Interview with Tom Doak part 2
Please note: Part one of the interview is here. Tom answered some Qs by email, others by tape. In two cases, we hit the same topic twice. Enjoy.
Jay: We know that you love telling people the joys of being a minimalist. What do you do different in building golf courses? What's unique about a Tom Doak design?
Tom: You know it is very had to define. I think I see different holes on a topo map and on the ground than most architects see and ways to lay out a hole that you are not moving any dirt on the fairway but you are using the more contoured part of the property to build something really interesting.. A lot of it comes from having traveled so much and seeing holes like the 5th Hole at Crystal Downs. I would see a hole like that on a topo map and most architects might never think of that. I have seen such a wild variety of holes compared to what most people have seen from spending a year in the UK and from going to see interesting courses buy famous designers where they didn't have much money and it is like "ok let's make it all good anyway."
Jay: Like Eddie Hackett maybe?
Tom: A little not a lot. I have spent a little time in Ireland but not that much but some of the less well known courses that Mackenzie and those guys have built too. But I have seen this really wide variety of stuff and I think that it makes me more attuned to seeing a less straight forward solution…you know you can wrap the hole this way and this way and this way but you can also go around the back of there and over there and you know I don't know why those things stick out to me when I am playing a golf course.
Jay: What's the key to being a successful minimalist?
Tom: One is being stubborn and really wanting to build a golf course and not move dirt. You know it’s so easy to move dirt that the only way you really going to be a minimalist is if you are stubborn and cheap or both. If you treat it like it is all your money and you don’t really want to spend any you don't have to. I was raised by two depression era parents so I grew up with the concept of “I've got to find a way to do this work and not let it cost a lot of money." That held me back from my early career cause the kind of people I am working for now they would never want to admit that they are finding an inexpensive way to do things…money is never the object for them…they want something cool and they realize that maybe it is cooler if you don't blow up the world and start over. But I have learned not to talk about it in terms of money because they would never admit that they like that it doesn’t cost as much.
Jay: Now how do we get the rest of the golf world and the media and players to jump on board with minimalist designs and with strategic designs as opposed to gaudy monstrosities that have waterfalls?
Tom: I don’t know that it is ever going to be a completely mainstream in this business….you know it didn't occur to me until I had been in the business for five or ten years that it is much easier. Most clients haven't developed golf courses before, they are developing golf courses not because they love to do it but they have been successful in some other business they are not really from the golf world. So they are a little nervous getting in the golf business and you know what makes them comfortable? A signature architect...an architect who says “you like my course over there? We will build you one just like it. We will just move the same amount of earth and do the same things and come up with something that is comparable because you like that you will be happy and we can tell you how much that will cost.” And they are fine with that. You know it is much a harder sell to say “you know it is a really nice piece of land and I am not sure what I want to do yet we are going to try to do something different so I can't tell you exactly what it is going to look like.” I mean that is where the work comes in and you know that is like “Oooooh that sounds risky. I don't want to do that.” It sounds less risky now that I have a reputation for having done some great courses and you know we know what it costs to build those and it is not going to break the bank. It is a whole simpler sale for an architect to just say “I am just doing the same thing that I have done a bunch of times that everyone recognizes me for and they like.”
Jay: Now did it cost a lot more money to move all that earth…those 800,000 cubic yards over at The Rawls Course (Lubbock, TX) or were you able to keep costs the same way down like at other courses?
Tom: We had some clever ways to keep the cost down somewhat…but no that was much more expensive than our typical golf course. I mean that started out with just a dead flat pancake on the ground and worse yet a pancake with views on two sides that we had to keep….I mean probably half the earth moving there is just hiding the stuff that was across the street on two sides of the property.
Jay: Like the power lines and the roads and stuff?
Tom: Power lines, roads, buildings, everything from residential to industrial stuff you know a lot of earth moving there is simply to try to hide that…we tried to do it without moving more dirt than we really needed to so we didn't go wild and do all this really dramatic stuff, a lot of it is fairly subtle. It is all build around the fact that it is a very windy place and the holes are designed to be challenging because of the wind..you know downwind you can run the ball into the green but only from certain places. There is a lot of long holes that play into the wind so they play really long. Even for good college players they are still hitting long irons in fairway woods to get home on some of the par-4s.
Jay: What are the best strategic holes?
Tom: You know I don't know if there is one that I would single out. There are a couple of really short par 4s that I like…there’s a little like a hole that I tried to do once before with the dog-leg last it tends to play cross wind you could try to smash the ball over the corner right in front the green if you want to but it is kind of a wild green with a lower and higher wings on the side if the pin is up on the wing last you really want to drive it out to the right to get it back and if the pin is out to the right cut behind a bunker than if you could drive it left then you don’t have to go straight over the bunker to get there. That is one hole that you try to drive two entirely different places yet you know there’s fairway bunkers out wide on either side too so that the straight forward drive down the middle is never good.
