A new approach: an interview with Tom Doak

  • Tom Doak
    Doug White

    Tom Doak is trying to find a new way of working

  • Tom Doak
    Ricky Robinson

    He spent one long stay in New Zealand for the shaping of his course at Te Arai

  • Tom Doak
    Ricky Robinson

    The course is expected to be complete in early 2023

  • Tom Doak
    Brandon Carter

    Doak used technology extensively to complete the Lido course at Sand Valley Golf Resort, and has now turned his attention to the resort’s new Sedge Valley layout (pictured)

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Change is life’s only constant, but it is always challenging to implement. The longer you have been doing something one way, and the more successful you have been doing it, the harder it is to change. Which is why golf architect Tom Doak’s current plan is so ambitious.

Doak has been designing golf courses for over thirty years – his first solo design, High Pointe in northern Michigan, opened in 1989. And since High Pointe – for which he personally shaped most of the greens – Doak has basically employed the same construction model, best defined as ‘design and shape’. In short, this means that by providing his own shapers to construct greens, bunkers, and do any necessary small-scale fairway grading work, the architect maintains direct control over the final appearance of the golf course, rather than handing over responsibility for construction to a principal contractor (though he eschews full scale design and build, passing over responsibility for bulk earthmoving where necessary and specialist work such as irrigation installation). Doak’s four key design associates, who live on site and run his jobs, have been with him for around twenty years and more, and even among the ranks of his regular shapers, there are names that go back many years. It is a remarkably consistent model in an industry that has changed considerably during the same period, especially in the aftermath of the 2007/08 global recession. And, as the firm’s list of courses proves, it has been extremely effective.

Essentially, therefore, the Doak model has been that the principal himself focuses his attention (once a job has been secured, which is obviously mostly his responsibility) on finalising the course routing. He is known to route, initially at least, primarily from topographic maps – in contrast to his friend Bill Coore, who is famous for routings that came about as a result of weeks tramping across the site. Routing is the core of golf design, and the best golf architects are almost always the best routers. “I spend nearly all of my time on my own projects on getting the plan of the holes together and working on the greens complexes. I probably spend 85 per cent of my time on those things,” Doak says. “All of my associates, I know they are pretty good at greens shaping, but I don’t know how good they are at doing a routing plan.” In other circumstances, one might have expected more of Doak’s long-term associates to follow Jim Urbina out of the door and hang up their own shingle, but as he himself notes, staying as part of the mothership has not been a bad gig for the last twenty years, and, especially given the ups and downs of the golf design industry, who’s to say how they would have done on their own?

But now, Doak is rethinking his model. Recently turned sixty, he is keen to reduce his fearsome travel schedule – the enforced reduction in travel during the Covid pandemic proved to him that it could be done. And his current project with regular client Mike Keiser, the construction of a course based on CB Macdonald’s lost Lido course, on a site near the Sand Valley resort in Wisconsin, has showed him that other ways exist to get what he wants.

“I only made two big trips in 2020, one in the summer, one in the fall. When the pandemic hit, we were in the middle of St Patrick’s, but luckily I had been there to see almost all the greens shaped the previous year. The only problem with our existing model is that the amount of travel it requires limits how many projects I can do,” he says. “MacKenzie got away with going to Australia once, leaving plans, because it took him six weeks to get there. But when we have done projects a long way from home in the past, we have resourced them in broadly the same way as our US courses – with associates in full-time attendance and me there regularly. The change – which I haven’t completely finalised yet – was a reaction to Te Arai and also to the way we used technology to do Lido.”

Doak’s team is currently wrapping up the Te Arai project near to his existing Tara Iti course in New Zealand’s North Island, and that has been the main test bed for his new travel plans. Rather than making several short trips to Te Arai, with the aim of approving three or four holes on each trip, he has only had one, longer stay in New Zealand. “For Te Arai, we shaped everything while I was there,” he says. “I even had time to shape a couple of greens myself! I really enjoy doing that, but it’s never made sense for me for the last twenty-five years because I have guys around me who do it quicker. In the States, it doesn’t make sense to go for a month or two, but I do think it worked in New Zealand – where I spent fifty days as opposed to the thirty I would normally. There was no time pressure to get four holes done this week before I leave, so you could put something off for a while if you didn’t like how it was turning out. My wife was with me and I had some days off.

“Having the time to get on the bulldozer myself didn’t make the project worse. I had time to do all the things I wanted to do, and I’m very confident that when I do go back I won’t get any unpleasant surprises or have too much to do.”

As far as the Lido project is concerned, the plan of the course had been painstakingly assembled on computer by enthusiast Peter Flory. As the idea of the project is to replicate the course in its entirety, much of the shaping work has been done using GPS-enabled bulldozers. In normal circumstances this would be anathema to Doak – “I told Jim Urbina twenty-five years ago that if I ever try to approve something by digital photo, he had permission to shoot me,” he says – but this case is different. He’s still adamantly opposed to approving shaping from long distance, saying: “My big thing is the greens. I still want to see them get shaped. Two inches matters, and you’re not going to see that on a construction photo from far away. That part of the creation is sculpture, and sculpture by remote control doesn’t appeal to me.”

Doak’s unusual ‘semi-detached’ role in Zac Blair’s Tree Farm project in South Carolina has also been an opportunity to test new methods of working. Blair hired Doak to provide a routing for the Tree Farm course, while working with Kye Goalby actually to build the course. “I had an arrangement that I would do the routing and visit once, but leave Zac and the associate to get on with the rest of it,” he says. “I’m curious to see how I feel about it when it is done.”

It is, of course, Doak’s clients who will have the final say over whether any new construction model works or doesn’t. Will clients object if they start seeing less of the boss? “I haven’t really talked about it with my clients – they know that, when push comes to shove, I will be there,” he says. “If I’m really busy and can’t be there so much, they won’t be paying so much. If I get pushback, I will tell them firstly ‘I told you upfront this is how we work’ and secondly ‘I really trust these guys I have been working with for many years’.”

Doak has also stepped back from his consulting work at existing courses, something that has been part of his business since the start. Is he finally done with consulting? “Almost,” he says. “I’m still signed up to do whatever we’re going to do at Crooked Stick. I spent time there with Mr Dye, I know a couple of the members well and they really want me to. I never say never, but it’s really unlikely I would take on any more.

“We are tremendously busy right now, but almost all our work is in the US. The one thing in the business I was unprepared for was that things are really booming in the US at the moment, and the big names from ten years ago – Palmer, Dye, Nicklaus – are gone, or basically gone. I’m signed up right now for way more than I can do. In the past, we have got really busy, and while we’ve been busy I’ve had no time to go meet prospective clients. I’m focusing all my energy on the things I like to do most. The advantage of technology is that it means I don’t have to make such frequent trips to conform to the construction schedule; I can go and build holes when it suits the rest of my schedule, and have confidence that if anything gets blown away, there is the ability to put it back just like I last saw it. If you can’t live with ups and downs, this is a very tough business to be in.”

This article first appeared in the October 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.