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Redefining the Green

Tom Doak’s Radical Minimalism

Illustration by BIll Zindel

ISSUE:  Summer 2017

We slipped through the silver gates of the fence, turning sideways to slide our hips past the rails, ignoring a sign that warned against trespassing. The bright fall day made the hop farm shine green, the plants standing tall, tethered to poles by swooping coconut twine. Golf-course architect Tom Doak was taking me on a tour of what had been High Pointe Golf Club—his first design—just outside Traverse City, Michigan, a project he began at twenty-five years old. The course took three years to build and opened in 1989 and enjoyed much acclaim in the golf world before enduring a premature death just short of its twentieth birthday, brought on, in part, by the economic downturn. The course announced, from the start, that Doak would become a force for what would be termed minimalism in golf course design, a philosophy that sought to return the game back to its roots in Scotland by focusing on courses that weren’t built as much as they were found in the natural topography of what a piece of property offered.

But it wasn’t just his work in the dirt that forged Doak’s reputation as a minimalist, it was his architecture criticism and his willingness to always give his opinion, which has often involved tearing down some of the most prominent designers in American golf with blistering reviews. In a business whose model is dependent on the wooing of millionaires with money to invest, Doak’s reclusive nature and acerbic and unbending opinions have made him a rare bird, and he’s survived his transgressions because of his talent and the fundamental way he has remade golf in America.

Now in his midfifties, Doak sports a boyish haircut that requires no combing—just a small pat of the head to tamp it down when he removes his hat—and he carries the slight paunch of middle age. But as we approach the former golf course, his stride kicks into a higher gear, belying his years, as he moves well ahead of me up the hill to the former clubhouse, now used as an occasional venue for birthday parties and wedding receptions. The defunct golf cart charging stations stand like speakers at a forgotten drive-in and the perimeter outline of the barn where the carts were once stored is like a permanent shadow in the parking lot. From the hill’s apex, Doak tells me about the old course’s owner, its development, and how, once it was built, Doak found he couldn’t stay away: He visited almost weekly to check in, as if he might be able nurture the course toward success.

When we descend the hill, we head to the back forty of the property, which remains untouched by the farm. We follow a cracked asphalt path that leads into an overgrown grass field covered in gnarled weeds and scrub trees and see the vague layout of what was once the tenth hole. Nearly thirty years after it was built, Doak can still point out the challenges of High Pointe’s design and recall his decisions for shaping each hole. As he speaks, the tight-clipped fairways reveal themselves to me and the greens with steep contours appear underfoot. He explains bunkering and what are called “shot values,” showing me the ways he set up holes so that players always had a few options of attack. The terrain is hilly and surrounded by dense trees at what used to be the edges. And though Doak is beside me, walking every hole, detailing the strategy and thinking behind each decision, I struggle to keep pace physically and mentally.

After we return to the clubhouse overlooking the hop field, a breeze riffles the spire-like plants. On the highway at the farm’s edge, sedans and trucks kick up dust as they speed past, their drivers indifferent to the fact that the land over their shoulders once held the first design of one of the greatest golf-course architects of his generation and, maybe, ever.

The second course Tom Doak ever set foot on was Harbour Town Golf Links, in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The course was built by Pete Dye, a man who shifted the paradigm of golf-course architecture in this country, and who would later become Doak’s first boss. Dye’s courses were meant to be difficult, so much so that average players to professionals rarely enjoyed them. A Dye course often allows little room for error from tee to green; Harbour Town was no different in this way. Its fairways were narrow corridors menaced by overhanging tree limbs that punished shots hit to the wrong side of certain holes, and the course’s small greens made it difficult for golfers’ shots to stay put—if players managed to hit the small targets in the first place. The course was visually stunning—golfers approached the final green with a clear view of the Harbour Town Lighthouse—and the ten-year-old Doak was immediately taken in, but it wasn’t only Dye’s design that caught his attention. “There was this great little booklet that Charles Price”—a golf writer—“had written about the course,” Doak tells me. “And I could go out at that age and read his words next to the diagrams of each hole, and it described the architecture in pretty simple terms, and it all made sense to me.” That booklet was a precursor to what became known as “yardage books,” which provide golfers with distances from various spots of play on specific holes, and often, as in Price’s case, provide a line of attack for each hole. “It was really a great little primer on golf-course architecture,” Doak says.

