cape Kidnappers was the result. Where Pacific Dunes is 100 feet above the ocean, Cape Kidnappers, on the east coast of the north island of New Zealand, is 500 feet above the ocean. It's hard to describe. Te pictures of the place don't even do it justice. It was a fabulous experience to get to go there for a couple of months and build something really cool."

Q: How can you follow Pacific Dunes and Cape Kidnappers?

A: "A young man from Tasmania had the idea to build a links golf course called Barndougle Dunes in Tasmania, which is an island state just south of Australia. Just as in Oregon, this place was remote, so it was the only way he got permits to build the golf course right along the beach and sand dunes on the edge of the ocean. Most of Australia is Bermuda grass, but Tasmaina was just enough cooler that we could use fescue grass. The great golf courses of Australia are near major cities. Barndougle Dunes is depending on visitors from the big cities because the population of Tasmania alone will not make this work."

Q: You're awaiting approval for your first golf course in the UK.

A: "It's in the west of Ireland on the north side of the Dingle Peninsula. I've always wanted to do a real links course on links land. Pacific Dunes and Tasmania are links courses, but this project in Ireland would be on a piece of raw, untouched land that already has the grass we grow in the fairways growing. There are a lot of holes on the land that all we'll have to do is mow. We don't know if we'll get the permits. Undeveloped dunesland is rare in the UK, and we have to get special permission. We have an American client who is spending a lot of money and is going to wait a year or two to see how it works out."

Q: What has been your most difficult challenge?

A: "I'm working on a site in Palm Desert called Stone Eagle that is the most severe, difficult and dramatic site we've ever built on. It could be a really good golf course or a really bad golf course. I'm betting a lot that it's a really good golf course. The only thing I can compare it to is to say that it is like building a golf course on Mars. It's rocky and hot."

Q: Despite your outspoken nature and single-minded reputation, you're partnering with Jack Nicklaus to design Sebonac Golf Club on Long Island. How did that come about?

A: "If you'd told me 15 years ago, or even one year ago, that I'd be co-designing a golf course with Jack Nicklaus, I'd have just looked at you funny. Jack has designed 250 courses and my own son told me I was not in his league. But Jack is good friends with the owner of this property, Michael Pascucci - they live close to each other in Florida. I got to know the client through his having played Pacific Dunes and he really decided that he wanted both of us to work on the golf course.

"We're going to use a routing plan that I did for the owner that convinced him that he wanted to work with me. I was willing, but I couldn't imagine Jack would have wanted to design a course with me. Except that it's in the Hamptons; it's next door to Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links; it's on the bay between the two forks of Long Island; and it's a dramatic site. Because of where it is, it's a big deal. We are just starting to clear trees and compare notes."

Q: How can this collaboration possibly work?

A: "Every golf course you do is a collaboration. There are a lot of people with brains working on a project and you try to use the best ideas. That's the most important thing I learned from Pete Dye. Working with Jack, the best golfer who ever lived, can't hurt, as long as neither one of our egos get in the way - and we're getting paid a lot of money to make sure our egos don't get in the way. So we'll see how that works."

Q: Do you expect to spend a lot of time with Nicklaus?

A: "I'm very careful what I say about that project because the truth is that none of us really know how it's going to work. I spent a day and a half with Jack in mid-June. Basically, we agreed that we need to find what our common ground is. It's not going to do anybody any good on the project if he and I are not there at the same time. If I was there and built something and went away, and Jack came in three days later and said he didn't like it and changed it, that wouldn't work. Jack's not going to be there a lot of days.

"That's not how he works. He's got guys under him that spend a lot of days then he comes in for a few days at a time. He'll do that as often as he feels he needs to do. We agreed that when he's there, I need to be there, so whatever we disagree on, he and I can settle."

Q: Do you expect many disagreements?

A: "I think Jack and I have a lot in common. The one thing we differ on is that he, or at least the guys that work for him, always want to define and enclose everything, and I want to just leave it alone and let it be. I'm sure we'll have disagreements about that. I don't think we'll differ on strategy or how to build golf holes. I like giving people a lot of room to play golf, and he's one of the best at that. We won't be as far apart as a lot of people think. We're both used to making the final decision. And we're either going to have to trade off or let the client decide sometimes."

