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.

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.”

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:

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.

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

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.

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:

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.

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

TomDoak

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:

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.

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:

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.

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.

“…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.”

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 GolfWRX.com 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.

8 COMMENTS

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  1. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

      • Chuck,

        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.

  2. 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?

    • 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.

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