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Review: Tom Doak’s Confidential Guide To Golf Courses



In 1988, a smack of Tom Doak’s friends had a glance at a volume he called The Confidential Guide To Golf Courses. Although the word “confidential” was placed prominently in the title, those friends didn’t exactly heed the warning and the tome gained a bit of publicity.

In that original treatise, Doak had placed a spotlight on the golf courses that made the game enjoyable for the golfing public and also presented the classic elements of design strategy. Doak also identified the architects he considered to be the true executors of those design principles. The CG was not a puff piece, mind you.

[quote_box_center]In the words of the author, the Confidential Guide “reviewed every course on its own merits, gave no free passes, and shredded the myth that hiring a big-name designer guarantees a quality product.”[/quote_box_center]

It also took to task the courses and creators that had strayed from the original notions of what golf was and is: a game played equally along the ground and in the air, over turf that allows a running shot an opportunity to access fairways and greens if the golfer is skilled enough to decode the architect’s intent.

Although the original Confidential Guide was received with disdain by architects like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and the Jones family, at the time some of the most popular choices for new-build golf courses in America, Doak did not shrink from his notions nor his rankings. Doak had initiated the original Golf Magazine ranking system, at the behest of then-editor George Peper. For the Confidential Guide, a personal system from zero to ten, known as “The Doak Scale,” was born. At the one end was the goose egg, defined like this:

[quote_box_center]A course so contrived and unnatural that it may poison your mind, which I cannot recommend under any circumstances. Reserved for courses that wasted ridiculous sums of money in their construction and probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.[/quote_box_center]

At the other end of the scale sat the perfect ten, the Nadie Comaneci of golf course architecture:

[quote_box_center]Nearly perfect. If you skipped even one hole, you would miss something worth seeing. If you haven’t seen all the courses in this category, you don’t know how good golf architecture can get. Drop the book and call your travel agent, immediately.[/quote_box_center]

To get to this point, Tom Doak had done what Pete Dye, A.W. Tillinghast and Charles Blair MacDonald, other celebrated architects from distinct eras, had done before him. He had packed a bag and traveled the finest courses of the world in order to learn. Most of us cannot imagine walking a course without playing it; for Tom Doak, it was an accepted practice. He didn’t have time to golf all of those holes, so he often settled for a walking tour.

Through the 1990s and 2000s, Doak’s due diligence paid off. His firm designed the second course (Pacific Dunes) at the Bandon Dunes resort in Oregon, one of two courses at Streamsong Resort in Florida, and a host (some 30 at last count) of the world’s newest, best courses from New Zealand to Scotland to the sand hills of Nebraska.

In the early 2010s, Doak decided to revisit the Confidential Guide. He had learned much since the mid 1980s and missed writing. His works on Alister MacKenzie and the making of a golf course echoed more distantly in his past. Doak decided to enlist the help of three respected golf architecture aficionados and off they went to research and produce the updated Confidential Guide, with a twist.

The Review

What exactly is the Decade 2010 version of the Confidential Guide to Golf Courses? To begin, it’s a five-volume series. The first volume, released in September of 2014, covers the courses of Great Britain and Ireland. Subsequent volumes will visit The Americas (winter); The Americas (summer); Europe, Middle East and Africa; and Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

The first volume measures a tidy, 180 pages and is anything but a slog through densely-written prose. The four horsemen (Doak, Golf Club Atlas website founder Ran Morrissett, Planet Golf website founder Darius Oliver and Asian golf course reviewer/editor and architectural expert Masa Nishijima) saddled their devices and rode back to the structure of the original guide. In it are these unique sections: Gourmet’s Choice, Course Reviews, The Gazetteer and Most Wanted.

Gourmet’s Choice

The GC of the CG is a group listing of the 18 courses to which Tom Doak, et al., would take a friend to play. The offerings are not always the highest-rated courses in the book, but they are all near the top. The courses combine compelling architecture, ambiance, and the unexplainable sensation of being in the proper place at the appointed hour, accompanied by the necessary people.

