Q&A with Golf Course Architect Tom Doak

Posted by Rob Rigg
April 2009

When Tom Doak agreed to answer a few questions for the members of The Walking Golfers Society we were ecstatic.

The Q&A focuses on building golf courses for the walking golfer.

Tom Doak is one of the top golf course architects in the world, and like so many successful leaders in their field, he is the best because his life has been dedicated to learning, interpreting and implementing the extensive knowledge he has compiled about golf course architecture in a unique way.

Tom’s love for golf course architecture started at a very young age. His passion was noticed at Cornell University where he was awarded a scholarship to travel to Scotland, caddy at St Andrews, and visit the many great courses located in Great Britain and Ireland.

Tom’s encyclopedic knowledge of golf courses is legendary and he has put that information to great use while designing golf courses and writing about them.

In 1992, Tom wrote “Anatomy of a Golf Course” which is a must read for anyone interested in golf course architecture. He followed it up with the out of print and hard to find “The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses” in 1996 which features honest and forthright review of over 800 courses. The “Doak Scale”, which he created for “The Confidential Guide”, is used by golf course architecture buffs around the world to discuss and rate courses.

In terms of golf course design, “minimalism” is the foundation of his philosophy.  Tom, and his team at Renaissance Golf Design, always work with the land, moving as little dirt as possible, and spend an extensive amount of time onsite to develop the optimal routing for both the course and the ground it will be built upon. “Minimalist design” is the “in vogue” philosophy for many golf course architects, but Tom has been committed to it since his solo design career began with High Pointe in 1989.

Tom’s broad knowledge of golf courses, his uncanny ability to find the optimal routing on any property, his committment to work seamlessly with the land before him, and his skill in surrounding himself with a great team of designers, project managers and shapers, has provided Renaissance with the opportunity to work on some of the best sites and build some of the best walking courses in the world.

Pacific Dunes, Barnbougle Dunes, Ballyneal, Cape Kidnappers and Sebonack (designed with Jack Nicklaus) are a few of Tom’s courses that are consistently found at the top of any magazine’s course rankings. His new design at Bandon Dunes, Old Macdonald, will probably be added to the list after its opening in June, 2010.

As a walking golfer who enjoys learning about golf course architecture, I am in awe of what Tom has accomplished.

His designs epitomize the experience benefit of walking when you play, because the thoughful routing, subtle nuances and bold contouring, and attention to detail in the shaping of bunkers and greens, can only be fully realized if you are walking the course.

Please read on for the Q&A.

TWG      What was, or would be, your dream site to build a walking friendly golf course?

TD         I don’t have one “dream” site … we’ve had the good fortune to work on 7-10 sites which would be a dream for any architect, and I’m confident there are more of them out there. The good news is, you can build a walking friendly golf course in nearly any setting.

TWG      How do you think differently about routing a walking versus cart specific golf course?

TD         I don’t think I’ve ever designed a “cart specific” golf course; we try to make every course walkable.  But generally, if you have to design around cart paths, you have to space the holes farther apart so that the cart coming up the path is not in danger from another hole.  I know I’ve designed a few holes where I thought afterward, “Gee, if we had to have cart paths, I couldn’t have built this green this way,” because of access issues.  The tenth at Pacific Dunes is a good example of that … the green sits between two big dunes, and the only good way to the next tee is right across that green.

TWG       What does the request for a “walking friendly” course mean to you?

TD           It means you want short transitions between greens and tees, and not too much hill climbing.

TWG       How do you minimize green to tree transfers?

TD           That is really the lost art of golf course design.  Most modern architects figure that everyone will just drive to the next tee so the transition doesn’t matter, but if you are a stickler for short transitions, you have to be much better at routing the course to minimize blind or partially blind tee shots.  You probably also have to have the strong stomach to decide that having one or two tee shots from less than the ideal angle, is better than having to walk or ride 100 yards out of your way for a tee where you can see better.

TWG       Is there a green to tee transfer distance that is simply unacceptable to you?

TD           No, not really. Sometimes you might have to have one pretty long walk in order to make other holes work seamlessly.  The longest walk I’ve seen on a golf course is about a quarter mile between the 12th and 13th holes at Cape Breton Highlands.  Stanley Thompson treated that like a nature walk along the river, a lull in the play that makes you remember where you are.