Q: How has it gone so far?

A: "The toughest thing about working with Jack will be that when he's there, there are 20 other people with him that want to be around Jack. When I'm on a site trying to make a decision, the last thing I want is 20 other people around me. I walk the other way so I can make a decision. Getting rid of those people, if we can do that, we'll be successful."

Q: Do you know much about the Nicklaus design process?

A: "Design is really out in the field. Jack is involved with the routings of most of the golf courses he does, but the design doesn't really happen until you get some stuff cleared out and start working on golf holes. If he had an idea of what he wanted to do on every hole before he started, I don't know how he would do that. If he has some flexibility out there in the field, we'll be OK."

Q: You've been openly critical of Jack's work in the past.

A: "I've said some bad things about Jack's courses. When The Bear opened in Traverse City, it was so severe. And they were saying it was Scottish. At best it was faux-Scottish. Jack didn't have anything to do with that - that was just how it was marketed. Jack himself told me, 'That's not my best golf course.' The client talked him into doing things he didn't want to do. He got tired of it and gave in."

Q: What is your ultimate goal?

A: "I'd be really disappointed if five to 10 years down the road I haven't designed five of the best golf courses in the world. I cannot believe there are as many good pieces of land as the ones I'm working with. The business plan for developing a golf course 10 years ago used to be: get a swamp in Florida, get Pete Dye, spend a bunch of money, and see what he can do. It's amazing what he could do, and I learned a ton from him. Most of the best golf courses in the world are not like that, though. The best courses are find the best piece of land and get someone, whether their famous or not, to spend a lot of time on it and see what happens. All we can ask for is a good canvas to do something cool. And it's a privilege to do it."

Q: How did you come to embrace your minimalist philosophy - a buzzword that so many other architects are trying to emulate?

A: "My whole philosophy is to try to build as good a golf course as I could with out doing more work than I had to. When you do artificial work it's really hard to make it look natural. If you try to do it 18 times, you'll never succeed. It's underrated to build something that looks like it's been there a long time. The first rule is - do a really good golf course. Nobody wants to hire me to do an average golf course. They all want it to be great. It depends on the piece of land they have. Some pieces of land take more work than others, but I try not to over-do it."

Q: You love the Old Course at St. Andrews.

A: "I caddied for months at St. Andrews. Many times it was for someone playing for the very first time because when you're in St. Andrews, it's the thing to do. I caddied for Japanese guys and had to aim them 30-degrees left of where I wanted them to hit the ball so when they cut across it the ball would go where I wanted. Most people go to St. Andrews once in their life and they don't know what they're looking at. If you know where the bunkers are, it's the most complicated course in the world. Nothing else comes close."

Q: What is your toughest golf course?

A: "Black Forest, (near Gaylord, Mich.) was the most difficult thing I've ever built. I realized I'd gone too far. When I worked for Pete Dye, he was going back to some of his courses and adjusting them for tournament play or redoing some of them. But just because my philosophy changes, doesn't mean I want to go back and re-do everything."

Q: What is the telling feature of a Tom Doak-designed golf course?

A: "A friend of mine once said, 'The signature of a Tom Doak golf course is a triple-breaking putt!' I don't want a signature. Every piece of land is different. We try to make the course wide and playable, without a lot of forced carries and interesting not just tee-to-fairway-to-green, but all around. I spend more time than any architects wondering, 'What happens when you miss the green?' as opposed to sticking stakes in the middle and saying, 'OK, this is where the second shot will go.'"

Michael Patrick Shiels, Contributor

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Tom Doak Interview

    Pat Norton wrote on: Jul 27, 2004

    Please note that the spelling of the new course that Tom Doak and Jack Nicklaus are collaborating on is: Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, NY.


  • Doak in Ireland

    Roger Fleet wrote on: Jul 25, 2004

    Reading the interview with Tom Doak, you mention his project in the "UK". Ireland is not in the UK.