Interview with Tom Doak
April 1, 2000
Bill Kelly: What sparked your interest in the game of golf, and when did you know that you wanted to be a golf course architect?
Tom Doak: I started playing golf when I was ten – my dad started taking us to his business conventions, which were often at golf resorts. Harbour Town, Pinehurst, and Pebble Beach were some of the first courses I saw, and they were so different than the little public courses near my home, that I became interested in why.
BK: You worked at St. Andrews. What did you learn there?
TD: I had a scholarship the year I graduated from Cornell to spend a year studying the golf courses in the British Isles, and spent the first two months of it in St. Andrews, caddying on the Old Course. I learned a ton there. The Old Course is the most interesting I’ve seen, probably because no one designed it.
You can’t just aim for the middle of the fairway – there’s a lot of short grass, but there are bunkers strewn all through it, so you have to learn the course and decide where it is best for you to aim. On some holes, your ideal spot will be totally different than your partner’s, who hits it 30 yards further.
BK: What is the basic difference between British Isle links courses and the basic American course?
TD: The main difference between British and American courses is attitude. British links are natural in origin, so their scruffiness is accepted as part of the game; if you get a bad bounce, you have to take it in stride. Most golf is played between friends or fellow club-members, in match play. Americans take their medal scores much more seriously – and, as a result, our golfers want their courses to be designed “fair” and maintained perfectly so they never get a bad break.
BK: When you came back you worked for Pete Dye; what did you learn then?
TD: I was lucky enough to hang around Pete Dye [note: not “Peter”; his actual name is Paul, but everyone calls him Pete] for three years after I got back from overseas, working on the construction of courses from Hilton Head to Palm Springs. Pete doesn’t just draw his courses and let someone else build them – he gets out there with the crew and redesigns them in the field. He spends a lot more time thinking about each contour and each bunker than most other architects do; and he can try our new ideas in the dirt, knowing that he can always soften them if he’s worried that they are too difficult. Most architects are afraid to take those sorts of chances, because they don’t know how their drawings will come out. That’s why Pete’s designs are more original, and more interesting.
BK: You seem to have some radical opinions on different aspects of the game. Could you comment briefly on what you think about a few of them?
TD: A lot of architects think I’m a radical, and yet Ben Crenshaw calls me a preservationist. Is it possible to be both?
I think it is, because golf architecture has changed so much over the past fifty years. It’s so competitive in the current boom, and it’s easy to move earth today, and the average client has so much ego tied up in his project, that it’s just very easy to get carried away with your design and bui9ld a course that’s too difficult and too expensive for the average golfer.
The old courses are much simpler – and they used what the land offered. That doesn’t mean they were easy; the great architects build challenge into their designs, because a course has to be challenging to be interesting.
But they did it by building three feet of slope into a green, not by building a three-acre lake in front of it.
BK: What makes a great course great?
TD: Great courses have a great variety of holes, a beautiful setting, and a style of their own.
BK: What about the restoration efforts on historic courses?
TD: I believe that the best courses of the master designers should be preserved; but I found out when traveling around this country that few are left intact. We have participated in the restoration of a few prominent courses, like Garden City and Pasatiempo. But restoration is a tricky thing – it’s still up to the present-day architect to determine what needs to be done, and different designers can produce very different results. I’m afraid the main reason for its current popularity is that it’s easier to sell the membershi8p on “restoration” than it would be to “change” their beloved old course.
BK: What is the role of the greens committee?
TD: The role of the greens committee should be to respond to the membership’s concerns about the course and to educate the membership on the design and maintenance of the course. Too many greens committee have it backwards – they’re so concerned with leaving the course better than they found it, that they try to tell the superintendent (and sometimes the architect) how to do their jobs.
BK: What is the biggest threat to the game of golf today?
TD: I think the biggest threat to the game is the rising cost of play. Of all the new courses being built, probably 90% are intended to be “high-end” courses with green fees between $50 and $100. That’s pretty steep for a beginning golfer, and it’s out of the question for juniors. When I started playing, it cost $1 per round for me to play our hometown municipal course, and $40 to play Pebble Beach. Most golf courses are too busy trying to make every last dollar to worry about who’s going to pay them ten years from now.
BK: Can groundskeepers succeed without using excessive chemicals?
TD: The best golf course superintendents keep their grass healthy. If they know how to do that, they won’t need much in the way of chemical input. The best managers will become ever more valuable as environmental regulations limit their alternatives.
BK: You call your company “Renaissance Golf.” Is there a real golf renaissance going on and what’s it all about, more money, or a return to the roots of the game?