Price’s work brought a sense of order to what might otherwise have seemed a random pattern of mowing and clear-cutting, and it showed the precocious Doak how a course was composed. In many ways, the clarity of Price’s descriptions would serve as the foundation of his career as Doak went on to make a name for himself in the golf business—first as a young and outspoken writer and architecture critic, before moving on to design his own courses.

Doak started college at MIT in 1978, but left after a year. “On my eighteenth birthday,” he confesses, “late in my freshman year, they were pressuring us to choose a major, and I was more interested in my golf books. So I called my mom and told her I wanted to give that a go.” He transferred to Cornell and enrolled in their landscape-architecture program. In the fall, he wrote a letter to Golf Magazine and scored his first writing assignment. Throughout college, Doak was determined to see as many courses as he could, often writing letters to various revered cathedrals of golf around the country, asking if he might just come look at the course and take a few pictures. He was often greeted as a curiosity—why would a kid just want to walk a course and look around without playing?—but was welcomed nonetheless, and he built up a roster of contacts who appreciated his good manners and inquisitiveness. Later, their faith in him was articulated in letters of recommendation that proved instrumental in winning a scholarship to travel abroad and study the great courses in the UK and Ireland after graduation. In what has become equal parts legend and rote biography to students of golf-course architecture, Doak traveled those countries not so much studying the courses he visited as imprinting them into his creative DNA and intellectual framework. He even spent three months as a caddie at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, which is widely considered to be the world’s first course. (Many consider it the greatest ever built.) What Doak saw overseas were courses that had been shaped by the sea’s wind, built in sandy soil, meaning they drained well and allowed for firm and fast playing surfaces. He also noted that lesser-skilled players had more options to get the ball onto the green for scoring opportunities. Perhaps most important, the game was viewed as exercise for the masses, not just the privileged few of the country club circuit.

Upon Doak’s return to the US, he was hired by Dye to work on the construction crew at Long Cove Club, in Hilton Head. Although he wanted to become a designer and believed that he could, he was in no hurry to leave Dye’s pen. “I was so young and naïve that I didn’t appreciate how hard that was to achieve, or how long it might take,” he says. “But when I worked for Mr. Dye, I realized there was a lot to learn.”

Eventually, Doak was “farmed out,” he says, to Dye’s older son, Perry, whose philosophy, like his father’s, was in direct opposition to what Doak had absorbed in his trip abroad. “It was easy to see that blowing down the sides of mountains in Japan”—Perry Dye’s approach—“wasn’t going to fit with what I’d taken away from my time in Scotland, so I quit, even though I had no idea of how to start on my own, or even thinking I was ready. I just knew I couldn’t stay.” Doak spent the next few months traveling and freelancing for Golf Magazine. He also began work on a small travel booklet that contained reviews of courses to visit or to avoid which arguably set the trajectory of Doak’s career.

In 1988, the year before High Pointe opened, Doak gave the completed booklet to just forty friends, calling it The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. It was never meant for public consumption; as Doak wrote, he “reviewed every course on its own merits, gave no free passes, and shredded the myth that hiring a big-name designer guarantees a quality product.” By his own recollection, “the most biting quote was, ‘I don’t know if [architect x] is the worst architect who ever lived, but [course by x] would be Exhibit A if you were trying to prove it.’ But I honestly don’t remember which course I wrote that about. It was just intended as a funny way of saying, ‘Don’t go here.’ ” As one can imagine, when word spread to the slighted architects, they failed to see the humor. Opinions like these were shocking in the staid world of golf, which fancies itself a game for gentlemen, with a code of behavior and discourse that follows suit. Doak broke those rules, and the frankness of his assessments gained attention. It wasn’t long before xeroxed, bootleg copies of his booklet began to show up in mailboxes around the country.

