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Favorite Designers - Tom Doak

By: Tony Dear


Editor's Note: In each month of 2011 Cybergolf correspondent Tony Dear will cover his favorite course designers and explain why he rates them so highly. Now up: Tom Doak.

With new jobs barely trickling into his or any other architect's office, Tom Doak has been forced to make several changes to the way he does business. But golfers should celebrate the fact he does have some work at least.

Thank goodness this blasted recession took hold after Doak had had time to impact the golf course architecture business to the extent that he has. Had the banks stopped lending developers the cash they needed to build new courses at the start of the century for instance, we may never have heard of minimalism and Doak's career might not have gotten very far off the ground.

Instead of viewing him as a pioneer and innovator who wisely rejected the unnecessarily extravagant and ultimately toxic courses of the late 20th century in favor of wonderfully challenging and thought-provoking designs that cost considerably less to build and maintain, then he'd likely still be best known as the headstrong and rebellious author who brazenly critiqued his professional predecessors in "The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses," published in May 1996. As it is, the world has 28 Doak originals (a few were actually total renovations of existing courses, and a couple have succumbed to money troubles) from which to choose, a handful of them - Ballyneal, Cape Kidnappers, Sebonack, Barnbougle Dunes and Pacific Dunes - ranking among the very best in the world.

For the last couple of years, however, the man Golf Magazine named as its 2010 Designer of the Year (alongside associate Jim Urbina) has been relatively inactive, an unfortunate state of affairs that caused him to restructure his company, Renaissance Golf, and take on jobs he might otherwise have turned down.

Tom Doak (photo courtesy
of Graham Cunningham)

Rearranging Renaissance

The restructure was necessary partly because of the lack of new work coming in, but also the fact he had too many experienced and highly-regarded shapers/lead men on his staff. Urbina had been a part of Renaissance since 1992, after he and Doak moved on from working for Pete and Perry Dye. Bruce Hepner had joined in 1994 and Don Placek three years after that. Brian Slawnik worked his way up after setting out as an intern, Eric Iverson came on board in 2001 and Brian Schneider arrived the following year.

"The problem was that there wasn't much room for upward mobility in the company," says Doak. "I didn't want to keep getting bigger and more spread out. But no one wanted to leave."

That's hardly surprising given the reputation Renaissance Golf had forged for itself after numerous successes and not one course that could really be considered a dud. Doak's employees all liked his hands-on approach to building courses too.

"Tom is happy getting paint on his jacket and tears in his pants," says John Reisetter who, like Slawnik, started out as an eager intern but is now on the verge - if the necessary permits and financing can be obtained - of heading up his first course, at a site near Bordeaux in France. "I think he just likes to find things, whether it's the next young designer or a better way to build a golf hole. And unlike most other architects, he's willing to look."

Reisetter also appreciated the amount of responsibility he was given early on. Fanatical about golf course architecture and devoted to his work, he wanted to get dirty in the field building something great rather than working for a more high-profile company that produced cookie-cutter courses slotted between million-dollar second homes. "Eric taught me how to shape a hole, which is like Ben Crenshaw teaching you how to putt," he says. "And I was soon out on a bulldozer with the freedom to build my wildest ideas. Tom, and all the lead men, gave me a chance to play a vital role in the construction process."

As for work he might have thought twice about accepting in different times, Doak is not a huge fan of consulting and restoration jobs, preferring to create his own layout from scratch. "To be perfectly honest, I'm not all that excited about that sort of job anymore," he says. "I will make exceptions in three cases, however: if the course is really one of my favorites in the world, if the club knows what needs to be done and is ready to go ahead and do it, or if the club is close to home."

Not that he doesn't rate the course or anything (it was designed by Golden Age greats H.S. Colt and Charles Alison after all), but it's pretty clear Doak would rather have dug his own virgin soil somewhere else in America and expressed his creativity with his own greens than modify the existing surfaces at the Country Club of Detroit in Grosse Pointe, Mich., where he began work in the second half of last year and had finished reshaping all 18 greens within a month.

