RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links


Q&A with Tom Doak

By Matt Ginella Illustrations by Christoph Niemann
December 25, 2008

TOM DOAK is a Pete Dye disciple who has built 26 courses in six countries. Doak and his partner Jim Urbina have been hired by Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser to design a fourth course along the coast of Oregon with inspiration from the father of American golf-course architecture, C.B. Macdonald. Ten holes of the Old Macdonald course will be open for play in the spring of 2009, and all 18 holes will be open in the summer of 2010. Doak was interviewed on Nov. 13, 2008.

How were you introduced to the game? Do you remember falling in love with golf or golf architecture?

Two things happened when I was 10 or 11 years old. One, they built a public course about a mile from my house in Stamford, Conn. It's called Sterling Farms, which had a junior program where I could play for a buck in the afternoon -- what golf is missing today. And that's in Stamford, which is not exactly the Midwest, where things are affordable. And then the other thing was, when I was 10 or 11, my dad didn't play a lot of golf. About the only golf he did play was when he went with his company once a year for three days to play with the guys he did business with over the phone all year. That became our family summer vacation when I was little, but when I was about 11, they started taking it to golf resorts. Harbour Town was the second golf course I ever saw. Then Pinehurst and Pebble Beach were in the first 10. The difference between those and Sterling Farms was distinct enough that I got interested in design.

I read that at one point you caddied at St. Andrews?

I caddied there for a couple of months right after I was out of college. I had a scholarship from Cornell to tour the British Isles and figure out course architecture. The first part of that, I was going to work on the maintenance crew, and they were in a deep depression, so I wouldn't have been a town employee, so that wouldn't have worked too well, so I was an independent contractor caddie instead.

What would you say is the key to a good score at the Old Course?

Listening to your caddie and not being confused and indecisive. The first couple of times I caddied there, I would try to explain to people some of the things they couldn't see, and then they would top it off the tee. After a little while I realized there was a lot of psychology involved, and it was, hit it at the church spire and don't tell them about the bunkers 140 yards off the tee.

What makes a good caddie?

Telling you what to do instead of what not to do. You listen to pro caddies and the last thing they always say is, "That's perfect."

What's the lowest handicap you've ever had?


And what's your current Index?

I think it's about a 10.

Do you gamble on the golf course?

Not for any real money. I play with my associates for a golf shirt. If we're visiting somewhere, someone gets a golf-shirt prize for having been the best golfer of the day.

When's the last time you played 18 holes?

I just played 20 holes. We played twice at the 10 holes of Old Macdonald. I've probably played 30 or 35 times a year on a bunch of really good courses, but it comes in spurts.

Tell me about Old Macdonald. Were you pleased? What was your impression?

I was very pleased. We had thirty or forty people playing because Mike Keiser loves feedback. At Bandon you can only build holes in the winter because in the summer you shape it one day and it blows away the next. In the winter it can still be windy but the rain keeps everything in play. You build golf courses like nine holes at a time over two winters, which leads to the interesting phenomenon of playing half the course while you're still just starting to build the other half. Usually it doesn't work that way. Usually construction is continuous from start to finish. You can kind of start hitting balls around the first couple holes as you're finishing the last couple. But, in this case, you get to play-test it a little bit at the halfway point and say, "OK, it's harder than I thought" or "The greens don't need to be that big," or whatever.

Is it going to play like St. Andrews?

It's very open. We had 40 guys playing 20 holes, and I heard about one lost ball. I think the conditions at Bandon are just like links golf overseas. All three golf courses that are there are really cool, but you don't really play that much bump-and-run stuff around the greens as you do at St. Andrews. I think we'll get a little more of that on this course.

I suppose it's different for you at Old Macdonald because you weren't asked to build your course, right?

We were asked not to build a replica course and so, my thought is, Macdonald is our starting point. Instead of trying to build stuff that looks like holes at Chicago Golf Club, or looks like a hole at the National Golf Links of America, I'm trying to be the Macdonald who came back from the U.K. having seen all of those holes, because I've seen them, too. And, you know, use that background and his love of those holes, but with the piece of land that we've got. I think that me thinking that way, with Jim and all the shapers who work with us, I've got a much better construction team than Macdonald had in 1908.

And less horses involved...

Less horses and more horsepower. I mean, they were kind of inventing golf-course construction back then. We've been doing it for awhile--it ought to look different. Their construction was crude by our standards but that doesn't mean we don't like it.

You've traveled the world. What would you say is your favorite city and why?

New York, because I was born there. San Francisco, because of the scenic beauty and the topography. And Melbourne for the golf.

Is flying coach a common occurrence for you?

Oh, it's pretty rare now. I have so many frequent-flier miles that usually I get bumped up to first class. I do fly business class going overseas. For being overseas for a few days at a time, sleeping on the plane is really important.

So, you're on a long flight and you can only take one movie, which one do you bring?

I never watch a movie on a flight.

How about one book?

Actually, I spend quite a bit of my time on the flight home, if I'm not sleeping, digesting what I saw and making notes about the golf course. We don't work from drawings a lot, but if I ever do drawings of a green or how I want to do something, it's usually on the flight home.