In the words of the author, “…the places that stir our souls, and will reward the visitor with something out of the ordinary.” As a result, courses like Ballybunion in Ireland, the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland and Royal St. George’s in England, commingle with Pennard in Wales, Royal County Down in Northern Ireland, Mildenhall in England and Askernish in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Doak describes the Royal West Norfolk club (known locally as Brancaster), the course that taught Pete Dye about railroad ties, in this manner:

[quote_box_center]It is so low-lying that the entrance drive to the club is flooded by high tides twice a day, and the members of the Royal West Norfolk club have to keep tide tables handy to know when they are free to come and go. If sea levels do continue to rise over the next fifty years, Brancaster will be one of golf’s first casualties.[/quote_box_center]

Each of the 18 courses receives a 1.5-page treatise and a hole-by-hole categorization of sorts. In the latter, Doak utilizes chess demarcations to signal a great hole (!), a one of the best in the world hole (!! and !!!), an odd/questionable hole (?) and an odd hole that turned out brilliant (!?).

Course Reviews


This is the meat of the book. The four-man coterie identified 289 courses (a lifetime of golf for me!) in Great Britain and Ireland and rated each from 0-to-10. As Tom Doak points out, for over half of the courses, the co-authors disagree with the main man. Debate is a good thing, after all. Who knew that there was a Spanish Point in Ireland, a New Zealand in England, a Cruit (pronounced ‘crutch’) Island in Ireland and a Muir of Ord or a Boat of Garten anywhere? Each co-author presents a number from 0 to 10, the order being consistent, with Doak followed by Morrissett, then Nishijima and Oliver. If one hasn’t played the course, a dash fills the void.

For consistency, the entire book is written in Tom Doak’s narrative voice. It is a soothing and direct one, with a tone that seeks to inform yet suffers no fools in any capacity. Doak has spent years being critical of his own design work and that of others. The book reflects this thought process and vision. To be fair, there is a pinch of praise for even the lowliest course, while the highest echelon (including the single course to receive 10s across the row) still manages to be kept grounded with a bit of criticism. These honest assessments leave no titans ungrazed:

[quote_box_center]Nicklaus’ web site quotes him as saying it [Gleneagles Hotel PGA Centenary course] was the finest piece of property he’d ever been given to work with; if that were true, the result would be a tremendous disappointment. Its ugly concrete cart paths will be on display to the world at the 2014 Ryder Cup.[/quote_box_center]

A subsequent assessment of Ganton Golf Club works at dispelling what it is and what it isn’t. It is this type of revelation that helps all golfers to seek out new terrain over which to test their love of the game:

[quote_box_center]Ganton is a wonderful course that was for many years overlooked due to its location and genre. It’s neither a links nor a heathland course, and describing it as “parkland” does not do justice to its firm temperment. As a non-links, it can’t host the big championships and it’s well removed from the major centers of British golf.[/quote_box_center]

What it does have, the Confidential Guide explains, are deep, well-placed bunkers, accompanied by memorable par-four holes. Whether the former or the latter, anticipate forthright sincerity throughout the tome.

The Gazetteer

Despite his connection to the original Golf Magazine Top 100 list, Tom Doak is no fan of using this technique to validate anyone’s work.

[quote_box_center]”…lists have also done a disservice to golf course architecture over the past thirty years…rankings have drawn attention to the business, but they’ve distorted the practice of golf course architecture.”[/quote_box_center]

The concerns of Doak and other current architects revolve around the need of an owner or a membership to have their course ranked by one of the magazines. Whether you see it as cart before the horse or the tail wagging the dog, it’s a simple as the case of the student who worries more about the grade than the knowledge.