"I decided to take the job on because the course qualified in the two latter categories," Doak says. "It's only about 250 miles from my base in Traverse City and the club was having physical problems with the greens. They were committed to rebuilding them, and they were ready to do it at a time when we weren't too busy."

Doak says it was actually a fun exercise, seeing how much variety he, Slawnik and Iverson could put into the surfaces without doing anything too radical or working outside the box. And working at the Country Club enabled him and Slawnik to take on another job in the Detroit area - design and construction of a short nine-hole course for Midnight Golf, a 30-week school aimed at the city's underprivileged kids that was set up in 2001 and whose stated mission is to improve under-served young adults' personal development, educational preparedness, and appreciation of the game of golf.

"The Midnight Golf project was simply a way of giving back to a good cause," says Doak who didn't charge a single cent for his or his associates' services. "You simply couldn't find a better youth golf program to support. Brian grew up just a few miles from the site, so he was on board from day one handling most of the work in his spare time."

Relocating Renaissance?

While he may have been somewhat reluctant at first to work in a city and on a course (Country Club) that didn't necessarily rank among his favorites in the world, Doak seems even more disinclined to go the way the rest of the industry is headed . . . to Asia. "It started to become clear about three years ago that the immediate future of new golf courses in the USA was bleak, and that we would have to start looking overseas, especially China," he says.

"But I think it's fair to say that none of my associates were terribly excited about the prospect. For one, golf is so new there it was likely any developer would have seen the attention we pay to the details as a waste of his time and money, and second we had gotten pretty spoiled over where we had been given the opportunity to work in recent years. Plus traveling back and forth internationally was certainly going to be difficult on family life."

Almost inevitably, however, Doak did sign contracts to design two courses in the People's Republic, both of them on Hainan Island, dubbed "China's Hawaii," and where the rush to buy recreational real estate and cover whatever land is available with golf courses makes the steady rise of Orlando and Phoenix as golfing hotspots look positively deliberate, even sluggish.

The developer in both instances in Han Xiding, owner of Golf Channel China and an obsessive golfer and former landscape painter with whom Doak was happy to work because Han was capable of appreciating Renaissance's work on an artistic level. "Mr. Han is our kind of client," Doak said in a Golfclubatlas.com interview 18 months ago.

After some unexpected delays, the projects are scheduled to get underway later this year. The first will be located on Simapo Island, a 300-acre sand bar in the Nandu River that runs along the east side of the city of Haikou, a project Doak has described as like building a course on Roosevelt Island in New York City. "The second is at Mulan Bay, at the northeastern tip of the island, on a sandy site with a lot of elevation change, a lighthouse and ocean frontage on three sides. It's not just all lying there, but it has almost unlimited potential."

Doak isn't sure yet who will lead the projects, but Iverson is more or less committed to the first course. "Jim and Bruce, the two most senior associates, have gotten to the point where they don't really have to go overseas and can make a reasonable living staying in the U.S. doing renovation work," says Doak. "I've said to them, they can hang out their own shingle and decide for themselves what work they want to take on."

Hepner acts in a consulting role to Cape Arundel in Maine, Ekwanok in Vermont and Canterbury in Ohio, and Urbina, who drew rave reviews for his thoughtful and sensitive work alongside the boss at Pasatiempo, San Francisco GC and the Valley Club of Montecito, just landed a plum job in Rockland County, N.Y., where he will renovate an A.W. Tillinghast classic formerly known as Dellwood Country Club but renamed Paramount Country Club in honor of the original developer, Adolph Zukor, who founded Paramount Pictures in 1912.

Renovating Renaissance

Working on courses designed by Alister Mackenzie (Pasatiempo and Montecito), his favorite designer from the past, and San Francisco GC was obviously a thrill for Doak but, like he says, for him to be interested in renovation work the course needs to be something very special. Last March, he and Iverson traveled to the Outer Hebrides off the Scottish mainland to visit the Old Tom Morris-designed Askernish GC, which Doak calls the "ultimate minimalist course."

