Why We Are Different

By Tom Doak

We're different. So are our golf courses. Different from what most other designers are building these days, and even different from one another.

Different is good. Whether you're building a private club, a resort, or a new daily fee golf course, you want something which will set it apart so golfers are curious to play it. But still more important, you want a course which will entice them to come back again, and one which makes economic sense for both player and developer.

Golfers judge great courses not by how well they conform to some set of standards, but by their differences. Too many architects are concerned with championship 7,000-yard courses, apparently unaware that the majority of major championship venues and Top 100 courses ignore that standard. The only thing great courses have in common is that each possesses a character all its own.

So, our goal is to build courses that develop their own identities. Why should that be so hard? Every property is different as God made it, so that's the best place to start. By utilizing the terrain to the greatest possible extent, the course naturally becomes different than any other. We believe it would be counterproductive to develop a signature style for every job, and foolish to limit ourselves artistically.

Ultimately, though, it's human touches which add personality, so to achieve our goal we believe that we have to operate differently than our contemporaries. Once-a-week visits to the site during construction don't allow much time to apply creativity to the land. The best designs take time to evolve. Many of our best ideas have come while we were on the equipment building them, thinking about the task at hand -- and you can't get more efficient than that. So we put people on-site who want to add detail while they're keeping track of progress. Tom Doak visits the projects for 3-4 days at a time, to immerse himself in the work. And we try to involve our clients in the process up front. We hope to be smarter and more creative than our competitors, but our successes have come from working harder and caring more about the product we put forth.

G O L F   F I R S T

The most wasteful part of modern golf architecture is that so much money is spent moving earth where it doesn't come into play -- for mounding to separate holes. Contouring of greens and bunkers fits the course to the landscape and gives the greatest impact, because it differentiates the holes for the golfer. We prefer to spend our clients' money on things that are part of the game.


Minimalism in golf design is a guiding philosophy, based on the founding principle of early golf: we play the ball as it lies. The minimalist's objective is simply to route as many holes as possible whose main features already exist in the landscape, and accent their strategies without over killing the number of hazards.

Sometimes, though, the best solution for the course as a whole will require major earthmoving on a handful of holes to connect the others. That's minimalism, too. Fortunately, our past experience with large earthmoving projects has taught us to find the most cost-effective solutions to problems, while learning the tricks to conceal our work and make these holes look natural. In general, though, the minimalist will move earth to reduce severe slopes, not to create them.

The minimalist philosophy of golf is, live and let live. The purpose of design is not to punish bad shots with hazards, for that would make the game unrelenting for the average golfer. Instead, we dare players to make great shots, then sit back and watch both hubris and cowardice takes their toll. Our greatest satisfaction may be in arranging a green cleverly so that the good player who plays overly safe finds himself with a difficult angle to the hole.

How do you find a true minimalist? Ask him what he does when he has nothing to work with. Whereas many architects look at a flat area and think they must build mountains, the minimalist can always find something in the situation -- whether it's the surrounding vegetation, the length of the hole, the direction of the wind, or just a small hump -- and expand upon that to create an interesting golf hole.

N O   M O U N D S

Many great courses -- Merion, Pine Valley, Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills -- have survived without any features which could be called mounding in the modern sense. It was the bunkers and greens styles that set architects of that era apart, not their mounding.

Much of the problem is that the shapers who build today's courses try to provide the total solution to the design, but they're only working with dirt. Other things, such as trees, shrubs, native grasses, and gentle swales or ridges, add definition but look more natural. Often, in fact, vegetation eventually covers up and softens the original earthworks. So why build mounds at all?

O U R   G U A R A N T E E

One of the greatest joys of our work is returning to play our creations, to see that they play as intended, and to learn from our experiments. We also try to maintain a relationship with the superintendent and professional so that they appreciate the intent of the design, as the course evolves through the years. We're not so famous yet that you need to pay us a personal appearance fee to get us to visit.