TD: When I named the company ten years ago, I didn’t expect the boom that was coming. The name was more of a play on the “Renaissance man” ideal that we were involved in every aspect of the business, from designing new courses to restoring old ones, from project management to running the bulldozers, and even to golf writing and photography. There has unquestionably been a great boom of interest in golf course architecture in the past few years, and not just because there are so many Tour pros moonlighting as designers. There are a lot of talented people out there building courses in all sorts of different styles.
If I’ve accomplished anything, it’s been to remind people that great courses are first and foremost a product of a great site. The most influential courses of this decade – Sand Hills and Bandon Dunes – weren’t built because of a market study; they were built because the land was ideally suited to golf, just like the original links of Scotland were.
BK: How did you hook up with the Atlantic City Country Club?
TD: We were one of several firms interviewed by Hilton after they acquired the course. I think we were on their list because of our reputation for restoration work in the New York area; but I think we got the job because we listened to what they wanted, and we understood that this was more than a simple restoration.
They wanted to make the course more secluded from the homes around it, but open up with the views to the marsh and to Atlantic City. They wanted to eliminate the road crossings in the old layout as much as possible, for privacy and safety concerns. And they wanted to preserve the history of a 100 year-old golf course, but do it while rebuilding the course from the ground up. Every sprinkler head, every bunker, pretty much every blade of grass out there today is new, in total. Atlantic City cost more to rebuild than any of the ten brand-new courses I’ve designed.
The challenge was in treading the line between restoration and new design. This project had elements of both, and the client wanted us to keep a perfect balance.
TD: The new course isn’t supposed to be a “Tom Doak design.” It borrows a lot of its style from past incarnations – from pictures taken in the 1920’s, when there was a lot of open sand between the holes down by the shore. Several great architects had worked there before us, from Willie Park to William Flynn, and we tried to preserve something from each of them – from Park’s small elevated greens to Flynn’s “white faced” bunkering.
BK: What attributes of the course were kept the same, preserved and/or restored?
TD: The general flow of the routing is the same, although many of the greens have been repositioned slightly. Four of the greens were rebuilt with the same contours as before – the third, eighth, and eleventh [which used to be #12]. And, as I described above, the seaside and “classic” character of the course has been preserved and expanded upon.
BK: What major changes were made and why?
TD: There are a host of changes: An irrigation pond had to be added on high ground, to prevent saltwater intrusion; it’s right up by the pro shop, at the foot of the first tee.
The second green was relocated north of the road, shortening that hole considerably, and the fifth hole was lengthened by moving the green back to where the old second green sat.
A large expanse of sand was restored between the third and fifth fairways.
The fourth green was relocated to bring the marsh into play on the right.
The sixth green was moved back about 40 yards, creating a very long three-shot par 5.
The seventh green was moved forward to make a very long par 4 into the wind.
The old eleventh hole was eliminated, and the holes on either side of it were lengthened. The tenth now plays as a dogleg par 5, with the green on the far side of the pond which used to be behind it; and the new eleventh is a very long par-4, with dramatic cross-bunkers about 100 yards short of the green.
The par-3 12th [formerly the 13th] green was elevated and the left side cut away, creating the deepest bunker on the course.
The par-5 13th was lengthened by moving the green back to the left.
The 14th and 15th are now new holes, built around a new section of tidal marsh which we created. This was our most significant change; previously, the 15th and 16th were both medium-short par-4s playing downwind, and neither made very dramatic use of the marsh. The new 14th starts from a tee out on a dramatic point in the marsh, heading to a narrow fairway which dog legs to the right – long hitters can try to cut the corner and drive the green, but it’s a big carry. Then, the par-3 15th plays back into the wind to a green on another point, with marsh around three sides.
The 16th and 17th holes are similar in length to what was there originally, but the greens on both holes are now guarded by large sand-dune features, to further the seaside character of the course.
The 18th has been reduced to a 400 yard par-4 by shifting the fairway to the right and shortening the tee. Before, most golfers were playing a half-blind lay-up second shot; now they’ll need a good drive to get to the corner, and then they’ll face a more challenging approach to the green with its great setting in front of the old clubhouse.
BK: What kinds of grass were used, and why?
TD: Tees, greens and fairways are all bentgrass; the mowed rough is bluegrass, but there are also several large areas of un-mowed fescue rough in the open spaces. A new bentgrass called A-4 has been used for the greens – it’s much finer and more dense than any variety I’ve seen before, and it was selected in hopes of keeping poa anue in check. They’ll have to keep the greens fast, or this grass will get too thick.
