2004: Tom Doak: 'Protectionist of Principles'

Traverse City, Mich.

Alice Dye, wife of legendary course architect Pete Dye, remembers when her husband hired Tom Doak. • “Tom had written letters and letters and letters about how he wanted to work for us,” she said. “Then he did some critiquing for one of the magazines. He wrote one about one of our courses that caught Pete’s attention. Pete put him to work picking up sticks or something.”

The year was 1981. Doak, then a student at Cornell University, made an impression.

“Tom was a very, very good photographer,” Alice Dye said. “He took some of the best golf photographs I’d ever seen. I told him he ought to do that for a living instead of architecture. I said there were a lot of architects out there, but not many good golf photographers.”

Had Doak taken her advice, the world of golf course design would be a very different picture.

Instead, Doak forged ahead with his dream. He persuaded Cornell to give him a grant that enabled him to spend almost a year (July ’82-June ’83) studying the links courses of Great Britain and Ireland. He pestered Golf Magazine editor George Peper into giving him assignments to write about course architecture, and ended up managing that magazine’s list of the world’s top 100 courses. He self-published a 225-page collection of course critiques. “The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses” was intended for friends only, but quickly became a cult classic among golf architecture aficionados and defined him as a brash, young maverick.

Doak continued to work for Dye until 1987, when he struck out on his own. After months

without a client, he finally landed a design job at High Pointe Golf Club near Traverse City, which opened in 1989. His fee was $75,000. He was 26, and his use of fescue grass on High Pointe’s severely contoured greens was a radical concept that fueled his reputation for uncompromising eccentricity.

Thus Doak and his small firm, Renaissance Golf Design in Traverse City, toiled in relative obscurity, producing only a handful of courses over the next eight years before gaining momentum in the late 1990s. But his work at Lost Dunes in Bridgman, Mich., caught the fancy of Mike Keiser, the Chicago greeting-card mogul who owns Bandon Dunes, the much-acclaimed links course in Bandon, Ore. Keiser hired Doak to build a second course amid the scrubby dunes at Bandon. The result was Pacific Dunes, which debuted in 2002 at No. 2 on Golfweek’s list of America’s Best Modern Courses.

Although he is credited with two other courses in the Modern top 100 (Lost Dunes, No. 41, and Stonewall Golf Club in Elverson, Pa., No. 59), it was Pacific Dunes that catapulted Doak, who turns 43 on March 16, into the golf design stratosphere.

His recently completed Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand (Golfweek, Feb. 14) is getting rave reviews. He’s putting the finishing touches on two seaside courses in Australia. He has six courses on the drawing boards in the United States, including Ballyneal in the dunesland of northeastern Colorado. Doak and his Renaissance team believe that property could yield his finest work yet.

“In the last year I’ve seen seven sites that could be the best in the world,” Doak told guests last September during his annual Renaissance Cup tournament at Stonewall. “We’re working on five of them.”

Tom Doak grew up in Connecticut. His interest in golf architecture was spawned before he was a teen-ager, when his father took him along on business/golf trips to venues such as Pebble Beach and Pinehurst. His minimalist design philosophy – characterized by the

utilization of natural topographical features and restraint in earthmoving – was formed during his year abroad, when he visited 172 different courses and spent two months as a caddie at the Old Course in St. Andrews.

“He came back with his head full of all those Scottish and Irish things,” recalls Pete Dye.

Doak credits Dye with instilling him with the stubbornness to stick to his design principles.

“I hadn’t been working for Pete for two weeks,” Doak says, “before he said to me one day, ‘You have to be willing to walk away from these jobs if they’re not going to let you do the right thing.’ ”

Not only is Dye a designer, he also typically supervises construction.

“Clients were a little scared of him,” Doak said. “If Pete got mad, things would shut down.

“That was kind of the background I was raised on. All his clients were important, powerful people. He always treated them like equals instead of cowing to what they wanted. He was there every day, and he was very emotionally involved in his projects. So he had good reasons for everything he wanted to do. And when somebody would tell him to do something different, he would argue about it. And eventually he would get his way, probably 95 percent of the time.”

The same couldn’t be said for Doak.

“When you’re a 26-year-old architect, and you’re arguing with a client, it doesn’t go over the same way,” he says. “It took me awhile to learn that.”

Nor did it help that Doak had alienated many people in the business with his self-publication of “The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.” More than a little of its content was incendiary.

For example, Doak called Terradyne Golf Club

in Andover, Kan., “A classic case of developer and designer who had stars in their eyes, and s--- for brains.”