TWG       Do you have any examples of a situation where you decided not to build the “best” hole possible because the transfer from the preceding or subsequent hole would be too far?

TD           I’m sure we do this once or twice per course.  I am not sure I want to point out an example, because I don’t want people to start pointing out where I “compromised” the course.

TWG       Do you think Crystal Downs is a good walking course despite its hilly nature? If so, what was done in the routing to make it walking friendly despite the terrain?

TD           Crystal Downs is a beautiful walk, but it’s pretty strenuous getting from the tenth green up to the 11th and then way up again to the 12th tee … they could stand to have an oxygen station at the 12th tee!  I’ve heard in the old days there was a horse & wagon in the summer months to take people up from 11 to 12.  Realistically, though, that one climb probably prevents 20% of the members from thinking about walking.  And a lot of times I will walk the front nine but then take a cart for the back.

TWG       If you were given a piece of property like Crystal Downs, what would you do differently, if anything, to integrate the hills and valleys into the routing to make it easier for the walker?

TD           Crystal Downs is one of the great routings ever.  There’s no way around that one long uphill transition, because the property is very skinny there between a road and the bluff … you couldn’t play “east and west” to tack your way up the hill.  Nobody could improve on that routing.

TWG       Is there more, or less, earth moving required in building walker specific versus cart specific golf courses, or does it just depend on the site?

TD           It depends mostly on the architect’s attitude.  On a walking course you might have to move a little more dirt in places if you insist on not having a blind tee shot … but that’s probably a very small percentage of what modern architects typically move.

TWG       If a property owner requests a design that is “cart golf” focused, due to location, clientele, etc., is there anything that you try to do with the routing to make it walkable as well?

TD           I’ve never had anyone ask for “cart golf” only, and I would probably turn down the job if they insisted on that.  However, there might be a cool property where it’s totally impractical to walk the whole 18 … Stone Eagle was pretty close to that.  Even so, most people will walk the bulk of the course and let a forecaddie take the cart, and they’ll only take the cart for a few uphill stretches or green-to-tee transitions.

TWG       How have environmental regulations helped or hindered the design of walking specific golf courses, and golf course architecture in general?

TD           The biggest effect is that we may have large areas of wetlands that we’re not even allowed to clear and hit over … and if there are a lot of those, it’s likely there will be some very long transitions around or across those wetlands.

TWG       Do you think we will see more Ballyneals (natural terrain great for walking) or Stone Eagles (mountain side cart specific) built in the future, from an economic and land availability stand point?

TD           I just hope there are more sites like those out there.  For the short term, there aren’t going to be very many golf courses built, period … but maybe the ones that are built will be on sites that are more suitable for golf and for walking.

TWG       Can a great walking golf course be routed through a housing development?  If so, how? Can you think of any?

TD           Lots of great courses have some housing along the perimeter … even Cypress Point and Pine Valley and North Berwick.  But the typical modern land-planned development where the golf course is wound through housing areas and crosses several streets makes it difficult to do a good walking course.  In such cases I would try to convince the client that a “core” course could be built on less acreage and made easily walkable, and leave more acres for development, but fewer of those lots would have golf course views.  I’ve been told by some of the leading land planners that the model of putting housing lots around every hole was starting to become unpopular, anyway, and that high-end developments were looking more toward having a “core” golf course … but as slow as development is now, it will probably be a few years before you can really tell if that’s a trend.

TWG       Are there any challenges, such as trees, that can make routing a good walking course through a parkland site more difficult than a wide open linksland site? Or does modern equipment make it fairly easy to work in any environment?

TD           Well, trees do impose one extra condition, in that you can’t just play to the next fairway from any angle you want, because sometimes there might be a specimen tree in the way … which limits the choices on where to place the previous green.  Sure, equipment lets you take down any tree in your way, but sometimes you don’t want to, or you’re working in some protected California oaks and you really can’t take the trees out.

TWG       What are your three favorite walking golf courses in the world and why?  What did the architect do with the land to make them best in class?

TD           Pretty much all of the great courses in the world are easily walkable … it is not a prerequisite for being ranked in the top 50, but there aren’t any notable exceptions.  I’ve been quoted before that courses like Cypress Point and Cruden Bay are so great, in part because the routing takes you around the property just like you might walk around to explore it for the first time.  I would like to think some of my courses fall into that category as well.

TWG     Thanks so much for your time.


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