BK: What’s the new length, overall, and what’s the par for the course?
TD: You’ll have to check with the pro shop for the exact length; I think it’s slightly shorter than before, actually. But par has been reduced from 72 to 70 so it will play harder for low handicappers.
BK: What’s the new signature hole?
TD: The third hole was Leo Frazer’s favorite, and it might still be, since we preserved it intact. The short par-4 14th is the biggest change – the tee on the point is so dramatic, nobody would believe that it had always been there, overgrown with trees. It’s a gambler’s hole – you could make an eagle if you drive the green, but you could also lose a sleeve of balls trying to make the carry. But I think our biggest success is that we’ve made several holes more dramatic, so that different people will have different favorites. The seventh and eleventh are killer par-4’s: in the southeasterly summer winds, they’ll be two of the hardest holes in New Jersey. At the other end of the spectrum, the fourth, twelfth and seventeenth are all within the average golfer’s reach, but when you miss one of those greens, it’s going to get interesting.
BK: What are the short holes and the ones most likely for someone to ace?
TD: The fourth and twelfth are both under 150 yards – I think the fourth is a bit shoorter. But both are downwind, so you may need some help from the flagstick if you’re going to make a one. You might have more luck at the 17th – the cup will usually be hidden by the dune on the right, so your caddie might kick one in for you.
BK: Was the course designed for tournament play?
TD: We really didn’t think much about tournament play in the changes we made to the design. Obviously, it has been a popular sight for the U.S. Women’s Open, and the new course would be more challenging than ever for them – but I don’t know if that’s in the cards. The one drawback is the lack of acreage – for galleries, corporate tents, parking, and the circus that accompanies major tournaments nowadays.
BK: What are the prospects of encouraging players to walk the course and maintain the caddy tradition?
TD: Because play will be limited, we didn’t build any cart paths for the new course. Players will be able to take a caddie, or drive on the fairways if they choose a cart. The caddy experience is exactly the blend of personal service and golfing tradition which the new course is supposed to represent.
BK: In your book “Anatomy of a Golf Course” you mention “grow in” time as a factor. How long will the “grow in” time be at ACCC, and when do you anticipate the course being open for play?
TD: The eighteenth fairway was the last to be planted, just after Labor Day of 1999; but the last three or four holes were set back a bit by washouts at the start of the hurricane season. They’ll sill need a bit of growth this spring to mature. I’d be happy to play the course as it stands today, but the standard today is so much higher – everybody wants it to be perfect before they open the door. I suspect that will be sometime in May (2000).
BK: What were some of the special problems presented by the ACCC job and how did you overcome them?
TD: From a design standpoint, the challenge was keeping that balance between restoration and new design. Fortunately, my “signature” as a designer isn’t a particular style of bunkering or greens, but in making the most of the land with whatever style suites it best; so I inherited a lot from the old course, instead of butting heads with it.
From a logistical standpoint, it was just difficult to do that much construction on a tight acreage. The only place to stockpile topsoil or park equipment was on another fairway; it got to be like a big shell game. And the irrigation system is the most complicated I’ve ever seen, so after it was trenched in, we pretty much had to shape all the bunkers and greens over again to restore what we intended.
BK: What is the future of the clubhouse?
TD: As I understand it, the design of the clubhouse will be thoughtfully preserved; like the golf course, it will be refitted completely, but from the outside, it’s supposed to look the same as it does today.
BK: You are pretty young, and golf is pretty old. What do you see is the near future of the game, what role to you want to play, and what’s the future of the ACCC?
TD: As a student of architecture, I’ve seen first-hand how much the game has changed over the past 100 years, by seeing how courses have evolved. Every new generation of golf courses has been longer and harder than the last, to preserve the challenge of the game in response to improvements in equipment, in course conditioning, and in the general level of play.
The problem is, all of our best old courses are on limited acreage, and they were lengthened as much as they could be a generation ago. So we have to de-emphasize length as the benchmark of design, and re-emphasize all the other attributes of classic design – bunkers which force the golfer to choose his line of play carefully, greens with enough character to make the short game as challenging as the long game, and maximizing the natural beauty and vistas of each property.
We also have to recognize that the best players in the world will continue to improve, and if we don’t want the great courses of the past to become obsolete for championship play, sooner or later we will have to change the specifications of the golf ball to counteract all the other advances in golfing equipment.
Thirty or forty years down the road, Atlantic City Country Club will need work again, to upgrade its irrigation system if nothing else. But if my design work and my writings have made an impact, I hope that this course and many others like it will still be appreciated for what they are, a test of golf that is far more than a long-driving contest.