The Gazetteer, therefore, is a sequence without rankings, of clubhouses and their modest, their lunches and their settings. Also found are accommodations, including on-site dormy houses, nearby resorts, and course conditioning (both natural and human-aided). It is the courses themselves that receive the most diverse categorization, from bumpiest contours (this is where golf was born, after all), artistic routings, best bunker names and the expected delineation of fun, difficulty, wide and slender.

And in case it’s your thing, you can also travel to the 10 courses where you’re most likely to hit an animal…

Most Wanted

Although this impregnable quadrilateral of golf architecture doyens appears to have seen (or built) every golf course around the world, it hasn’t. Each of the contributors has yearnings (in this case, 10 of them) and they let us in on their hidden desires. Most surprising are the fact that Tom Doak wants to see the Welsh Ryder Cup course at Celtic Manor; that Ran Morrissett hasn’t seen Doak’s sole Scottish course (the Renaissance Club) or the New Course at St. Andrews (which is still 120 years old); that Masa Nishijima’s resume has a gaping English void; and that Darius Oliver hopes to one day get to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

This might be the depressing part of your read of this volume. If you’ve traveled to (or live in) Great Britain and Ireland, you’ll quickly come to understand how well-read (or well-played, or well-traveled) this group is. They get around. Don’t let this get you down. Live vicariously through their experiences and connect the features of the courses you typically play with the ones detailed in here. You might discover that your local muni has a connection with Royal Dornoch (as is the case with the Mark Twain golf course in Elmira, New York) or that your home club was designed by the same architect who built a course listed among the Gourmet’s Choice. Perhaps you’ll even find encouragement to travel; the private clubs of Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are much more open to visitors than are U.S. clubs.

Final Thoughts

It is nice (albeit jarring) to read one man’s pure, undriven opinions on golf courses and their architecture. Tom Doak does not seek out controversy, but neither does he shy away from its eruption from honest discourse. After scalding Jack Nicklaus’ architecture in the original CG, the Golden Bear and Doak ended up working together on Sebonack (site of the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open) in a delicious irony for some. The result was that each architect took something away from the other, some nuance that had been previously unconsidered.

In the first volume of the new CG, Doak gives design rival David Kidd’s Castle Course at St. Andrews a zero, although it’s hard to understand why, as he expresses sympathy for the Scotsman while simultaneously gutting him numerically. Soon after the release of volume one of the new Confidential Guide, Mike Keiser of Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links fame announced that Kidd (and not Doak) would build the second course at Sand Valley in Wisconsin.

To be sure, the words of Tom Doak, et al., in The Confidential Guide To Golf Courses, Volume 1 2014, won’t please nor satisfy many of his architectural colleagues. The ASCGA (American Society of Golf Course Architects) has in place a mandate that society members will not criticize the work nor methods of their fellows. Since Tom Doak never joined the ASCGA, he is free to espouse as he chooses. If you ask, “what gives him the right to sound off in this manner?” you won’t be alone. You can and should disagree, but be prepared to substantiate your position. If you choose to walk away from the conversation or the debate, you’ve missed the point of the books.

It’s a bit much to ask the world’s golfing population to care about golf course architecture in the same way that its principles and its aficionados do. Visit the Golf Club Atlas web site if you wish to see how enthusiastic this latter bunch is. Doak holds the GCA brethren in such high regard that he is a regular participant in the site’s discussion group. Imagine that: a golf course architect who interacts online with the people who pay to play his courses. Talk about a total-access package.

However, it is books like the Confidential Guide that bring us neophytes and novices that much closer to the preparations and underpinnings of the courses we trod and golf. Sleeping Bear Press (the great golf publishing house of the 1990s) and its successor, ClockTower Press, are gone now a decade. Take great golf works when you can find them! In this one’s case, you can put your hands on the first now, with the anticipation of four more to come.

For information on the new Confidential Guide To Golf Courses series, visit the Renaissance Golf website.

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Ronald Montesano writes for from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.



