Q&A With Tom Doak, Confidential Guide To Golf Courses

In this week's Forward Press I make the case that the holiday gift book to buy this week and going forward is the Confidential Guide To Golf Courses by Tom Doak and friends.

Yes, Stevie Williams' book is tempting and an easy download, but if you are looking for a serious holiday gift for a golfer, this is your safest and least sleezy option.

I asked Doak some questions about the book for my GolfDigest.com review and his answers were so enjoyable that I feel required to give you them in their entirety.

So here goes and remember, you can order individual copies or the entire Confidential Guide set here.

Q: You have co-authors/contributors in the new series of Confidential Guides. Could you give us an idea how you decided on this approach?

TD: There were two reasons.  First, I wanted the book to be worldwide in scope, and there were so many good courses built in the last 20 years that I'd fallen behind in the percentage of them I'd seen.  I felt I needed help with coverage if the book was going to be thorough.  

Second, my co-authors' ratings are an important counterpoint when I don't like a course.  Negative opinions are always controversial, so it helps when you have other people either confirming that opinion, or softening my opinion when they disagree.

Q: The reviews still seem very much in your voice, could you give us a sense of how this part of putting the reviews worked?

TD: I started by sending my own draft reviews of each course I'd seen to the others, and letting them add their own comments on what I'd written, as well as writing their own thoughts on any courses I hadn't seen.  But when I started putting the first draft together, it was very jarring to read a review by Darius or Masa in the midst of some of mine.  [Plus Masa needs a bit of help writing in English, anyway.]  After a while, I decided it would be a better read if I took everyone's input, but wrote the reviews in my own voice.  The numbers at the bottom make it clear who's actually seen each course, and if there are real disagreements about the merits, I will note who thinks what.

Q: This is volume two now, how has the reaction been to these latest volumes compared to your original Guide?

TD: When the original edition appeared, there was both joy and shock from some readers, who couldn't believe I put such strong opinions in print.  The reader reviews this time are more muted, because most readers are at least semi-familiar with the earlier version.  There's a lot more focus on the smaller courses, because the big ones had all been rated before.  

The press reaction is pretty similar to before.  For volume one, a lot of the press was focused on the one "zero" rating I gave [out of 288 reviews].  A couple of those articles didn't even recount what I'd actually written about the course -- just the number! -- and some tried to make it personal, even though I'm reviewing courses, and not architects.  But it wasn't much different in 1996.  GOLFWEEK's review of the last edition was all about the twelve courses that were rated a zero, including a long sidebar defending Desmond Muirhead's Stone Harbor design.

In truth, golf writers tend to be among the book's biggest fans.  They can quote me on a review they probably agree with, and let me take all the heat for it.  If they thought the review was really unfair to a course they liked, they would never mention it.  For instance, I noticed that when GOLF Magazine did their excerpts of volume 1, they edited out the negative bits of my reviews of Trump's Aberdeen course.

Q: Have you encountered much resistance to visiting/studying/playing courses that fear a bad review?

TD: A couple of my hosts have joked about it, but really, not at all.  

But I never just walk into a course and say I'm there to review it.  And I only go to courses I'm interested in seeing; I don't go anywhere with the intention of writing a bad review.  If I suspect I won't like a course -- say, the Trump course in Palos Verdes -- why bother?  I will just go somewhere that interests me instead, like Lakeside, which I'd never seen until last year.  However, if I go to see a course and I don't like it, I'm not going to pretend I wasn't there in order to duck the controversy.  That would be dishonest.
I did get turned away at a couple of courses last year, but I think it was just because I'd showed up on a busy afternoon, and the assistant pro didn't want to risk having me running the gauntlet through all the golfers.  [It's possible the assistant at Fossil Trace was worried about a negative review; I couldn't tell if he knew about the book or not.  Anyway, it won't be in volume 3, because I couldn't see it.]

Q: On the Doak scale, how would you rate the state of golf course design as an art form when the first Confidential Guide was released versus now?
TD: The state of the art is very high right now -- let's say an 8 today, versus a 6 twenty years ago.  There are a ton of talented young people in this business today, working on construction crews for us and for other big firms; our internship program has helped give some of them a foothold.  The only thing missing is opportunity.  You only see real divergences from the design style that's in vogue during boom periods, when designers are more likely to go out on a limb to attract attention.  There are so few new courses to build that developers are more cautious than ever.  They're less likely to take a risk on a young designer when the big names aren't too busy to talk to them.  

