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Golf course architect Tom Doak: A student of the game

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer

DETROIT - It was difficult, but Senior Writer Jason Scott caught up with golf course architect Tom Doak, one of the hottest designers in the world today. In between visits to several of his new projects, Doak, the head man at Renaissance Golf Design, Inc. in Traverse City, Mich., was able to spend some time talking about his beginnings in golf, his philosophy on course design, some of his work and his unique dual career as an author.

Doak has had a hand in designing 13 courses - The Legends (Heathlands) at Myrtle Beach, Stonewall in Pennsylvania, Charlotte Golf Links in North Carolina, Quail Crossing in Indiana, Beechtree Golf Club in Maryland, Riverfront Golf Club in Virginia, Apache Stronghold in Arizona, Atlantic City CC in New Jersey, the Village Club of Sands Point in New York, Pacific Dunes in Oregon and three near his home base in northern Michigan - Highpoint, Wilderness Valley (Black Forest) and the private Lost Dunes.

Doak, who is so busy he sometimes does interviews by e-mail, is at it again. Besides a redesign of the greens at courses in California and Bermuda, Doak and his team are currently involved in projects in Texas (Texas Tech University's Red Raider Golf Course in Lubbock), Pennsylvania (a second course in Stonewall), New Zealand (The Cape Kidnappers in Napier), Mexico (the Vista Golf Course at Cabo del Sol) and California (The Crest, a private club in Palm Desert). All are scheduled to open in 2003.

WorldGolf.com: Let's start from the absolute beginning. When were you introduced to the game?

Tom Doak: I started playing golf when I was 10 or 11. One of the first courses I saw was Harbor Town, which was very highly publicized. I sort of had an interest in design right from the beginning. After my freshman year of college (at Cornell), I figured this is what I want to do for living. That was 1979 and course design wasn't as visible as a profession as it is today.

WorldGolf.com: After college, you spent some time studying courses abroad in England and Scotland. What was that like?

Tom Doak: It was a huge experience for me, to have exposure to all the world's great courses when I was still learning about design. If you go over there with 10 years experience, you have a style. You are locked in to what you do. I went over there with an open mind. I saw a tremendous variety of courses. I lived there for a year, so I understand the British and Scottish philosophy on golf. It's so different than here. To them, golf is a natural game. It is affordable. They don't want it to get too pricey. Those principles drive the level of maintenance and how to construct a course.

WorldGolf.com: What is your design philosophy in five sentences or less?

Tom Doak: Every architect says you try to work with the land. I hope I mean it. It's expensive to build in the modern era. We try to spend money on what makes the golf interesting. You can spend a lot of money doing visual things between holes, change the grades in the fairways or more irrigation to make things pretty. We try to concentrate on spending money where it makes a difference - the greens and the areas around the greens. The fairway bunkering is there to make golfers think, not just a penalty for errant shots. We try not to do any more grading than we absolutely have to.

WorldGolf.com: How do you think you have changed over the years?

Tom Doak: Obviously, you get better with practice. Every piece of land is different. One thing you learn is every client is different. It's more important for us to understand what the client is trying to do. In the end, it's up to them to preserve what we've done. If they don't like it, they won't do that.

WorldGolf.com: Tell me how the company's doing?

Tom Doak: We've always been a small company. We only want to do two to three courses a year. We are much more visible now because of Pacific Dunes, but we will stick with our plan. The difference is that Pacific Dunes established us. We are now somebody you want to talk to when you have an exceptional piece of land. We get more calls from far away places. We are looking for the most interesting project as possible.

WorldGolf.com: Speaking of Pacific Dunes, do you feel like you've won an Oscar or Grammy with all the attention and awards you're getting?

Tom Doak: It's odd. We were on that high a year half ago when we were building the course. We knew what a special piece of land it was. The awards are nice and wonderful for our business. Creatively, we were kind of down after (finishing the course). We know it doesn't get much better. We are building a course for Texas Tech and it is a flat piece of land that we have to make into a good course. It's a challenge to get us going again, a challenge we needed.

WorldGolf.com: What do you like most about the business?

Tom Doak: I like solving the puzzle of where the holes go, the routing process. Sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes, it's just a day. I like going out in the field and making the holes better once we have established them. We have a pretty good idea of what they'll look like when we start, but I try to make them better. I don't get to do it as much anymore - getting on a bulldozer to play around with the green.

WorldGolf.com: What is your least favorite part of the job?

Tom Doak: That's tough. The toughest part is waiting for a job to happen. Even when you have a contract, whether it's financing or environmental issues, you can't get excited until they actually break ground. The hardest part is when you know the quality of a course on a site, and then the (plan) flounders.

WorldGolf.com: You're an accomplished writer. Why is that? It seems like you're a student of course design.

Tom Doak: I like to think I'm still studying course design. My first book, "The Anatomy of a Golf Course" it was sort of a primer on design. The second book, "The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses," I've been compiling the last 20 years. It's more of a travel guide telling you what courses are worth going to. I don't have as much time to write as I used to. Most of my writing was during lulls in the business. I also spend a lot of time on a plane. I'm working on a fourth book on Pacific Dunes, a detailed looked at how the course came to be and why. (Author's note: Doak also wrote "The Life and Works of Alister MacKenzie").

WorldGolf.com: What course are you most proud of?

Tom Doak: Really, all of them. They say in the business that courses are like your kids. You want them all to turn out special. Some are more special than others. I've said to the guys in the office I think we did as good as we could at Pacific Dunes (at right).

WorldGolf.com: Do you feel like you're on top of your field? How important is it to you to be grouped with architects like Jones, Ross and others?

Tom Doak: It means a lot to us to build a course (Pacific Dunes) that is compared to courses we grew up studying. Most people are nice when they talk about your designs, but it's rare for people to tell you you built the favorite place they've ever played. It is exciting to do that. Now we want to keep it up. I'm sure that when Alister MacKenzie finished Cypress Point, he thought he'd never get to do something that good again. But he still had yet to build Crystal Downs (in Michigan) or Augusta (National in Georgia). I hope we get other chance to find other great grounds, too. We are actively trying to find it right now.

For more on Doak, visit his website at www.doakgolf.com.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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