Of Half Moon Bay Golf Links, Doak wrote: “Strictly a one-hole golf course; the par-4 18th, playing south along a cliff overlooking the Pacific, being one of the better holes in California. The other 17 holes are mostly Hamburger Helper.”

(The original “Confidential Guide” contained no photos or illustrations; Doak made 20 copies

on a dot-matrix printer and put them in red school binders. A sanitized, hard-cover run of 1,000 copies was printed in 1994, and two years later a slick version with photos was published by Sleeping

Bear Press.)

The ensuing controversy, Doak says, was a double-edged sword. It cost him business, he concedes, but “it separated me from the others. ‘The Confidential Guide’ was a lot of my credentials for being in the business. I had seen all those courses and I really absorbed them and I have an opinion on them. It’s not like somebody reads through it and says ‘I’m not going to hire Jack Nicklaus because (Doak) 444

333 (Doak) didn’t like Jack’s course here.’ They’re going to look at it and say, ‘I should talk to him because I agree with him.’

“Mike Keiser is one of the people who agreed with some of that and was interested in talking to me because of it. So at the end of the day, I can’t say that was bad for my business, to have done that. For better or worse, being controversial gave me a reputation. A lot of guys just never get a reputation. It’s a hard business to make a name for yourself in. I don’t really love that that’s mine, but at least I have it. And now I’ve just got to live it down.”

His success with Pacific Dunes has helped – although his detractors use that project to portray him as a design snob. “He’s so full of himself,” says one rival architect. “He takes that minimalist thing to the extreme.”

But most give him credit for mellowing as he’s matured.

“He has softened in a few different ways,” says Ben Crenshaw, who along with design partner Bill Coore (who also got his start with Dye, watching his dogs) created Sand Hills, the No. 1 course on the Modern list, and is working on a third course at Bandon. “When any of us looks back at when we started our careers, we all were a little fiery. We all could have listened a little more.

“Tom is passionate about his views. He’s a protectionist of principles.”

Doak acknowledges that a couple of life-changing experiences have helped him grow up. He and his first wife, Dianna, were divorced in 2000 after XX years of marriage, although she and their son Michael still live nearby. Two years ago he married the ebullient Jennifer Florence, who has three daughters and a son by a previous marriage. Tom and Jennifer met at a Traverse City ice cream stand; she was intrigued by his order of coconut ice cream.

And because business is so brisk and far-flung, Doak says, he has become “a little more emotionally detached (from projects) than I was 5 or 10 years ago. If the client or someone else on the project says something I don’t agree with, they’re not going to see my immediate reaction because I’m not there. Or I’ve learned to say, ‘Let me think about that for a couple of days and get back to you.’ ”

Much the same way he badgered Dye into submission, Doak wore down Golf Magazine’s Peper. Still a student at Cornell, Doak peppered Peper with letters and course critiques, a few of which were published.

“He had a nice style, especially for a kid,” says Peper.

Recalls Dye: “Tom wrote everything about what everyone else was doing wrong.”

In the early 1980s, Peper needed someone to manage the magazine’s course rankings.

“He was my man,” Peper says. “No one that I knew of knew more about the world’s best courses, or had played more than Tom – and he was 23 years old. This was before computers, and he did it all in longhand, logging thousands of numbers with a calculator, pen and notebook paper in tiny print. Never made a mistake, though.”

Asked if he was surprised at Doak’s success, Peper replied: “Yes and no. Yes in that, at least initially, he had the people skills of an ostrich. No in that he’s so bright. He has a terrifically analytical mind, an encyclopedic memory for the thousands of holes he’s seen, and is probably the most articulate and literate architect alive.”

Doak has written two other books: “The Anatomy of a Golf Course” (1992) and “The Life and Work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie” (2001). The former, written during a lull in Doak’s second solo project, the Heathlands Course at The Legends in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is essentially a thesis on his design philosophy. Doak still uses it as a selling tool with prospective clients.

Fearing conflict of interest, Doak ceased his association with Golf Magazine when he began work on Pacific Dunes. Yet some of his competitors still dismiss him as a writer turned architect.

“There’s quite a few people who think that,” says Doak. “They don’t realize I started at 19, trying to work as an architect . . . I could be 22 and write something in Golf Magazine and nobody had any idea how old I was. It didn’t matter for a writer. It matters for being an architect and for somebody to trust you with $5 million. It takes a lot longer to establish a reputation.”