In fact, if work is ever necessary to one of our courses -- adding or expanding tees, for example -- we provide the service for expenses only, as Doak's mentor Pete Dye does. But thanks to our construction attention, we're confident there won't be many mistakes to correct.

W H A T   M A K E S   A   G R E A T   C O U R S E ?

Tom Doak has been involved with the magazine rankings of 100 Greatest Courses for years, but the more he's been involved, the less he's come to believe any list means. There are many more than 100 courses around the world which he'd be proud to call his own, and to which he'd look forward to returning -- and that's the ultimate test of success.

What sets these courses apart? Well, every truly great course has its own special something, but it usually comes from some combination of these factors:

Finding unique holes in the topography of the site.

Great greens

Great bunkers

Interesting strategy or style

Atmosphere and native character

But in nearly every case, these attributes can be traced back to two things:

A motivated and talented construction crew

Attention to detail by the architect and/or owner.

I've yet to see a great course, or even a great green complex, which was built exclusively from the plans; the best designs evolve from the site, with the crew actively thinking about the design while they're physically making the hole.


In our travels we've identified more than a dozen unique styles of bunkering that added greatly to a particular course; and we've honed our talents by imitating several different styles in our restoration work.

Philosophically, we lean toward sand-faced bunkers because they can provide a greater variety of looks and of recovery shots. But we don't have one style we prefer: our choice depends on the kind of course we want to create in a given situation, and the client's preference.

There's much argument among architects about what style of bunker is easiest to maintain, but our experience shows that argument to be a waste of time: grass banks and sand faces cost about the same to maintain, in different ways, and bunkers represent only a small fraction of the overall operating budget. High-maintenance bunkers are the result of depth and drama, of which every course wants at least a little. We have created courses with the most dramatic bunkering seen in years -- Black Forest and Stonewall -- but we understand that not every site needs that sort of drama.

The real key to cost-effective bunkering is making every one count in the strategy of the hole -- to influence the line of play for some group of players. Bunkers to the sides of a straight fairway may punish a wayward shot, but seldom make the player think; we prefer to build holes where the line of sight to the green is complicated by potential trouble.

G I V I N G   T H E   P L A Y E R   A   L O T   O F   R O P E

One of the ironies of golf is that while bad players are too bold for their own good, the best players are unusually conservative in guarding against a high score. When Doak worked for Pete Dye, he observed that surrounding a green with trouble was counterproductive at the highest level: it forced the Tour players to aim straight at the pin, and those on their games would shoot lower scores as a result.

Most of our holes and green complexes offer a safe side, or bail-out area -- not just because it gives the poor player somewhere realistic to shoot, but because it lures good players to play safe instead of go for the pin, and puts the meek in their proper place between the mighty and the foolish. It also makes everyone grip the club more tightly when we finally confront them with a hole that demands a confident shot.

W H O   K N O W S   W H A T   S H O T   V A L U E S   A R E ?

This term is so misunderstood! Several people we've met seem to think it means that every bad shot should have immediate consequences -- and the more severe, the better. We subscribe more to the values of the great amateur, Bobby Jones:

"There are two ways of widening the gap between a good tee shot and a bad one. . . . The other is to reward the good shot by making the second shot simpler in proportion to the excellence of the first. The reward may be of any nature, but it is more commonly one of four -- a better view of the green, an easier angle from which to attack a slope, open approaches past guarding hazards, or even a better run to the tee shot itself. But the elimination of purely punitive hazards provides an opportunity for the player to retrieve his situation by an exceptional second shot."

The fact that a good player may occasionally get away with a wild shot is not a detriment. It's the very same thing that makes the course playable and enjoyable for the less skilled.

