By Thomas Dunne
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, Tom Doak would accompany his father on business trips to places like Pebble Beach and Harbour Town, where he caught the golf bug. He later traveled extensively throughout the British Isles on a Cornell University post-graduate scholarship, paying particularly close attention to the Old Course at St. Andrews, studying it through caddying and gleaning agronomic insight from its venerable superintendent, Walter Woods. These experiences set the tone for a lifetime of wanderlust looking for inspiration.
He began learning the craft in the field in the mid-1980s with Pete Dye and his sons, Perry and P.B. Though Doak’s work has taken a dramatically different path in terms of strategy and aesthetics, Dye Sr.—whom Doak has called “a master of psychological design”—remains a valued mentor. Like Dye, one secret of Doak’s success has been his ability to attract and develop a roster of talented design associates.
His first solo design, High Pointe in Michigan, debuted in 1989. In the ’90s, with just a few courses under his belt, he committed his honest course critiques to print (see “Further Reading”), an approach that rattled the golf establishment but served notice of a new vision. Oregon’s Pacific Dunes, which debuted in 2001, was his breakthrough project: Since then, only Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have landed as many courses on world top-100 lists. Despite this success, Doak is only 57 years old, and we’re excited to see what the future has in store for this most innovative of contemporary architects.
Three elements stand out. First, bold green contours: As at the Old Course, a typical design will be fairly manageable from tee to green, but being on in regulation is no guarantee of a two-putt. Second, expertly concealed earthmoving: Doak takes pride in fooling golfers into thinking that certain features have been there forever, writing, “the minimalist will move earth to reduce severe slopes, not to create them.” Third, innovative routing plans: At the time, much was made of the four par threes and three par fives on the back nine at Pacific Dunes; today, it’s widely accepted that architects should pursue the best holes the land offers. Doak has gone on to experiment with routings where the course does not begin and end in the same place, as at Nebraska’s Dismal River (Red), and even reversible concepts, as at The Loop at Forest Dunes in Michigan.
New Zealand’s Tara Iti is a private, true links in a subtropical setting—few courses worldwide can check all those boxes. The otherworldly beauty of Mangawhai Heads and the club’s seemingly endless beachfront combine with fairways and greens perfectly draped across sweeps of sand and textural beach grasses to create an off-the-charts visual experience. Tara Iti is far more than just eye candy, though. Holes like the 3rd, where the player can’t wait to find out where his approach has finished on a green hidden in a hollow between two dunes, promote smart and fun golf at every turn.
Pacific Dunes displays many characteristics of Doak’s best work. It has a great sandy seaside setting and presents multiple options and strategic intricacy from the first tee shot on. It has moments of outright terror, as anyone who has tried to pitch over the cavernous greenside bunker on the 6th will attest. And it has uncommonly imaginative flourishes, like the alternate high and low greens on the par-four 9th. The fact that the two greens tie in to corresponding tees on the one-shot 10th lends Pacific even more flexibility.
A few years ago it seemed that Apache Stronghold, set on tribal lands 90 miles east of Phoenix, was on the verge of death-by-neglect; renewed investment by the San Carlos Apache tribe saved the course just before it was reclaimed by the desert. Maintenance is barebones, but Apache is nonetheless an intensely enjoyable exploration of forbidding country. The Sheep Ranch, Doak’s freeform “secret course” at Bandon Dunes, offers similarly rustic conditions—and similarly soulful golf.
Most Famous Hole(s)
Doak isn’t a “signature hole” type of designer, but his creations have nevertheless garnered plenty of attention due to their magnificent settings. The cliff-edge holes at Pacific Dunes (4, 11, 13) jump to mind, while the 15th at Cape Kidnappers (“Pirate’s Plank”) is one of the most photographed holes of modern times. The short par-four 7th at Colorado’s Ballyneal has a devoted following due to its wildly entertaining E-shaped green. The 5th at Streamsong (Blue) is an ingenious short par three that presents radically different puzzles based on the day’s teeing ground, hole location, and wind.
Doak’s The Anatomy of a Golf Course is a primer on golf architecture. In 1996, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses engendered considerable controversy for its no-holds-barred reviews; Doak is now midway through a five-volume update to that guide, in collaboration with Ran Morrissett, Darius Oliver, and Masa Nishijima.