  1. don davis

    Jan 3, 2015 at 1:39 am

    The more you know the greater the fun in golf. The site Golf Club Atlas is a fantastic must read for all golfers. I love Ran and all the guys there. I have had some my greatest memories on golf courses that were horrible. It is still golf . Tee it up, watch it fly and go hit it again . Thank God for the Tom Doaks of the world who keep golf the greatest game in the world.

    • Ronald Montesano

      Jan 3, 2015 at 5:39 am

      I suspect that one of the goals of the authors is to bring an appreciation for classic architecture to readers who aren’t aware of the game’s true origins. If it helps unwitting club chairs to fell some trees and make life easier for the greenkeepers, then it is a win.

  2. Chuck

    Jan 3, 2015 at 12:29 am

    This is always fun, for us happy owners of an original singed Sleeping Bear Press edition; a check of what they are going for on Amazon:

    • Chuck

      Jan 3, 2015 at 12:46 am

      Uh, “signed,” not “singed.” A “singed” copy might only be worth a couple hundred bucks, what with smelling like smoke and all.

      By the way, all; for those who know the original book and those who’e never heard of it (it is true legend in golf architecture circles), one of the great joys of the book isn’t any particular ranking or Doak Scale number(s). Rather, the joy is Tom’s terse, delightfully descriptive prose. I’m not so certain his tastes and mine are exactly the same, but his judgment is nearly unerring when it comes to defining good qualities in a golf course or even an entire golf club. I literally keep my copy in a bedside table and I pick it up to re-read portions almost every month of the year.

      It’s a book that has given thousands of hours of joy and enlightenment to thousands of golfers.

      • Ronald Montesano

        Jan 3, 2015 at 7:35 am


        I’m sure that a singed copy, if recorded, would fetch something on the open market.

        It’s a sign of hope when tastes don’t necessarily align, yet the discussion and mutual respect function in a civil manner. I hope that we continue to read of your tastes in the comment boxes of WRX.

  3. Ronald Montesano

    Jan 2, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Written like a true Jones, Bubba. No matter who writes the review of these books, no matter the site, volume or show, the frankness, the candor of their narrative voice will always be mentioned.

    Since the life span of the “profession” is often discussed in certain circles, how long do you think it will continue as a profession? The restoration cycle will run its course and the available land will eventually be used up. What then?

    • Ronald Montesano

      Jan 2, 2015 at 6:34 pm

      I have heard that there is a movement afoot, directed toward the classic values and worth of more natural golf courses. The British isles might be the fortunate place, as its courses were built before modern technology offered the notion of earth moving and shaping. That might be why the typical scores on the scale were in the 5-9 range. We should see more in the 0-4 range once the Gang of Four gets to the colonies.

      I don’t agree that there will always be land. The sad part will be when the courses that served the lower and middle classes are paved over, while the ultra-private reserves receive a variance. For golf to succeed as anything beyond a niche sport, it needs to have the participation of these other classes.

  4. Ronald Montesano

    Jan 1, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Thanks to dead-eye Thomas Dai, we’re changing the location of Cruit Island to Ireland, where it belongs.

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Barnbougle Lost Farm: 20 Holes of Pure Joy



Another early day in Tasmania, and we were exploring the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-design, Barnbougle Lost Farm. The course was completed in 2010, four years after the neighbor Barnbougle Dunes, resulting in much excitement in the world of golf upon opening.

Johan and I teed off at 10 a.m. to enjoy the course at our own pace in its full glory under clear blue skies. Barnbougle Lost Farm starts out quite easy, but it quickly turns into a true test of links golf. You will certainly need to bring some tactical and smart planning in order to get close to many of the pin positions.

The third hole is a prime example. With its sloping two-tiered green, it provides a fun challenge and makes you earn birdie — even if your tee and approach shots put you in a good position. This is one of the things I love about this course; it adds a welcome dimension to the game and something you probably don’t experience on most golf courses.

(C) Jacob Sjöman.

