6 December, 2006

Tom Doak Interview

Tom Doak has emerged as one of the most prolific and respected designers of golf courses in the modern day. I had the opportunity recently to ask a few questions about the man, golf course design and impressions of golf in Japan.

1. Tell us about Tom Doak, your past, present and future direction.
I knew when I was 18 years old that I wanted to be a golf course architect, and was very fortunate that while I was still young I was able to travel to see so many great courses, and to meet many of the most influential people in the game. Writing for GOLF Magazine [U.S.] part-time while I was still in college, and then while working as an apprentice to Pete Dye, also helped get my name and viewpoint out in the public eye. In short, I had a tremendous head start in the business and I have tried not to waste it.

2. You have received a lot of accolades for recent works. What was the big break for you ?
Undoubtedly our big break was being selected to design Pacific Dunes in Oregon. I had designed twelve courses before it, honing my skills and putting together a good team of associates, but working alongside the ocean is a rare opportunity to work in the spotlight, and we were determined to make the most of it. The fact that we had an even better piece of property than Bandon Dunes next door didn't hurt our cause. But, it was perhaps equally important that after Pacific Dunes, we were able to build Cape Kidnappers and Barnbougle Dunes a short time later, to leave no doubt as to whether the course in Oregon was a fluke.

Barnbougle Dunes, Tasmania, Australia

3. In the Asian area, many people may not know your works is it a goal to deign in Asia and where interests you the most?
I was lucky to travel in Japan many years ago and to see some of the best old courses there, and I would enjoy the chance to design a course of my own in Japan someday. One of my associates, Eric Iverson, worked there in the early 1990's and learned the Japanese language, which is the biggest obstacle to trying to build a great course overseas. I have not had much opportunity to travel in the rest of Asia but look forward to doing so at some point. Right now, with our children in school, it is difficult to try and work on more than one continent at a time and remain a good father, but in three more years my son will be in college and I will be a bit more free to work overseas again. I've heard that Vietnam in particular has some marvelous seaside locations.

4. What are the key features and design elements of a great golf course?
Bandon Dunes 16th Hole, Oregon, USA
There are two aspects of the business which are quite distinct. The first is simply the ability to locate the holes so that they are inherently interesting without requiring much artificial work, and so that the course flows together. Unfortunately, many new courses are built on the assumption of massive earthmoving, and many architects seem to have lost the ability (or the interest) to take advantage of what the land does give them. Once the course is routed properly, the other step is to create greens and bunkers which have a sculptural interest to them and which add complexity to the game, which is a matter of being in the field and working with the shapers.

5. When designing a course what is the key consideration you take into account?
There are many "key considerations". From a practical standpoint, drainage is paramount, along with a number of other factors which will allow the course to be maintained in top condition. From the golfer's standpoint, the trick is to make the course challenging enough to interest the good player, while keeping it playable enough that the average golfer can still have fun.

6. As a designer you must have favorite designers, can you tell us a couple of these and why?
I have been lucky to study the styles of nearly all the architects who came before me, and to work alongside Pete Dye for a few years. I learned much from Mr. Dye and I think we are kindred spirits, even though the appearance of our courses is very different. I am also a huge fan of the work of Alister MacKenzie and Charles Blair Macdonald. I have seen most of Dr. Mackenzie's courses in the UK and USA and Australia, and even co-authored a biography of him and his work a few years ago. I think more than most architects, he kept the interests of the average golfer in sight.

7. Technology has changed the game of golf as far as distance etc; does this have and impact on your current and future designs?
I think that most people are overreacting to the impact of technology on the game -- it has allowed great players to hit the ball much farther, but it hasn't improved my handicap or yours much at all. To redesign courses and make them all longer and harder does not serve the average member who pays the bills. However, when we have a client who anticipates hosting a professional event, we do have to consider the impact of technology on those players, and it is becoming more difficult to keep the course playable for the average golfer when you concentrate on the best.

8. How long does it take to design a course and then see it completed?
Generally, it is something like three years from when we first speak to a potential client, until there is a golf course ready for play ... but in most cases, the client has already been working to find the right land and to assess the market for a year or more by that point. The construction part is pretty straightforward, but the initial steps are more unpredictable. I've designed courses where I came up with an excellent routing in one weekend, and others where it took more than a year of looking at different options before we were comfortable we had found the best option. And after that, financing and environmental permits can vary tremendously from one project to the next.

Cape Kidnappers, 15th and 16th holes, New Zealand

9. What are some dislikes about modern golf course design?
The business of golf course design has become too brand-oriented.
Cape Kidnappers, 15th hole, New Zealand
Clients are naturally nervous about the time and expense and uncertain revenues which come with building a golf course, so they tend to choose a proven designer, and ask him to produce the same product which he has done elsewhere. The result is courses which do not respond to their sites and to the individual needs of the client. I like to think of myself as more of a craftsman than a brand label -- every course we build is one of a kind -- but we rely on clients who have faith in us and who understand this difference.

10. As far as surfaces on a golf course, what type of grasses do you enjoy using?
The grasses chosen for a golf course vary tremendously from one locale to the next because of seasonal temperatures, rainfall, soils, and other factors. In 25 courses, we have used everything from fescue on the fairways and greens (like the old links of Scotland) to the latest paspalum varieties which can be irrigated with salt water. Japan is one of the more demanding places to grow grass, and the palette of species which can be used is a bit more limited. But, the point is to select grasses which are best adapted to the climate and to the requirements of the game, and hopefully to create contrasts and look beautiful in their natural surroundings, too.

Best wishes,

Tom Doak

Paul Jones, 6 December 2006

Previous Columns
  • Hong Kong Golf
  • The Ladies Asian Golf Tour
  • Shanghai - the golf destination with a lot more to offer
  • IMG- Management of the Game
  • Japan Golf - The State of the Game
  • Thirteenth Beach - Golf Course Realty
  • Nurturing the Game
  • Golf Course Realty, Australia
  • The Asian Golf Tour
  • Winter golf - Golf in Japan's South
  • MACAU- gambling is not the only game in town
  • Learning to Practice
  • Making Sure The Club Fits

  • Young Guns of Golf

  • Tracking the Tiger

  • Flying west in winter with Bird Golf

  • Getting off the beach and on the links in China

  • Good body shape equals good golf

  • About Paul
    Paul Jones is based in Tokyo and is currently both principal and managing partner for several projects in the development of the game here in Japan and Asia. Paul has held roles in all facets of the sport and hospitality industry including operations, assett acquisitions, assett management, PR and postioning, branding, retail and education.

    Contact Paul »