Jay: Give me some of your favorite memories about some of your colleagues. When is the last time one of them made you laugh out loud?
Tom: When we had that event I had four or five years ago out in Bandon (when Bandon was ready to open) I invited thirty architects to play golf. (Author's Note: Brian Silva calls it "Archite-looza"). All the guys my age or basically all the guys under 50 that had done anything at the time…we made an exception for Bill he was a little older than that….but Brian Silva came and brought one of the young guys who works for him and he was a riot he kept the whole place in stitches. We were talking about if we this did again where would we want to do it and I said Sand Hills, I think we might be able to arrange that. So Brian said "well I have got to enlarge a couple of ladies tees at some club next Spring if you give me enough notice I think I could try to make that."
Jay: How about Ben Crenshaw?
Tom: Ben I have known for going on twenty-five years, from when I was in college and interested in architecture. He always had a reputation for being interested in history and design. So I wrote him a letter and said if you were me and you were trying to study design what courses would you seek and he wrote back a nice letter and recommended a half a dozen places.
Jay: Do you remember which ones?
Tom: National and Shinnecock, Merion and Pine Valley. I remember sort of the one that was off the beaten track was Prairie Dunes. So we have been friends for a long time since and I had several people write letters of recommendation when I was trying to get my scholarship from Cornell so I could spend a year overseas and they were pretty impressive…Pete Dye and others, but the most impressive one of the bunch was the one Ben had written. I know he did it on the plane coming back from playing at Hawaii for the Hawaiian Open. He wrote a four page handwritten note you know basically saying this is what all great architects have done and I met Tom and I know him a little bit and he is a very sharp guy and if you give him this opportunity it will be great for the future of golf. You know and the other letters were wonderful too but that was kind of the clincher of the bunch. You know he said at the time boy I wish I could do what you are doing…that trip really did have a profound influence on what I design, since all the stuff I saw over there goes back to very simple principles of design. They wouldn't even think about doing what we do now. You know, golf is very uncomplicated compared to how we make it in
Jay: Yeah and that means nothing now.
Tom: Right. It was all manufactured stuff and my reaction coming back was the Scots would never do this…they wouldn't do this any more than they would go over there and plant trees everywhere and bulldoze.
Jay: Like people say Montauk Downs is a links course, it is the furthest thing from it…it’s a great course but it is certainly not a links course…
Tom: Yeah, alot of terms about golf courses are misused so much in golf that people don't understand what they mean at all anymore so they have no meaning whatsoever.
Jay: What is the dumbest mistake you had ever made as an architect?
Tom: I have seen other people do it too and I did it. It wasn't on a new course it was on the redesign. When we redesigned Atlantic City Country Club, we changed five or six holes there and we were trying to make the course a little tougher and lengthen out. It had a lot of holes playing short downwind. So in rerouting the course and trying to get some longer tougher holes, I kind of combined these two holes, a par-4 and a par-3 into a short par-5 but in doing so the first hole was a dog leg and the second hole continued on and there was another hole coming back on the inside of dog legs. So even before we built it, I went back to the guy who was in charge of the project and said “I think we’ve got to change this because this one hole people are going to try to shortcut the one hole going down the other fairway” and the guy I was going to was the director of golf and he had already sold the company board on it and he didn't want to go back to them. He said “no it will be ok” and at the time they were using it as a really exclusive private deal anyway it just hospitality for guests at the casino…so you know there was only going to be 20 people a day out there it doesn’t really matter but sure enough year 1 people started trying to short cut it and in an event. I knew we shouldn't have done that, but they wanted their solution and anyway there wasn't a good one as unless you got a bunch of 100 foot trees right in the way that is where people are going to go….it is either that or call it out of bounds.
Jay: And you hate the cops don’t you? (Author’s Note “The Cops” is Tom’s slang for “out-of-bounds stakes.”)
Tom: Yes, unless they make it out of bounds to keep people from entering certain areas because the foot traffic would cause a problem.
Jay: What is the craziest thing, the most “I cannot believe this is happening” moment that you have had to deal with while you were working on a project?
Tom: I have had some odd environmental things over the years for a couple of them but I guess the funniest did not hold up the project. We were working on the planning for Apache Stronghold. The Apaches had this archeologist guide come out with us to look at where we wanted to hold this stuff and at one point were in the desert two hours from Phoenix, never having developed anything out there and we were walking around and at one point there was a bunch of little narrow desert washes going through and we walked through and in one of them there is this pile of rocks that has obviously been put there for something and I said to the archeologist what the hell is that and he said umm well in the 1930's in the Depression there were some MWP projects. Projects would get set up out there in the middle of nowhere just to pay people to work along some of these washes and that was probably one of them. Fortunately it wasn't old enough to be a true archeological artifact.