The 4th is an iconic signature hole called “Sals Point,” named after course owner Richard Sattler’s wife (she was hoping to build a summer home on the property before it was turned into a golf course). A strikingly beautiful par-3, this hole is short in distance but guarded with luring bunkers. When the prevailing northwesterly wind comes howling in from the ocean, the hole will leave you exposed and pulling out one of your long irons for the tee shot. We left No. 4 with two bogeys with a strong desire for revenge.

Later in the round, we notice our scorecard had a hole numbered “13A” just after the 13th. We then noticed there was also an “18A.” That’s because Barnbougle Lost Farm offers golfers 20 holes. The designers believed that 13A was “too good to leave out” of the main routing, and 18A acts as a final betting hole to help decide a winner if you’re left all square. And yes, we played both 13A and 18A.

I need to say I liked Lost Farm for many reasons; it feels fresh and has some quirky holes including the 5th and the breathtaking 4th. The fact that it balks tradition with 20 holes is something I love. It also feels like an (almost) flawless course, and you will find new things to enjoy every time you play it.

The big question after trying both courses at Barnbougle is which course I liked best. I would go for Barnbougle Dunes in front of Barnbougle Lost Farm, mostly because I felt it was more fun and offered a bigger variation on how to play the holes. Both courses are great, however, offering really fun golf. And as I wrote in the first part of this Barnbougle-story, this is a top destination to visit and something you definitely need to experience with your golf friends if you can. It’s a golfing heaven.

Next course up: Kingston Heath in Melbourne.

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Barnbougle Dunes: World Class Golf



We arrived to Launceston Airport in Tasmania just before sunset. Located on the Northeast Coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania, Barnbougle is almost as far from Sweden as it gets… yet it immediately felt like home when we arrived.

Launceston Airport, Tasmania. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

The drive from the airport was just over an hour, taking us through deep forests and rolling hills before we arrived to Barnbougle Golf Resort, which consists of two courses — The Dunes and Lost Farm — a lodge, two restaurants, a sports bar and a spa. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and we couldn’t see much of the two courses on our arrival. I would like to add that both Johan and I were extremely excited about visiting this golf mecca. We later enjoyed a tasty dinner at the Barnbougle Lost Farm Restaurant before we called it a day.

The locals at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

The next day, we woke up early and got out to The Dunes Course as very first guests out. Well, to be quite honest, we weren’t actually the first out. There were a few locals — Wallabies, lots of them — already out on the course. The natural landscape at Barnbougle is fantastic and my cameras almost overheated with the photo opportunities. After two intense hours of recording videos and producing photos both from ground, we headed back to Lost Farm for a wonderful breakfast (and view). After our breakfast, it was time to try our luck.

“Tom’s Little Devil.” Hole No.7 at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

Before describing our experience playing the courses, I would like to mention about Richard Sattler, a potato farmer and owner of Barnbougle. In the early 2000’s, Richard was introduced to U.S. golfing visionary Mike Keiser, who had heard about his amazing stretch of farmland in Tasmania and came down to visit. Mike convinced Richard that Barnbougle (which at that stage was a potato farm and still grows potatoes and raises cattle today) might be perfect for creating a top quality golf course.

After an introduction to well renowned golf architect Tom Doak and the formation of a partnership with former Australian golf pro and golf architect Mike Clayton, the development of the Barnbougle Dunes Course commenced.

The walk between the 4th and 5th holes. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

Featuring large bunkers dotted between fun rolling fairways shaped from the coastal dunes, Barnbougle Dunes offers the golfer some tough challenges, in particular on the first nine. This is indeed a course that will entertain all kinds of golfers.

After our round, we looked back at some fantastic highlights such as playing the iconic 7th hole, a short par-3 called ”Tom’s Little Devil,” as well as the beautiful par-4 15th. We were just two big walking smiles sitting there in the restaurant to be honest. Lets also not forget one of the biggest (and deepest) bunkers I’ve seen at the 4th hole. The name of the bunker is “Jaws.” Good times!