Are you a music buff?

No. My guys would laugh at the thought of that.

Do you own an iPod?

No. I've had three, and I've given them to my wife and kids. I don't travel with one.

What are Tom Doak's travel tips?

Travel light. Most people carry way too much stuff, and it's a nuisance. Eat local. Eat seafood when you're near the sea and eat beef when you're in Nebraska.

When you're on the road, do you sightsee? Do you tack on a day to see a museum?

Sometimes. I wish I had more time to do it. I'm on the road about 150 days a year for business, so it's hard to add very many days to that. We take all these jobs 'cause I think they would be a cool place to visit, and then at the end of the job I'm usually kicking myself about how little I've actually enjoyed. When you're on site at Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand you're thinking, This is a pretty cool site. I have to make the most of this.

You're coming up on 50 years old.

I have a couple of years to go.

What's your suggestion for the ultimate buddies-trip destination for a milestone like that?

I've been all over Scotland, England and Ireland. I think they're fabulous destinations, although I think most Americans put too much driving into their trips over there. Way too much. They think they're going over there only once but you have to take the attitude going over there that you're going to come back again so you're not going to try to rush around and see Dornoch, and Prestwick, and St. Andrews, and Carnoustie, and Muirfield all in the same week. You know, from that perspective, Melbourne might be the best golf trip there is. I was born in March, and I've been there for my birthday a couple of times, and in March, when all the great courses in the Northeast [United States] are under snow and it's 38 degrees and windy in Scotland and Ireland, Melbourne is the best place you can go. And all of the golf courses are really close together.

When's the last time you were on a bulldozer?

It's not a regular thing anymore. Probably over the course of a job I'll hop on once or twice to do something, but usually that's when everybody else is busy and I want to get something done. I've got half a dozen guys who work for me who are way more practiced at it than I am. The only thing I'll say about it is, my early courses, when I mostly built the greens by myself, they came out somewhat different than what I started trying to do. Over the course of eight hours of shaping, you see something halfway through, and you start going in a different direction, and I think that's why they turned out so good. I miss that part of it, and that's why I still try to get on a 'dozer every once in awhile.

How many times have you played Augusta?


If you were going to change one hole back to the way it was, which one would you change?

[Laughs.] OK. [Long pause.] I've seen the old drawings and pictures of it, but I know the club isn't going to go in the direction of restoring the ninth green, when it had a boomerang shape, or something like that. If I could do one thing to Augusta, I'd mow it back out wider. The two times I've spent time there, the most impressive part of it is the scale of the whole place -- the big trees, the big hills, the wide-open fairways. Now it looks like two strips of rough with a little narrow fairway in between, and it's out of scale with the rest of the place.

How much do you watch golf on TV?

I pretty much just watch the major championships. The majors are interesting to me because I remember how the course played 10 years ago and 20 years ago. You can really see how much the game's changing. If you watch Pebble Beach every year you don't really see the difference from one year to the next. But when you watch the Open, I remember Nicklaus played in the Open there in 1972, and I remember watching Tiger take it apart in 2000, hitting irons off half the tees.

Do you think Tiger will break Jack's record?


Tiger and Phil in the final pairing in the final round of a major -- who are you pulling for?

Oh, I don't know if I want to go on record with that. [Laughs.] I want to see exciting things happen, and I think Tiger's the guy who makes more exciting things happen than anybody else.

Have you ever talked design with Tiger?

No, but I'm supposed to here at some point.

I read that Tiger consulted with your mentor, Pete Dye. What could or should he learn from him?

The same thing I learned from Pete: No matter how smart you are about design, you have to have people out there who spend enough time on the ground, including yourself, to get those ideas in the ground. Just drawing it up is not enough.

Pete Dye just went into the Hall of Fame. Is that a goal of yours?

Is it a goal of mine to get into the Hall of Fame? No. We're trying to build great golf courses one at a time, and I don't think very many people aim at the Hall of Fame. Tiger Woods aims at winning golf tournaments, and if it happens, it happens.

What are your three favorite Pete Dye golf courses?

The Golf Club in Columbus, which I haven't been to in ages, but I just love it. The Golf Club, minus the railroad ties, is actually a minimalist golf course, believe it or not. Long Cove, which is the first place I worked for him in construction, and kind of a little bit of a reaction to the TPC. He had just finished doing the TPC at Sawgrass, and Long Cove was his next course. One of the few courses in that period of his career that wasn't designed with the idea that there were going to be a whole host of tour pros there the next week. And Casa de Campo, which, when I worked for Pete, bar none, that was his favorite of all the courses he had done. He might be more political about it now, but back then, there was no comparison. It's the best site he ever had to work on.

There were 1,100 copies of your book, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, and I just saw they're selling on eBay for $1,000.

There are two versions of the book. There were 1,000 of the limited edition that I printed myself, and there were like 12,000 that Sleeping Bear Press printed with color pictures. I've seen both books sell for $800 and $1,000. There's a limited supply, and especially when -- the Wall Street Journal wrote up the book a couple of years back, all of a sudden there were a lot of guys with a lot of money who thought they had to have it, and there were only five of them on sale on eBay, and so the price went through the roof.