The golf business is chummy and small, and one’s currency in it, as in nearly all businesses, is based in large part on relationships. Doak’s booklet inadvertently put him on the outside of an industry and culture to which he had long sought entrée, yet he says he never worried how those opinions might have affected his job prospects. In fact, he still seems to have little concern for how he is perceived by his peers. “I’ve been an outsider from the beginning—in a business that’s full of second-generation designers and ex-jocks, much like sportscasting,” he says. “So I never felt I had much to lose by being controversial.”

Doak stresses that his only desire is to build great courses and cites this as one of the reasons he has never joined the industry trade association, the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), who have in their bylaws that no member can criticize another member’s course. “I don’t really care about making my professional life easier. There are a few architects who I like to visit and trade ideas with, and I enjoy time with the various interns I’ve had over the years, but I’m not part of the ASGCA because I don’t want to be a normal professional.”

High Pointe opened on the heels of his booklet gaining notoriety, and the course was met with praise and a bit of shock. Many people had expected the young architect to emulate his mentor, Dye. “What I remember at the time was a bit of surprise that his courses weren’t looking anything like Pete Dye’s stuff,” says Ron Whitten, senior editor on architecture for Golf Digest. “Most guys who started in the business under Dye ended up imitating his architecture a lot. Tom didn’t do that at all.” Instead, Doak applied what he’d learned from the courses he studied abroad, where he saw how much designers left the land undisturbed rather than seeing how much earth they could manipulate. According to Whitten, it wasn’t that Doak’s work was “exactly original, but for American audiences, it was definitely fresh. And refreshing.” Doak’s youth, inexperience, and relative anonymity when High Pointe opened, combined with the way he set a flame to his elders, didn’t endear Doak to the titans of his industry. After all, who was this kid and what had he done? One design in, Doak established himself as an enfant terrible to some while remaining “Tom who?” to others.

Doak possesses a nearly perfect mind for architecture. He thinks spatially with the unusual ability to look at a topographic map and visualize the routing—the sequence of holes—for a course before he ever walks the property. This was something that Mike Keiser, the developer of Bandon Dunes resort, in Bandon, Oregon, witnessed firsthand when he hired Doak to build Pacific Dunes at Bandon. “He had the entire routing figured out by examining the topo”—the mapped topography. “When he and I finally walked the site together and started staking out the holes, almost every hole was exactly as Tom had seen it on the map.”

Doak’s spatial abilities crystalized during his time working on a bulldozer at a project in Denver for the Dyes, where he first learned to shape greens. “By the end of that job I realized I knew enough to build a course on my own,” he says. Along with his ability to work the equipment, Doak’s memory seems unfailing—bordering on photographic—allowing him to recall almost every hole he’s ever seen. Stephen Goodwin, author of Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes, tells me, “He took on the big shots and told them they were wrong and lazy. He emphasized the classics”—those courses of the Old World—“and now, thirty years later, everybody is talking that way. No one else had the intellectual chops to do that. Not that they aren’t smart enough, they just weren’t going to write and argue like Tom.”

Doak’s writing has always gone hand in hand with his design, beginning with that first assignment for Golf Magazine. Eventually, when he broke into course design, he said, “Some people recognized my name from what I’d written, so it helped elevate me above other young guys who were totally unknown.” Stylistically, Doak’s writing is personal and reflective, much like his courses. “My voice is in everything I do—both what I build and what I write,” he said. “It was there almost right away, when I started building High Pointe, although I wasn’t skilled enough on the equipment to make the most of it. I’ve heard novelists say they just try to get to know their characters and then see where they lead. I’m trying to do the same, with a piece of land and a crew of guys.” And, like a good novelist, Doak is keenly aware of the effect of his influences, and he sets out to honor them: “My voice comes from all those people who took time to teach me something about golf when I was just starting out. Some are famous, some not at all, but they all took me seriously because they could see how seriously I was pursuing my dreams,” he says. “I would feel awful if my work didn’t reflect all they taught me.”

Mike Keiser says it was Doak’s first guide that caught his attention. “He confirmed for me what a lot of my friends and I were thinking,” he says, “which was, the old courses were better than the new ones.” In the late eighties, Keiser spent four years trying to find land to build his own golf course, and, not long after reading Doak’s booklet, he purchased the 1,200 acres on the Oregon coast that became Bandon Dunes resort. He knew he wanted to hire Doak but also knew he couldn’t have him build the first course at Bandon. “He was ‘Terrible Tom,’ and he wrote things like, ‘I don’t have to go see a Jack Nicklaus course to know it’s a 5’ ”—out of 10. “I just thought there would be too much controversy to use him as the first architect.” Keiser is referring to what was termed the “Doak Scale” in the booklet—and in subsequent hardcover editions of the guide. A 5 isn’t necessarily a bad score, but it also means one shouldn’t go out of their way to see a course. Nicklaus was and still is the most popular golf-course architect in the world, and he is golf’s greatest champion. Privately, many people thought his courses were merely serviceable, but no one said it publicly until Doak. Nor has he backed down from this or any other criticism.

Since Pacific Dunes opened in 2001, Keiser says, Doak’s reputation has grown worse—an assessment corroborated by Matt Ginella of the Golf Channel, who told me of Doak’s relationship with his peers, “He’s not well liked, frankly.” Ginella speculates this may be due to the competitive nature of the business, but Doak also hasn’t done himself many favors with his criticisms of his peers’ work. Apolitical to a fault, caring only about his craft and the principles he privileges, Doak’s writing can border on evangelical. He called on a return to a more classic form of architecture that relied heavily on the landscape’s natural terrain and less on the use of a D8 dozer. And like any true believer, Doak has been unwilling to suffer heretics, doing battle with online commenters over at the cultish Golf Club Atlas website and in the pages of various magazines, as well as indirectly within his own books and articles. Doak is no more outspoken today than when he was younger, but he now has a small but enviable portfolio of courses that are considered among the best in the world, including Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania; a pair of New Zealand courses, Cape Kidnappers and Tara Iti (the latter of which Keiser says is the most beautiful course he has ever seen); and Pacific Dunes, completed when Doak was forty. The last placed him in a new echelon, solidifying his position as one of golf’s best designers, and it helped cement Doak as a minimalist the term Ron Whitten slightly misappropriated from visual art to describe Doak’s bare-bones, roughed-edge look.

A pair of American architects, Bill Coore and former PGA Tour star Ben Crenshaw, also started to build courses around the same time as Doak, with the same principles. Nonetheless, Doak was at the forefront of minimalism in America. “Pete Dye and Bill Coore are both artist types—articulate but not driven to get their ideas out there the way Tom is,” Goodwin says. “The only other designer who had the same effect was C. B. Macdonald, whose ideas about classic design kicked off the boom in the early twentieth century.”

Whitten and Goodwin agree that Doak’s courses changed golf in America, promoting the ground game—a style of play that allows golfers to use the turf, and focuses on approach shots from a hundred yards in as well as recovery shots —when an approach misses the putt-ing surface—from around the green. Typically, American golf courses have dictated that golfers play the ball in the air, which is often difficult for the average player. Doak says that when he builds a course, he always has his mother in mind. She enjoyed golf but hit a lot of grounders, too. He tries to create holes that challenge all skill levels. By applying a design that demands firm and fast conditions, Doak not only gives less skilled players the chance to still make great shots and have more fun, he also forces better players to be precise. This, in turn, affects the way his courses need to be maintained and mowed. Which means that Doak’s impact on American golf isn’t just in how we build courses, but in the way we look at natural-resource management and agronomy. Because Doak strives to move less earth when he can and because those courses need less water, both construction costs and overhead can often be decreased. But Doak is ever restless. “I’ve never wanted to be typecast—even as a minimalist,” he says. “I’m enough of a contrarian to think that if everyone else’s courses are starting to look like mine, it’s time to change direction again.”