Doak still looks like a kid. His appearance typically is rumpled; he’s clearly more at ease in the field than in a board room. Doak describes himself as introverted, but adds: “I’m not shy when I get to talking about golf.”

As a youngster, he was an avid participant in sports.

“I’m really competitive,” he says. “I was never a very good athlete, but I was always involved, always out there, just trying real hard.”

He approaches business the same way.

“I’m trying to really do the best thing we can do every time out,” he says. “If we do better, I’m not sure whether it’s because we’re smarter about how we did it, or we just worked at it a lot more than other people do.

“A lot of architects fly in and fly out the same day. . . . I don’t even want to say anything the first day. You can tell right away if I don’t like something, but I want to think about what I want to do instead of just going, ‘That isn’t right; let’s move that bunker over there.’

“If the first version doesn’t work, you’re not going to get stuck with the second version because that’s all I have time for. That’s usually the way architects force themselves to work. You come in, you react to what somebody’s done, and that’s it. And if you don’t nail it every time . . .”

Visit with the Renaissance design team, and the esprit de corps quickly becomes evident. The group includes Jim Urbina, who is Doak’s Denver-based lead shaper; restoration specialist and company vice president Bruce Hepner; Don Placek, who is primarily responsible for drawing new course plans; and design associates Eric Iverson, Brian Slawnik and Brian Schneider.

“Tom allows us total artistic freedom,” Hepner says. “Don and I have both worked for architects where you pretty much have to do what they tell you, their vision, whereas Tom sets up an artistic process. He’s not afraid to take an idea from anybody, but he’s still the ultimate answer.

“We always use the term, don’t fall in love with anything you do, but don’t be afraid of doing anything.”

Placek says his boss can be unpredictable.

“Sometimes Tom will leave what you’ve built completely alone,” he says. “Sometimes he’ll drop a bomb on it and erase it completely. And sometimes it’s an editing process. I think it’s our job to give Tom a baseline, something to work with. As long as you don’t get too attached to whatever you’re doing, and you’re doing your best work, Tom will always make it better.”

Senior personnel at Renaissance Golf all manage projects. Urbina was the lead man at Pacific Dunes; Placek oversaw construction at Cape Kidnapper’s; Hepner is managing Barndougle in Tasmania, Australia. All participate in the company’s extensive consulting business; no fewer than 14 clubs on the America’s Best Classical list have sought renovation advice from Renaissance Golf.

Placek says the Renaissance “team chemistry” is unique.

“In a lot of firms, it’s really competitive,” he says. “You’re constantly trying to get out ahead of this guy or that guy. Here, we’re all comfortable in our own skin.”

Which isn’t to say there aren’t differences of opinion.

“We’re not all alike,” Hepner says. “We do fight in the field a little bit, but we do it because of the passion in the product. At the end of the day we’re out having a couple of beers and laughing about it. But we’ll fight over ideas, what we think is right.”

Empowering his associates is one way Doak battles against repetitive designs. Rarely does Renaissance produce a par-72 layout. Doak’s fairways typically are wide, with the challenge coming around the green complexes.

“I put more contour in greens than 90 percent of architects working today,” Doak says. “To me, a golf course isn’t really good if it doesn’t have a fair amount of short game involved. That’s half the game. I’ve heard other architects talk about golf course architecture for 45 minutes and never mention that part of the game. All they talk about is tee to green. They talk about green contouring in terms of putting, but they never talk about it in terms of recovery play and short game. And that’s a big part of what I do.”

Doak insists that all staff members take time to study other courses.

“We look at it as an art form,” Hepner says. “And you’ve got to go study art. It’s like painting – you go to The Louvre. With us, you go to Cypress Point.

“I always tell people, my bad days are just like anybody else’s. I’m getting chewed out by some owner – it stinks. But our good days are so much better than anybody else’s. We’re playing Cypress Point or Royal Melbourne.”

No one at Renaissance has much use for the sales game.

“Which has probably hurt us over the years,” says Hepner, “but we get to do what we want to do. Tom’s spending more time building greens than he is sitting in a board room, trying to get a slide show going.

“It’s just not our style. We kind of think that if they’re down to that kind of an interview to hire somebody, they’re not doing their homework. They’ve got to get out and see our stuff, and see how we work. Then if they like us, we probably want to work for them. It’s us picking them just as much as it is them picking us.”

Says Placek: “Tom has positioned himself to be able to tell pretty much anybody what he thinks. If they like that, that’s great, maybe they will be a client. If they don’t, well, it’s probably better for them and for us.”

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification