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Monday, October 24, 2005

Interview with golf architect Tom Doak (part 1)

I'm still busy compiling all my notes from the Michigan trip, but after a wonderful round at the charming, refined and eminently natural Crystal Downs (Alistair Mackenzie, 1932) Tom Doak shared some thoughts over chili dogs and root beer at the Frankfort, MI A&W stand.

JF: How did you pick Northern Michigan for a home base?

Doak: While I was in college, I wrote to the PGA Head Professional at Crystal Downs, Fred Muller, about wanting to come and visit the course. I instantly fell in love with the design. I can play here every day and never get bored and learn new things about the course each time I play. Fred and I have been friends ever since.

JF: Was your scholarship from Cornell to study the great courses of the UK the springboard for your career as an architect?

Doak: It certainly was vitally important. So many people wrote really nice letters for me to get that scholarship and each one of them was integral. I remember Ben Crenshaw’s definitely had a great impact. He handwrote four pages on a plane and said some glowing remarks. It was wonderful.

JF: How did you get the Pacific Dunes job?

Doak: I was referred by Bill Shean and others. When I heard about the property and owner Mike Keiser’s plans, I spoke to Mike and asked if I could go out and see the property and took a tour in February of 1994, although Pacific Dunes was "over the fence". I wrote Mike a long letter afterward telling him how important it would be to me to work on a project like that. I was second in line behind David Kidd, so I had the inside track to the second course then.

JF: Tell us a few of the great public courses from the last 15 years that you like.

Doak: I don't travel as much as I used to, so I've only seen a fraction of them, but here are a few: Wild Horse, in Nebraska. Caledonia in Myrtle Beach, and Tobacco Road. World Woods (Pine Barrens). All of the Bandon courses. Kapalua (Plantation). Talking Stick (North). SunRidge Canyon in AZ. Old Works, Montana. Rustic Canyon in CA. Saddle Creek in Copperopolis, CA. Pinon Hills, NM. And I would love to see Black Mesa in NM, but I haven't been there yet.

JF: Where do you play when I travel for vacation and what contemporary courses do find exhilarating.

Doak: I still like going out and seeing new things. I've never been one to go back to the same place year after year. I love going back to Scotland and Ireland, though I haven't done it as often as I would like. I love going back to The National Golf Links. I love going to the sand belt courses in Melbourne, Australia, in the winter when the other best courses in the world are under snow. And naturally I love getting back to Pacific Dunes once or twice a year ... I go once every winter, when the place is less crowded and the weather can be surprisingly nice.

What contemporary courses do I find exhilirating? I loved playing Kingsbarns during the Dunhill. Sand Hills is one of the most exhilirating places in the world, and the Plantation course at Kapalua is right up there too. Bandon Dunes can be great fun, especially when the wind is really howling. Notice, though, how all of those are links-type courses? Those conditions are what I really find exhilirating in golf, and most of my contemporaries haven't been fortunate enough to work with the real stuff ... I'm grateful that I have.

I laughed out loud at the seventh hole at St. Andrews (Old course) during the Dunhill event last month. In two rounds I saw people literally all over that hole. My pro blocked his drive over the eleventh tee and still had a decent approach ... he said he'd played the course 200 times and never been there. I hit a one-iron off the tee to the left of the Cottage bunker, and putted through the neck of the fairway to about ten feet. Man, I wish I had made that putt, so I could tell people I played the hole with a one-iron and two putts!”

JF: What’s the one mistake you made in a design that you’d love to have back?

Doak: Lengthening the tenth hole at Atlantic City CC so that people would want to cut the dogleg by playing down #9 fairway.

JF: What was the zaniest or most hectic thing you’ve had to deal with building a course?

Doak: One was having the start of construction at Riverfront GC halted (for two years) just a week before we were supposed to start, because the company which owned the land was the subject of a hostile takeover on Wall Street! When I first signed up to do that job, my wife was in the car with me and pregnant with our son. I took my son (Michael) for the Grand Opening; he was 8 years old.

JF: What are the three most common complaints and/or misconceptions players make about your designs?

Doak: The majority of the complaints I hear involve someone who thinks he has gotten an unfair bounce on his approach shot. Usually it's the case that he got this bounce because he was on the wrong side of the fairway and attacking the pin from the wrong angle, and that bounce is something I put there deliberately to make it hard from that angle. It may be a much easier approach from somewhere else in the fairway, but the first-time visitor never notices that, he just thinks it's unfair when the hole is hard from where he drove it.

It's the same around the greens. Sometimes someone will complain that they couldn't get up and down from a certain spot to a certain hole location, and on my designs, there are sometimes spots where Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Ben Crenshaw would have a tough time getting up and down. You're just supposed to be careful not to miss in those spots, but if you don't know the course, you might not know that. I don't like to put neon signs out telling people where not to go - I like to suck them into a difficult place sometimes. I really don't see what's the problem with having a spot where it is ALMOST impossible to get up and down. It's never impossible - even if you can't get inside twenty feet, you can always hole the putt. As Bill Coore once said to me, if we put a pond in the same spot, no one would have a problem with that, even though that would cost them more shots.

The most misunderstood concept about my designs: It's been written that I believe in placing fairway bunkers in "random" spots, which is not the case at all. I just try not to fall into a pattern of placing bunkers where the same player is repeatedly punished (such as placing all the bunkers 275 yards from the tee). I'll put them anywhere from 150 yards to 350 yards out, knowing that each of those will be in play for someone ... but I put them where they complement the terrain on each particular hole, not just at random!

JF: Why should someone go all the way to Cape Kidnappers or Barnbougle Dunes?

Doak: Well, New Zealand and Tasmania are two of the most unspoiled, beautiful places in the world ... maybe something like what Dr. MacKenzie saw in California back in the 1920's. It's summer there when it's winter here; the people are genuinely open and friendly, everyone speaks English, it's easy to get around, and even the private clubs in Australia are generally receptive to American visitors. As for those courses, they are certainly two of the best I have ever done, but if they are a catalyst to get more people to visit that part of the world, then I've really done something worthwhile.

JF: Let’s assume Phil, Ernie, Vijay and Tiger all decide they are fed up with talking and speculating and put up $1,000,000.00 of their own money each in a one hole, winner take all shootout that will be televised nationwide. Which one of your public golf holes would you select for them to play?

Doak: I think I would pick the 6th at Pacific Dunes. It's a short enough par 4 (316 yards) that they would have a hard time resisting the temptation to try and drive the green at first, and that would bring all the trouble around the green into play ... the monstrously deep bunkers on the left, the steep bank on the right of the green, even the wide-right bunker that we put there for someone who aims out to the safe side and goes too far. Eventually, they might opt to start laying back and attacking the hole with their second shots, but even then, an off-line approach would wreak havoc. I'm sure they would make a lot of birdies and maybe even a handful of twos, but there would also be some big numbers.

JF: What would you serve for Masters dinner if you won?

Doak: I grew up on lobster in New England, and that's always been my idea of a special meal ... I love going to the Lobster Inn in Southampton after visiting National or Shinnecock, or now Sebonack.

JF: Why does Sawgrass deserve to host a major championship?

Doak: I was there a lot the first three years the course was open ... I was Pete Dye's shadow for a couple of days during those first two tournaments, and that was an amazing experience. The course has changed so much since then! It was rough and rugged to start with, and one of Pete's quotes back in 1982 was that the course was "the dead opposite of Augusta National. On purpose." The two don't look that different to me now, other than the elevation changes, obviously. They both give some opportunities to post birdies and eagles, but they both make the best players in the world grind over every shot, and the margin for error is razor-thin.

JF: Give an example of a situation where you thought you were making a tradeoff in the routing which actually worked out unexpectedly well.

Doak: When I laid out High Pointe, the start of the back nine virtually worked itself out. There was only one way into that 40 acres, up the valley of the tenth fairway to a natural punchbowl green. From there, to maximize the number of holes on the best part of the ground, the routing moves back and forth. The two holes I thought were real "naturals" were the 12th and the 14th, and the 13th was just the one in between. But we created a great green complex at the 13th -- it still might be the most original green I've ever built -- and ever since the course opened, most people pick the 13th as the best hole of the bunch.

Also, at Beechtree, the par-3 13th is on the most ordinary part of the property, but it's the best Eden hole I've built so far.