Enter Doak’s latest design in the woods of Roscommon, Michigan: the Loop, a reversible eighteen-hole golf course. A reversible golf course does not mean that golfers are playing in opposite directions, firing shots past one another, but rather that the course plays a clockwise routing one day and a counterclockwise routing the next. The genius of the Loop is its use of only eighteen green complexes. Doak was committed to this idea early but quickly saw two pitfalls he had to overcome. The first was that he didn’t want golfers to simply come at a green from a direction of 180 degrees to that of the previous day. He knew this would bore them soon enough. So he had to adjust where golfers teed-off from on some holes, so the angles of approach would have more variety. The second was that he wanted to have small greens because “everyone said you can only do this with really large greens around ten thousand square feet,” Doak says. “I wanted to prove we could do it with normal-sized greens.” The greens at the Loop average six thousand square feet.

The concept of a reversible course is not entirely new, nor is it a gimmick, says Whitten. The Old Course at St. Andrews has a backward routing, but it is only used on rare occasions, and there are a smattering of nine-hole reversible courses in the US as well as one eighteen-hole course in Victor, Idaho (and another in Japan). Doak’s reversible idea was born thirty years ago, and he was waiting for the right time and chance to make it happen. Few architects would even attempt to design such a course. This is in part due to its degree of difficulty, but also because few developers would allow a designer to try something so unknown to the golfing public, given the millions of dollars of investment required to build a course and the high probability that most courses will lose money. “The economics of golf are too complex and ridiculous to explain,” Doak says. “The adage is that the only owner who makes any money on the course is the third one, after the first two have lost their shirts, and the third one comes in and scoops up the course for pennies on the dollar.”

In Lew Thompson and his Forest Dunes Golf Club, Doak found the perfect confluence of owner and property for fulfilling this one of his most daring designs and innovations. When Thompson purchased the resort, its lone course was in operation and considered a hidden gem. Thompson wanted another course to entice visitors to stay overnight. He did his homework and brought in Doak, who right away saw the potential for the land to hold the reversible design. The additional two-in-one course built by Doak would effectively give Thompson three courses and the overnight visitors he needed to make the resort more profitable.

Still, building the Loop seemed a risk. The design was hard enough to execute, but then once the course was built there was—and still is—a fear that one routing of the course might surpass another in quality or popularity, in effect, ruining the concept. Doak insists the Loop is one course and not two separate eighteen-hole courses occupying the same piece of land. But even if he is fearful that one routing might be favored, he’s also resolute—and defiant—about what he created. “There are surely some people who’d like to see me fail publicly,” he says, such as the architects he’s rankled over the years. “But there are also lots of others who would have loved to build something similar and just don’t have the opportunity—or the balls—to do something this bold when they do get a job.” Mike Young, a golf architect from Georgia and an admirer of Doak’s, says that some in the business think Doak has been fortunate to receive great canvasses to do his work—that the sites of his courses are idiotproof—and that he’s only been lucky. Doak is well aware of these charges and says of his critics, “They’re always implying that I’ve had it easy because I’ve been given such great sites, and that it takes more talent to work under tougher conditions. But I don’t have any interest in proving that I’m a ‘better architect.’ I’m just trying to build great courses.”

Young says, “The only thing I’ll concede on this point is that Tom does get to work in sandy soil often, and that has advantages. It’s just more efficient.” It’s faster to shape, easier for laying irrigation, and it cuts down on costs. “But his courses are not the product of luck, and the guy that buys the land isn’t going to just hand it over to anybody. What I like about Tom is that he is very direct, which some often take in the wrong way. I’m more of a salesman type, and so is much of the industry.”

Being a salesman is the aspect of the job Doak hates most, saying, “I’ve just never been comfortable with that side of the business.” But he admits to being of envious of those with what he terms “paper skills” and the easy way some architects can handle presentations and glad-hand clients. Thirty years in, there are signs that the competition is closing in on him. His bid to build the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro was lost to his former associate, Gil Hanse. Coore and Crenshaw received acres of free publicity for their work in restoring Pinehurst No. 2 to its original design when the U.S. Open was held there in 2014, and, to some that might not know better, including golfers, the fact that none of Doak’s courses have ever held a PGA Tour event or a major men’s championship might seem like a hole in his résumé. But it’s Doak’s forthrightness and seemingly aloof nature that are his biggest hindrances.

