Back when he was a twenty-something, Tom Doak burst onto the golf scene not as a golf course architect but as a golf course critic. The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, which he self-published in 1988, was a limited edition of just 50 copies, basically a computer printout in a loose-leaf binder (this writer is the proud owner of No. 5 of 50), but its contents became the talk of the golf industry. Doak was brash in his commentaries, tart in his prose and not afraid to call a dog a dog. The ears of some (actually, many) designers stung, partly because the criticisms of their work was coming from a new competitor for their clients. (Doak was just finishing up his first design, High Pointe in Traverse City, Mich. when the book started to circulate.)
Its notoriety led to a bound, updated volume produced by Doak in 1994, again a limited edition of 1,000. (I have copy No. 2.) Two years later, Sleeping Bear Press published a lush coffee-table edition, with high production values and color illustrations (most photos taken by Doak himself), which retailed for $45.00.
What makes those books so valuable, of course, is that they contain the early opinions on design of Doak, who has now become one of the premier golf architects in America. The Confidential Guide not only reflected his blunt honesty but also showcased his extensive travels. Doak reviewed courses he'd played or toured throughout America and around the globe, not just the usual suspects but hidden gems such as Pennard in Wales and Titirangi in New Zealand.
In the past two decades, Doak has been busy creating such world renown courses as Pacific Dunes, Barnbougle Dunes and Streamsong Blue. But he's also continued to travel and study other people's designs. Now in his 50s, he's reissuing a fully updated version of The Confidential Guide, so extensive that he's publishing it in five volumes. The first, available now, covers courses in Great Britain and Ireland. The next two will feature the Americas, one, critiquing winter destination courses, to be released in 2015, the other on summer destination courses in 2016. Volume 4, Europe, Middle East and Africa, is slated for a 2017 release and the last volume, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, won't be published until 2018.
Reading through a review copy recently sent me, I can vouch that the first volume is an improvement of the fancy 1996 edition, from the glorious Joshua Smith painting of the 6th at St. Enodoc on the cover to the expansive color photographs (again, mostly Doak's) on many pages throughout. There are even some diagrams and descriptions of individual holes of particular note. Some things stay the same. The courses are still rated using Doak's original 0-10 scale (0 being "contrived and unnatural. . . and shouldn't have been built;" 10 being "Nearly Perfect. . . drop the book and call your travel agent.") Also reprised is The Gourmet's Choices, although instead of the 31 Flavors of the original (Doak's salute to Baskin-Robbins), it's limited to 18 courses in the first volume, and presumably 18 in each of the next four as well, a total of 90 select favorites.
What's new is that Doak has enlisted the aid of three other prominent golf course critics to broaden the scope of his new guide: Ran Morrissett, co-founder of golfclubatlas.com, Darius Oliver of Australia, author of two Planet Golf books and a website of the same name, and Masa Nishijima, one of the most knowledgeable golf writers in Japan. Each provides his own "Doak Scale" rating to each course he has played, although the descriptive text of each course was written, as explained in the preface, in Doak's voice to maintain consistency. (I'm not sure if that means Morrissett et. al. imitated Doak's writing style on certain descriptions or if Doak simply rewrote their reviews in his style. )
The most revealing aspect of the new edition of The Confidential Guide is that Doak has clearly mellowed. For example, in his original 1988 version, he gave County Louth G.C. in Baltray, Ireland a 4 (defined as "modestly interesting course"), and described it as "not the classic links . . . well removed from the sea." In 1994, he'd bumped its rating to 6 (defined as "a very good course") and wrote, "fine course, but very dull by comparison with Ireland's top layouts. . . "
The same rating and description appeared in the 1996 edition, but for 2014, Doak raised his rating to 7 (defined as "an excellent course"), while his three cohorts each rated it a 6. "Relatively small dunes make it less photogenic than Ireland's big 5 courses," Doak writes, "but for me this is a wonderful links."
Doak seems to have lost some of his bite from his earlier editions, but I suspect that's merely because Volume 1 covers the territory he loves best. His extensive 1982 tour of Great Britain and Ireland is what embed in Doak the design principles he lives by today. I suspect Volumes 2 and 3, covering American courses, will contain more far controversial opinions and pointed jabs.
Although he did stick it to my profession in Volume 1. "All the major golf magazines have an 'architecture editor,'" he writes, "and I would have love to have their real opinions for this book - but they can't always write what they really think, because the magazines still don't want to offend anyone." He concludes by saying, "You'll not have to read between the lines here."
The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Vol. 1, is available now for $60 plus postage by placing an order at www.rennaissancegolf.com.
For a limited time, you can order all five volumes in advance at a substantial discount.