How many do you own?

I still have about 30 of the limited editions that I have in a box. Slowly over the years I've been letting people buy some of the remainders. It really bothers me that the price is $800, because it was meant to be read. Every once in awhile I threaten to reprint it, to keep the price down, even though I know I'd have to field a lot of calls about what my motivation's were if I reprinted it, so it's probably not going to happen. I sold one of these books to somebody for 100 bucks under the provision that he wouldn't sell it again, and it showed up on eBay two weeks later, so he ruined it for everybody.

Who's the most notable person you've signed one for?

Oh, geez. Sean Connery. The limited-edition ones, I had a lot of inquiries from several fairly well-known people. The original books, I gave 'em away to Pete Dye and Ben Crenshaw, people I knew in the golf business who had helped me out. The word-of-mouth references were pretty good. Sean Connery is the first one that comes to mind. I'm sure there are others who think they were just as important.

If you could only play one course for the rest of your life, which one would it be?

That would just be torture for me. I live off variety, so I don't think I could pick one.

What's your favorite round in '08?

Let me get back to you about that one. I've had a few good ones. This is about the time of the year I sit down and try to remember my way through the year and who all I played golf with. Let me think about that one and get back to you. I would be dissin' somebody if I'm not careful. I'll get back to you in a just a little bit on that one. [*Doak sends an e-mail about 15 minutes after we ended our phone conversation. This was his response:

*] "In addition to my own courses, I've played Sand Hills and Royal County Down and Kawana and National Golf Links this summer. And I played at Cape Kidnappers with Sir Bob Charles, which was an honor -- he's the fourth Open champion I've played with. [Weiskopf, Nicklaus, and Ian Baker-Finch are the others.] However, I think my favorite was getting to spend five days at Rock Creek in Montana this fall, playing our new course with a bunch of friends and guests, and seeing how it holds up for different people. I guess I'm a typical designer -- we're always most fond of the course we just finished. Or the one we're working on now."

Give me your favorite three holes in golf. A par 3, a par 4 and a par 5.

I remember Pete Dye being asked to do this, years ago, by Golf Magazine when I was with him at Crooked Stick. His answer was, "Well, this hole right here that I'm on, the 13th hole at Crooked Stick." So it was printed up as though it was his favorite hole of all time, and it just happened to be the one he was on when they called him. I'll preface this with, it's ridiculous to just pick one. So then I'll pick one for you. Par 5, the eighth hole at Crystal Downs, which is my home club, a Mackenzie course. The best golf hole I've ever seen for playing position golf, and no fairway bunkers. Par 3, that's all about how pretty things are. I'll go with the 16th hole at Cypress Point. It's an obvious choice, but it really is quite a place. Par 4, I'm always going to pick a short par 4 because I think those are the holes that separate really great championship courses from courses that are boring to play. Let's see -- I'll pick an odd one, and I'll pick one of my own out of three holes. I think my favorite par 4 that I've built is the fourth hole at Barnbougle Dunes in Australia, in Tasmania. It's a short par 4, there are days when you can drive it, but it's usually into the wind. You can try to drive the green over a huge, a huge fairway bunker, like 15 feet deep. You can lay up with an iron and pitch over that bunker, or you can play a 3-wood out to the left and kind of play an awkward angle to a punch-bowl green. The hole was just lying there. Basically we just cleaned out the bunkers and finished the green, and it was done. It's only 298 yards, or something like that. You work in meters in Australia and you tend not to think of yards. If we would've been thinking of yards I'm sure it would've wound up over 300 because someone would've asked, but down there nobody cared.

Players go out and work on their weaknesses. If they're struggling with the putter, they go to the putting green. They hit wedges to get better inside 100 yards. What would your weakness be as a designer? What are you working on?

Probably, like golfers, it's different things at different times. I would say lately, a lot of my focus has always been on short-game stuff and stuff around the greens. I think I spend a lot of time on that, and our courses are interesting from that perspective. In the last year or two I've been thinking a lot about how to make tee shots interesting for good players while keeping it really playable for the average guy. We've always kept it playable for the average guy, but I think a lot of times we haven't given the real good guy enough to do.

If I had an unbelievable piece of property that was Doak-worthy, how would I hire you, and how much would it cost?

[Laughs.] Yes, just call me and tell me why you want to hire me and not every other guy, because that's a big part of which jobs we take. Yeah, the site's a big part of it, but so is the client, and what's their motivation? If they want to hire me because they think I'm the hot name, but they don't really understand what we do or how we work, it might be tough for us to do what we need to do. But, if you're interested in talking to me because you've played some of our courses or because you know somebody I know really well, that's a much easier call, even if it's not the hottest site in history.

At that point is it a negotiation in terms of the cost, or do you have a set fee? How does that work?

We have a set fee, but there's some negotiation involved based on how hard it is to work there, also based on the scope of the project as a whole. I charge more when somebody's building a resort and 500 homes than I would for a public golf course somewhere close to home. Otherwise we would never do a public course close to home.

Would it cost me a million dollars to hire you? I really have no idea.

The most I've gotten paid to design a course is a million and a half, and there are some we've done for almost nothing. [Laughs.]