Tom Doak is one of the world’s most renowned architects. He talks NCG through his passion for English golf courses
Tom Doak is among the most feted of modern course designers.
The American’s company, Renaissance Golf Design, has earned a reputation both for sensitive restorations of great old courses around the world and also for its own courses.
In the former category are the likes of Broadmoor, Cherry Hills, Chicago, Mid-Ocean, Royal Melbourne, Pasatiempo and San Francisco.
In the latter, Ballyneal, Barnbougle Dunes, Cape Kidnappers, Pacific Dunes (at Bandon Dunes), Renaissance (which sits between Muirfield and North Berwick in East Lothian) and Streamsong Blue.
Four of his courses – Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers, Ballyneal and Barnbougle Dunes – are in Golf magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World.
Doak is also the author of The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. The original acquired cult status for its bold and forthright views. Written after he had taken a year out as a student in design and landscape architecture in 1982, Doak spent six months living in St Andrews and the other half of the year travelling around the British Isles studying many of our classic courses.
Now it has been updated and become a series of several books. NCG sat down with him…
Can you offer a snapshot of your views on England’s courses and what defines them?
There’s just much more variety of courses here then there is in Scotland or Ireland. When you’re talking about the Scottish or Irish courses you’re talking almost entirely about the links courses.
I guess there’s a few modern inland courses in Ireland that are at least tough and somebody thinks something of them for that. In Scotland there’s Gleneagles, but everything else you’re talking about is a links. England has some great links too but there is a tonne of inland courses that are on all different kinds of terrain that are all interesting golf courses.
Why does England not enjoy the global appeal that Scotland and Ireland do?
As I said in one of my books, England is probably the most underrated place for golf in the world. In America, you don’t market golf tourists to England the way you do to Scotland and Ireland. You don’t market it to overseas at all. The Scots and Irish spend a lot of money doing that. And they’ve been doing that for a long time so the awareness in the States is very keen. I suppose here you don’t have as many iconic courses as there are in Scotland and Ireland but a lot of that’s just marketing and the fact they haven’t been marketed the same way over time. I think there are great golf courses all around England. I really like coming down here.
Is Royal Worlington the best inland course in GB&I in your opinion? Many would be surprised to hear you say that…
I know that. I am always shocked that considering how much Bernard Darwin loved it and some of the Oxford and Cambridge people love it, and half the golf writers in the UK come out of there, so I’m surprised that it’s not more highly regarded here. I suppose part of that is that it’s just 9 holes and a lot of people don’t treat 9-holers that seriously but that’s probably held it back. I would think it would be in the Top 100 courses in the world if they would consider a 9-hole course for that.
For me it’s two things: one, it’s just got a great set of greens. That’s the most interesting part of architecture to me. There’s not a lot of courses in Britain, especially the inland courses, that have greens with that kind of contouring that has a lot to do with play and how well you can score.
So that’s a main part of the appeal to me.
The other part is there are so many compelling holes and yet it looks so unassuming. There is a road going through it and a golfer could drive right through the golf course and not think twice about it being a great golf course. It doesn’t look the part until you go out and stand in the middle of fairways and look at the approach shot you’ve got to hit and take into the account that the green is about as hard as this table.
You have to be aware that the contours are feeding off the greens and into trouble and you can’t just pop it into the middle of the green and count on it to stop.
Merion, in the States, I would put in the same category. It’s on such a small piece of land and it’s so well fit to the ground that I would defy any architect to make a suggestion to improve it. Here you could always move a green 50 yards back or to the side or whatever but there, there’s really no scope to do that. It just amazes me that it all fits as well as it does.
Have you visited anywhere else apart from St Enodoc and Woodhall Spa on your latest trips to the UK?
I came over two years ago with a client who asked me if I could put together a little itinerary for the few days. He’s one of those guys who’s played all the top 100 courses in the world so I had to think where there are four or five courses that don’t make the list but they’re neat and kind of different from each other. So I suggested they start at St Enodoc and Westward Ho! and Saunton and Burnham & Berrow and then I tried to get them to go to Minchinhampton (Old) which is something very different. They decided they needed to get back to London and play Sunningdale instead.
So I did those and then I went to two of the courses that were on my list that I hadn’t seen, which were Minchinhampton and Cleeve Hill. They’re both crazy courses where there’s a lot of sheep dip laying around but both are very appealing to me and really different.
I really loved playing them both.
Cleeve would be harder to send someone to. Both are hard to send somebody without someone who knows the golf course at all.
Two or three people I knew had played them and thought they were cool and I really had a good time at both. There’s nothing like either one of those golf courses in the States, or really anywhere else here. They are really very different than anything I’ve seen. That’s the most attractive thing to me.
Where would you most like to play tomorrow in the British Isles?
The only part of Britain with two or three courses that I haven’t been to is over around the east side of London. Places like Knole Park and Purdis Heath. Sometimes it goes back to architects – I’ve been reading Simpson’s book.
Abercromby only designed half a dozen courses and a couple of them are gone. I’ve only seen two and I like both a lot so I’d be interested to see Knole Park.
But mostly it’s going to be about going back to favourite places and then it’s going to fall back to which one haven’t I seen for a long time.
Rye would be one. That would probably be my trip: Rye and Ashdown Forest and around Kent. I haven’t been around there in 20 years.
Woodhall Spa is your first restoration here in the British Isles. Will you do more?
Certainly as far as consulting goes. I could make a list right now of the courses I would consider consulting at and probably not many other places would convince me to come and take a look.
I really do this as a public service as much as anything else. I have a lot of respect for all the old courses. I’ve seen a lot of them messed around with over the years and not for the better.
I’m happy to help try to fix some of those things. I’m not trying to put my stamp on it. It’s more that I hope someone will treat my courses with the same respect in 50 years instead of thinking they could redesign three of the holes and make them better.
What are the plans for St Enodoc?
They’ve asked me to do a consulting report. It’s not going to lead to a project this size (at Woodhall Spa). Most of it was fine-tuning, but hopefully I’ll stay involved. It’s on the cover of one of my books because it is one of my favourite places over here.
It all depends on where I get calls from. I’ve learned not even to try to predict. When people ask me what’s the future of the golf business and what the trends are in golf architecture, it’s like you’re really asking me what’s the future of the economy and if I knew the answer to that I’d probably make a lot more money doing something else.
Now that my kids are grown it’s not as hard to work overseas. My wife would vote for me to work in Europe and never work in Asia again. So, if possible, we’re certainly open to doing more work over here.