Doak can go hours without speaking while he works, lost in his thoughts on his work, and this can hurt him with developers. “Someone like Bill Coore is a grinder,” says Keiser, “which is not to say Tom isn’t a hard worker, but Coore tweaks and changes, and he holds your hand through the process.” Doak will make changes, but he’s not one to walk an owner through the process; or, rather, he prefers not to. “Bill’s style is a little more comfortable for guys like me,” Keiser says.

During construction of the Loop, the superintendent—the eventual caretaker of the course—followed Doak around as he deliberated the width of fairways and the like. One afternoon the superintendent made a suggestion to Doak, which was met with silence. Thompson remembers that the superintendent called him that night to complain, and did so the next night when the same thing occurred again. “I said, ‘Tom’s the designer. You have to get along with Tom. He’s not going anywhere.’ And I left it at that.” Still, Thompson was greeted with a third call, another complaint of Doak responding with silence. The next day, the superintendent was gone, having been fired by Thompson.

Doak remembers being surprised when the superintendent left Forest Dunes, but reluctantly admits to stonewalling him when pressed. “I hear criticism and my first impulse is to shut down, to not rock the boat,” he says. “If I don’t say anything, I can’t escalate the situation.”

Doak knows his lack of self-awareness caused miunderstandings when he was a young man. “One or two writers went so far as to speculate that I was some sort of savant or Asperger’s case.” However, he says, “nearly all of my personality quirks are just classic traits of an adult child of alcoholics, which I understand myself to be now. Though my parents weren’t violent alcoholics, I guess my grandparents were, and the effects on one’s relationships tend to repeat across generations.”

Doak felt if he didn’t respond to the superintendent, then he couldn’t upset or disappoint him regarding his suggestions, and it seemed better to say nothing and avoid a potential conflict. In the message boards at Golf Club Atlas, responding to commenters’ critiques and questions, he takes a different tack—one that suits his thoughtfulness and comfort in writing. There he can carefully craft his message, and it allows for a form of verbal pugilism and argumentation Doak actually relishes.

Thirty years ago, Doak began a revolution, though he didn’t think of it that way, and now, as he looks to the next chapter of his career, he says the Loop was a way for him to branch out and find new challenges for himself. Citing the work of his current and former associates and the many acolytes of his style, Doak notes they’ve carried minimalism further than he could have on his own, but he hints that he may be ready for a change in style. “It’s starting to look like if anyone is going to break away from minimalism, it’s going to have to be me.” He’s not a man to run with the pack even if he is leading it.

Near the end of our High Pointe tour, Doak’s wife calls, and he breaks into a smile when he answers the phone. “Guess where I am?” he says. He tells her he wants to bring Zenzi, the family dog, out to the old course and let her run. Not long after it was built, after he had been visiting too much, the owner had to sit him down, “and tell me the course wasn’t mine but his.” It wasn’t so much an intellectual shock as one to the heart. The owner did him a favor, he says now, by teaching him to move on. He came around less after that but enough to become frustrated by what he saw as poor management. After the course eventually closed, the property lay fallow for seven years, until it was purchased by the hop farm. Doak joked at the time, on Golf Club Atlas: “My first born turns to alcohol. Drinks on me.” It’s clear he remembers the potential he saw in that rough landscape when he was a twenty-five-year-old kid, itching to build his first course. Sixty miles east, the bones of High Pointe are evident in the Loop. The old and the new intermingled. A course that has receded back to its natural habitat seems an apt setting for the architect who most ardently supported a return to pared-down courses, whose latest course’s logo is the symbol for infinity, for a man who, in the end, is only chasing himself.


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Kristel Mourgue d'Algue's picture
Kristel Mourgue... · 6 years ago

Probably the best article ever, written about Tom Doak, the genius of golf course architecture! Thank you Mr Croley

Brian Lewis's picture
Brian Lewis · 6 years ago

As good as anything I've ever read on Tom--maybe the best.

J.S.'s picture
J.S. · 6 years ago

Article about my favorite golf architect written  my favorite college professor. Great read! 


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