And yet, we also believe that the greens should be designed so that birdies are hard-earned: that to get close to the hole should sometimes require more than simply a high, straight shot of the right length, but a controlled shot such as a fade, draw, or run-up. Again, to quote Jones on the design of Augusta National:

     "We think that to play two good shots on a par-four hole and then to hole a ten-foot putt on a dead-level green is not enough. If the player is to beat par, we should like to ask him to hit a truly fine second shot right up against the flag or to hole a putt of more than a little difficulty."

Naturally, this sort of situation causes some to complain that a hole is unfair because it refuses to yield to their perfect shot. Eventually, they will learn that there is more than one kind of shot in the game, and the best players are those who can call upon each when the situation warrants.

G R E E N   C O M P L E X E S

The most important part of the golf course is not simply the green, but also the area around it, which determines what kind of approach shots will be best rewarded and what difficulties will await the rest. Combined, green and approach count for three-fourths of the scoring of the scratch player.

We believe that nearly every green complex should have a bail-out area to which the player out of position may aim, offering not an easy up-and-down situation, but a small chance for par and a fairly broad path for bogey. At the same time, I believe every green complex should have an area from which getting up and down may be reasonably easy, and another from which it is very, very difficult -- so that the player who knows the course can steer clear of the most severe penalties.

On too many modern courses, the entire area around the green transitions abruptly either up into mounding or down into a bunker, a design that quickly becomes monotonous. This is silly in flat surroundings: a bit of rough at the same level as the green is plenty of challenge, if the green tilts away from the shot.

By contrast, contouring the approach to the green adds great interest for those players who are constantly hitting long approaches home. Indeed, it is often possible to provide favorable bounces for these players, without making the hole easier for low-handicap golfers who prefer to fly the ball all the way to the target regardless.

U S I N G   E V E R Y   C L U B   I N   T H E   B A G

We've looked long and hard through old architecture books to try and find whom first espoused this ideal of design, without success. The old designers just didn't think this way. They were trying to create something more -- a variety of shots.

It's obvious, on reflection, why Donald Ross didn't spend much time worrying about the graduated length of his par-four holes. "I myself have never used more than six clubs in a round of golf," Ross wrote about the rule passed in the 1930's to restrict the number of clubs. Matched sets of clubs only came to the fore after the Second World War -- before that, no one worried.

The only reason to achieve different yardages for each hole on the course is because you want to confront every player at the limit of their range, and players are different. But it's a fallacy to presume to design a green for a 7-iron approach, because a strong wind or a less-than-solid drive or a short hitter will produce a different situation. Very long and very short par-4's give the most interest to the most players: a key lesson from the designs of Alister Mackenzie and Pete Dye.

T O U G H   B U T   F A I R

In our office, fair is a four-letter word, a synonym for another four-letter word we equally despise -- dull. If the course was scrupulously fair, those with the best swings would always win, while the average 18-handicap would suffer in Purgatory -- briefly, before they quit the game entirely.

Nothing is fair in life, nor should it be in golf. Indeed, the most telling and memorable episodes are when someone is confronted with a bad break, and forced to respond. That's what creates heroes, so a great course should confront the better players, too -- after all, they're the ones who are supposed to be able to handle it. Simple efficiency shouldn't be the standard for the game; emotion is an integral element.

W H Y   U S ?

There's a lot of competition in the design world today. Not just among the American Society of Golf Architects, either. Everyone would love to do this job, and many of them would jump at the slightest opportunity: everyone who ever worked in another designer's office [if two guys who used to work for me have already hung out their own shingle, imagine how many there must be all told!] every golf course contractor a lot of golf pros, Touring or otherwise, insurance salesmen, executives, and assorted golf fanatics who just love golf and want to try out their ideas on design.

Some of these people would probably produce a better golf course than some career golf architects, because they'd put more of their heart and soul and time and effort into the job. But it would undoubtedly cost a lot more to get finished, because they didn't have the experience to foresee the problems they'd encounter during construction. Unlike building a bridge, getting a golf course started is easy -- finishing it is what's hard. And you shouldn't be risking your investment on someone with no track record.