Q: The books come as beautifully produced self-punished hardcovers. Why approach it this way as opposed to a subscription website or e-book?
TD: I love books.  And I understand the economics of the book business a lot better than those other forms.  It's possible that at some point down the road I will put my reviews into some form of subscription web site, although my collaborators might have their own designs on that.  But it's also possible I'll just continue to revise and update the books every few years, when I've seen enough new courses that it makes sense … or, just put everything I see from here on out into a sixth volume someday.

Q: You greatly expanded the South America portion of the book. Give us a sense how you went about choosing what you visited and any tips for the traveling golfer you feel are essential?
TD: Being fluent in Spanish would make it WAY easier to travel around South America on your own.  For those of us who chose French in junior high, it sure helps to know people.  I leaned heavily on the expat architect Randy Thompson, who lives in Chile, and has done a lot of work in the region.  He's probably the only guy who could have figured out how to get us across the Andes from the Lake District of Chile to the mountain courses in San Martin and Bariloche -- they won't let you take a rental car across, and there are no direct flights, so Randy got one of his clients to pick us up and bring us over.  Another friend, based in Buenos Aires, took me to see the hidden gems there -- San Andres and the very private Ellerstina. 

You will rack up a lot of miles on a golf trip to Chile and Argentina, because the courses are few and far between.  Luckily, airfares are pretty cheap within Argentina or Chile; the exchange rate is in our favor there.

I also went to see the course at La Paz, Bolivia.  It's one of the most fascinating places I've ever been, in a Wild West sort of way, and the course was actually quite good.  [It was designed by Luther Koontz, who accompanied Dr. MacKenzie to Argentina to build The Jockey Club, and then stayed.]  However, getting a visa to visit Bolivia [even for 36 hours] was ridiculously hard; I suppose it's payback to the U.S. for making it so hard for their citizens.

Q: While I don’t want to impede on your annual Christmas newsletter project update, can you give us a quick overview of your various projects?
TD: We finished two projects in Michigan this year -- the reversible course at Forest Dunes, which will open late next summer, and a project down near Kalamazoo at Gull Lake View, which my associates designed and built independently of me, at my suggestion.  [The client didn't have a lot of money for design fees, and I was committed to focusing on Forest Dunes.  So it's a great way for my associates can get more credit for what they do.]  We've also had a lot of small construction work going on for consulting clients, everywhere from Garden City and Somerset Hills to Waialae and Royal Melbourne.  Our new project for 2016 is in the Dominican Republic.  

Sadly, the land deal for the rumored project with Michael Jordan in Florida fell through, as I feared it would once word got out.  But I did get to spend a couple of hours with Michael in January talking about golf course design, and that was fascinating.  He's way more interested in it than you would think.  Maybe someday the right piece of land will come along.

Q: Most recent round of golf was where and how was it?
TD: I played in a charity event at Ballyneal last week.  I hadn't played there in four years; building courses in remote spots is very overrated, as far as opportunities to enjoy your own work are concerned.  I was in a four-ball match against a friend and his father-in-law, who was getting too many strokes, and I had to shoot my best round there [75] just to get a half!  
I've seen 98 new courses this year, because of the book project, and played sixty rounds; it's the most golf I've played in ages.  But it didn't really help my game much.  I only broke 80 a couple of times.

Q: Course you have not seen that you most want to play?
For years, the answer to that was Banff and Jasper, but I played them both this summer in advance of Volume 3.  Both exceeded my expectations.  I also checked off places like Gamble Sands and Cabot Links this summer.  I guess the current answer would be the new Cape Wickham course in Australia.

Q: Most treasured item in your golf bag?

TD: My putter, a Wilson knock-off of the George Low Wizard 600 that Nicklaus used for years.  I've been playing with it since I was 13 years old.  Once Crenshaw retires, I'll probably hold the record.

Q: What’s the biggest change in golf/course design since the original Confidential Guide was published?

TD: The idea that an architect needs to be out there building his courses, instead of just drawing them up.  That was a fringe theory twenty years ago, only used by Pete Dye and a couple of his former students.  Now it's gone mainstream.