Their job was to continue the excellent work of English designer Martin Ebert, who helped revive the original Morris layout after it had been lost for almost 90 years. The goal was to make the course slightly more user-friendly and, hopefully, convince visitors to stay longer and return more often. "Because Askernish surely deserves that," says Doak.

Even more special was being asked recently to become consulting architect of the Royal Melbourne GC, another Mackenzie work of art which certainly qualifies as one of Doak's favorites. "Taking a consulting job halfway around the world is against my general principles, but I will gladly throw all that aside to help Royal Melbourne," he says. "It might be the place which has influenced my own design style the most.'

Doak stresses he has no agenda at Royal Melbourne for now, and certainly won't be making changes before the Presidents Cup, which will be held there in November. But he does envisage a time when the club might need to address the issue of golf club technology and what that's doing to the course's shot values. "The last thing I want to do right now is give anyone the impression I want to change things there," he says.

"I really don't. But I'm sure they are feeling pressure from technology. All four of the par-5s on the West course are only around 500 yards each. There is most likely a faction within the club that thinks something has to be done, even though there is no place to put any of those tees back. That is definitely going to be a conversation, but that doesn't automatically mean any changes will be made."

Consulting jobs may not be Doak's No. 1 priority, but he is more than happy to see Urbina and Hepner take on roles for which they might be better suited than him anyway. "Jim and Bruce are perfect for those jobs," he says. "They obviously have a great sense of what the architect's intentions were, and have the experience and expertise necessary to revive and restore courses to their original glory. It doesn't mean we won't work together in the future, however. In fact, Bruce has been running the job at Streamsong this past year as part of his transition to independence."

Original Renaissance

You've probably heard of Streamsong. Part of a 16,000-acre former phosphate mine owned by mining giant Mosaic and located in Auburndale, Fla. - roughly midway between Tampa and Orlando, the resort will feature two courses, one designed by Doak and the other by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.

Doak fans, who probably count themselves Crenshaw-Coore fans too, are salivating at the prospect, and Doak himself is more than a little excited. First, he gets the chance to work closely with Crenshaw and Coore who, without having to read too far between the lines, are obviously the present-day architects he most admires. Secondly, despite being located in central Florida, which he always regarded as too flat and featureless for a truly great course, the site does in fact possess some interesting movement and is covered almost entirely with sand. Thirdly, before the Hainan projects get underway Streamsong is the only place in the world Renaissance Golf is currently digging dirt.

"This is the most important topic of the day for me," says Doak. "It's the only new course we're building right now, and the site is tremendous."

Because of the quality of the terrain and the time Doak will be able to devote to building his course, the client has very lofty goals for Streamsong, which it sees as potentially becoming the East Coast's version of Bandon Dunes. "We know that's possible," says Doak, "but we also have a healthy respect for everything that went right to make Bandon what it is, and quite a few of those things are beyond the reach of golf course architecture. But we wouldn't have agreed to take the job if we didn't think the site gave us the opportunity to succeed."

The best part, Doak adds, has been getting to work alongside Coore, Crenshaw and their team. In the beginning, he and Coore each prepared a 36-hole routing and then, after some civil negotiations, decided on a final 36. Now, when Doak returns, he is always impressed when he sees the progress his counterparts have made on their course. "Every time I go back, I see something new they have done, and it's like a friendly golf match where your opponent keeps hitting shots stiff and all you can do is say 'nice shot.' I just hope watching them elevates my own game."

Doak thinks Coore is actually doing some of his best work ever at Streamsong and has noticed his greens becoming bolder with more elaborate contouring. "I saw all the holes he chose to work with before he started building them, and I tried to imagine what he's going to do, or what I would do. Yet I'm often surprised at the result."

Doak cites Coore's changes to his original design of the par-3 16th hole as an example. "The hole plays over the corner of a lake well below tee and green, and the green site always seemed very small and severe to me. In fact, of all the holes we had laid out, it was the one I thought would be hardest to make playable. I went back for my last visit and found that Bill had extended the putting surface by 30 yards and built a massive Biarritz green instead."

But, Doak continues, the hole is incredibly deceptive as you can really only see the front and back of the putting surface and not the deep swale in the middle. "I just think he's kicked his work into another gear," says Doak.