As a small surprise for Johan, I had arranged a meeting after our round with Richard Sattler. Richard, ever the farmer, entered the car parking just in front of the clubhouse in a white pick-up van with a big smile un his face. We talked to Richard for almost 30 minutes. He is an extremely humble man and left such a warm impression on us. Richard explained the Barnbougle story: how it all began and the property today.

To me, this is a high-end golf destination offering something very unique with two world-class courses in Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm, both ranked in the top-100 greatest golf courses by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine (U.S.). With the courses located just next to each other, it’s probably one of the best golf resorts you can find down under and a golf resort that I would like bring my hardcore golfing friends to visit. Everything here is exceptional with the resort providing spacious rooms, comfy beds, good food and spectacular views.

(C) Jacob Sjöman.

Barnbougle Dunes is a real treat to play for any golfer and will leave you with a sweet golfing memory. Compared to the golf courses available on the more remote King Island, Barnbougle is accessible (given Tasmania is connected by better flight connections) and the hospitality and service at is much more refined.

The golf resort is one of the absolute best I’ve been to. I can also highly recommend playing Barnbougle Dunes; I had great fun and you can play it in many ways. Tomorrow, we will be playing and experiencing the other course at Barnbougle: Barnbougle Lost Farm, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course with 20 (!) holes.

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Ocean Dunes: Golfing in the Wild Waves



On the last day on King Island, we were excited to see what its other golf course had to offer. While we first missed the small entrance to Ocean Dunes from the road, we finally got it right and approached the course on a small gravel road taking us up to the golf club parking.

When we walked from the car parking heading down to the temporary club house, we were facing large dunes and a beautiful big ocean. “What a site for a golf course!” That was our first impression. And after a quick look out on the short par-3 down below us, we knew that this would be a good day.

The iconic 4th hole. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

Ocean Dunes opened in September 2016 and is designed by Graeme Grant. It’s actually for sale at the moment, and if I had the money I would honestly consider buying it. It’s currently ranked as the fourth best public golf course in Australia. We met one from the staff before our round, and she told us that Ocean Dunes is like Barnbougle Dunes on steroids. Although we haven’t reached Barnbougle yet, we immediately understood that this was a good thing.

No. 3, a tough par 4 (C) Jacob Sjöman.

We later played 18 holes, and we were almost alone out on the course. I love that feeling when you’re able to play in your own pace and don’t have to wait. Just hit, look and plan for your next shot. It was a very windy day, and it wasn’t in the normal wind direction. A lot of our approach shots just wouldn’t stop on the firm greens.

Waves crashing in behind Johan. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

My highlight from Ocean Dunes was definitely the fourth hole, a lovely and beautiful par-3 where the big waves crashed in. It has a Cypress Point vibe about it. I also enjoyed playing the third hole, a long par-4 (425 meters) that runs just next to the ocean with a tricky fairway sloping down toward the ocean. It all ends with a very complex green. It’s a great challenge from the backtees.

Sunset highlighting the shapes of Ocean Dunes (C) Jacob Sjöman.

Overall, I would describe Ocean Dunes as a challenging, risk-reward course. It’s a bold and perfect complement to Cape Wickham Links on King Island. At Ocean Dunes, there are 17 holes with water views. All 18 holes have bent grass greens and a lot of variation. They’re highly memorable. We truly enjoyed our round and had a lot of fun. But if you’re able to visit King Island, it’s not fair not to treat yourself just to one course. You need to play both Cape Wickham Links and Ocean Dunes.

The 7th green. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

The next destination for us will be Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm in Tasmania. They’re two world-class courses that looks amazing in the photos I’ve seen so far. I can’t wait to get there and share our experience. We will also meet the owner himself, the potato farmer Richard Sattler. Don’t miss it!


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19th Hole