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The New Golf Architecture

Both the grin and the words emphasized the boyishness in Doak. Though he is now forty-two, with a few gray hairs, he projects nothing of the dour mien of a Donald Ross. In warmer weather, he likes to wear vintage baseball caps, and an unruly forelock protrudes from under them, making him look like the suburban junior high school kid he was when he first started sketching imaginary golf holes on the covers of his loose-leaf binders.

His daydreams originated when he was ten years old, on a family trip to Hilton Head, where Doak played on a course for the first time. More importantly to him, he picked up a booklet by the golf writer Charles Price that explained the strategic values built into Hilton Head's then-new Harbour Town layout by its designers, Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus. "It said things like, 'On the second hole you want to drive it left because if you go right you get blocked out by trees.' That was the first thing I read about golf course architecture," Doak recalled. "It was very simple, and it made sense. I could understand it."

Doak was hooked on course design the way some kids get hooked on model airplanes or playing the guitar. He began studying it. He got a copy of the World Atlas of Golf, a reference work on courses and architects. "By the time I was fourteen, I pretty much had that memorized," he said.

Enrolling at Cornell, Doak discovered there was no major in golf course architecture, so he designed one, comprising subjects from engineering to horticulture. When he wasn't taking courses, he was scrutinizing them. He recalled foregoing graduation parties so that he could drive to Michigan to see and play a then-neglected Alister MacKenzie course, Crystal Downs. On the way back, he stopped in Ohio to check out Muirfield Village.

Degree in hand, Doak took off for Scotland, hoping to get a job on the grounds crew at St. Andrews. But unemployment was high in Britain at the time, and there was no way for an American to get a salaried job. So Doak worked as an apprentice caddie, taking the bags the regular caddies didn't want. It gave him a chance to study the Old Course in varying weather, with players of varying skills. He came to marvel at the way the course made use of the land. "It's the most complicated strategic golf course in the world, bar none," he said.

Once he felt he had learned what the Old Course had to teach, Doak embarked on a tour of the best 170 courses of the British Isles. He visited some because they were famous and some because he heard they had an interesting hole or two. He came away with a renewed reverence for traditional design and the conviction that a golf course ought to require the widest possible variety of shots from those who play it. These beliefs would become his career.

Doak's first job in golf architecture was operating a bulldozer for Pete Dye. After a couple of years, Dye let Doak come inside. There, in the early '80s, he did some of the planning work for PGA West. But the relationship had its limitations. "Pete doesn't like the people who work for him to ask a whole lot of questions about why he's doing it the way he is," said Doak. "That drives him crazy. He'd rather be thinking about the next hole. I bugged him because I asked too many questions."

By the end of 1985, after three years with Dye, Doak decided it was time to go off on his own. It was risky. During the first six months of self-employment, he found exactly zero design work. He passed the time collating the notes he'd made about golf courses. Eventually, they became a booklet that he circulated among friends. The booklet, in turn, evolved into a book called The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses (Sleeping Bear Press, 1996), an enormously influential volume particularly notable for its blunt and irreverent views. (Of Arnold Palmer's Tralee Golf Club, for example, Doak wrote, "Some good land was wasted here." He dismissed Jack Nicklaus's Long Bay Club in Myrtle Beach as "about the lamest of Jack's designs that I've seen.")

Marketing his services, however, continued to prove difficult. "I'm an introvert. I'm not a very good salesman," he said. He got his first job in 1987, a course called High Pointe, in Michigan, because of a referral from a friend. Slowly, he accumulated a portfolio of finished work that could speak for his skills.

By happenstance and choice, Doak developed a reputation as a "minimalist" architect. In simple terms, this meant that he tended to move less dirt in the construction of his courses than did many contemporary architects. In part, this was because the first developers to hire him didn't want to spend a lot of money on construction, and in part it was because the courses Doak admired were built before bulldozers, when architects designed holes to be formed by teams of mules pulling scrapers.

Successful minimalism, however, requires maximal forethought. It requires an intimate knowledge of the property, because the architect must make use of every advantageous feature the land provides. Nine months prior to the trip on which I accompanied him, Doak had visited the Kilshannig Cross site briefly, and sat down with a topo map and roughly sketched two different potential routings, one in red and one in green, for eighteen holes. But that just wasn't enough planning for good minimalism. Within minutes of stepping onto the property for the second time, Doak began to see places where other ideas might work better.


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