For his own course, Doak will surely create a typically arresting and strategic test, hopefully with a couple of what he calls "small miracles" - a hole or green that's a bit different to anything he's ever seen or designed before.

Resolute Renaissance

What he won't be attempting, however, is a complete overhaul of the design business which, last November, Golf Digest's Ron Whitten declared was in grave danger of becoming obsolete. "In the 43 years I've studied golf architecture, I've seen plenty of artistry, but almost no innovation," Whitten began, adding that modern-day architects wrongly assert classic courses are ideal because the game hasn't changed, embrace the past because it's safe, are marketable and easy to reproduce, and complain about the distance the ball travels rather than build holes that address the problem. "With fewer than a dozen courses under construction in the United States, architects need to reinvent their product," Whitten concluded.

Doak agrees, to a degree, saying that golf course architecture is a lot like the movie business right now, where many of the big movies are either sequels or remakes of old classics. Doak readily admits he has been involved in both those trends and says Old Macdonald could even be regarded as an extreme example. But he doesn't see a profound shift in his or his contemporaries thinking anytime soon. "I don't see any big miracles happening, where architects are coming up with any radically different shapes, or template holes," he says.

"And I'm not sure the major changes that Whitten wants to see are really something we should wish for anyway. Most attempts are likely to fail. I'm not saying we've seen all that golf has to offer; there are still new landscapes to be conquered, and they may suggest new solutions. But I'm too much of a traditionalist to think that golf itself needs to be reinvented."

Doak actually believes that something new could be found by remembering the very earliest form of the game, when courses weren't at all standardized. "The Old Course started out with 22 holes, while Blackheath in London had seven," he says. "And one of them was 700 yards long. Plus the ground and hazards were far more rugged than anything you could find today."

It would be nice, Doak says, to see a new course whose design focused on how each hole played rather than how it looked, although, again, he admits to being guilty of falling into that trap. "But to find a new direction, you not only need an architect willing to take risks, but a client who's on the same page, and there aren't many clients to choose from right now," he says.

"The closest I've come to designing a course where we disregarded the look almost entirely in favor of building interesting holes was at the Sheep Ranch in Bandon, and also Stone Eagle in Palm Desert. I'm very proud of both, even though neither of them got a tenth as much press as Old Macdonald . . . and no mention at all from Ron Whitten."

Regardless of how much attention his courses receive, however, it could very easily be argued that Tom Doak and his team at Renaissance come as close as anyone, dead or alive, to building the ideal golf course; one that challenges good golfers, provides endless entertainment for casual golfers, and allows the client to make money by not spending too much on construction and maintenance. (The only problem with a Doak course as far as I can see, is that before the recession he was very much in demand, which allowed him to increase his fee but put a premium on the costs to play them.)

Just ask Mike Keiser, owner of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, who hired Doak to design the resort's second and fourth layouts - Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald. "With so many courses in the top 100, you have to say Tom Fazio is brilliant, but Tom Doak is giving him a run for his money," Keiser says.

"And when the recession is over and developers balk at the $3 million Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman are asking for, they will go looking for better value and find it with Tom, Bill Coore, David McLay Kidd and other lesser-known but talented designers such as Mike DeVries and Todd Eckenrode."

Reviving Renaissance

Like Doak, Keiser sees a return to less conventional courses built to satisfy a fast-changing world. "I don't think 18-hole courses will be eliminated altogether," he says, "but we should definitely see more 12-, nine- and even six-hole courses. And I'd say Tom would be the ideal man to build them."

Tom Doak may be enduring something of a quiet time right now, Streamsong notwithstanding. But, like Keiser and countless other golfers, I hope he comes back even bigger and better than before.

He's Mackenzie on a bulldozer, Raynor with a cell phone, Thomas on a trans-Pacific jumbo jet. He builds new courses that look old, short courses than can play long, and courses that might look rather plain to someone whose golf experience is watching the Masters but which, to seasoned players, look instantly appealing. Let's hope the banks can loosen the credit strings soon and start lending golf course developers whatever cash they need to hire Tom Doak.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.