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Tom Doak, founder of Renaissance Golf Design Inc. in Traverse City, has made the quantum leap from local designer to one of the most famous names in the business, known for his minimalist approach. Jason Deegan caught up with the globe-trotting designer who has crafted 22 new courses in places like New Zealand, Australia, New York, California and beyond.

 

MG: How did you get your start in golf design?
TD: “I got interested in the subject seeing great courses as a kid, and thinking they were way different than the little public course in Connecticut I grew up on. When I turned 17, I wrote letters to anybody I could in the golf business, trying to learn all I could.”

MG: Talk about your early days trying to get into the business.
TD: “I had a lot of help. When I was writing letters in the 1980s, it wasn’t the high profile business as it is these days. The architects I was writing were happy that someone was interested and contacting them. I got a lot of great advice from people. I got to see a lot of the great courses in the world.”


Black Forest

 
MG:
As brief as you can, what’s your design philosophy?
TD: “My design philosophy is to not make the design harder than it has to be. If you have a good site, the holes are there.”

MG: Who do you credit with being your biggest mentor/mentors?
TD: “I’ve had a bunch. But I wouldn’t be in the business, or I wouldn’t do it the way I do it if not for working with Pete Dye for several years. He taught me the basic philosophy of design and construction. They are inseparable. I’ve had other people I learned about design from more, but being able to do what I do, I owe most of it to Pete.”

MG: Your course, Pacific Dunes in Oregon, launched you to another level when it comes to critical acclaim? How has that changed your life?
TD: “It really seems to have done so more than I thought it would. Half of what it turned out to be better than other courses is because it’s such a dramatic site. I didn’t think one great success would lead to so many other cool projects. It made us the guys to talk to if you’ve got great ocean sites. I’ve gotten two so far and more are in the planning.”

MG: Tell us about the dramatic elements of the New Zealand course, Cape Kidnappers, which has also gotten a ton of praise.
TD: “It’s a bit different setting than Pacific Dunes. Instead of 100 feet above the ocean, you are 400 to 500 feet above on a cliff. Instead of seeing waves out in bay, they are just like ripples on the pond. New Zealand is beautiful and we were thrilled to work there.”

MG: Are there any other sites like Pacific Dunes left out there to be discovered?
TD: “Certainly there are. The question is are they in places where you are allowed to build a course and is it economically viable for a course. I am sure there are sites in Africa and South America, but can you get enough traffic for them to work is debatable. … The other part is a great site for golf doesn’t require an ocean view. There are a lot of great sites for golf left in America.”

MG: You recently got to work with Jack Nicklaus at Sebonack Golf Club, a celebrated project in New York? How well did that go?
TD: “Judging from the finished project, it went well. It was interesting for both of us. We are both used to making final decisions. We knew taking the job we would have to find common ground because we didn’t always like what the other liked. … It is a difficult course from the back tees. Jack’s input helped out a lot on that. And it’s fun to play from the members tees and I helped out with that.”

 

MG:
What did you take from Jack’s style that you might use someday?
TD: “For me, it was a chance to see how the other half lived. He is amazingly busy. He was so focused when he was onsite. At the same token, I don’t know that I would ever want to get that busy. It didn’t look fun. He was going from one project to the next to the next. I like to take time for decisions. He said if this were golf, we would get a two-stroke penalty for slow play in the business. I like to sleep on my decisions, to take longer and maybe come up with something new.”

MG: How much do you enjoy working on the classics? I know you got to do some work at Pasatiempo Golf Club out in California?
TD: “We are consultants on 20 or 25 courses around the country, like San Francisco Golf Club and Chicago Golf Club. It’s a privilege to be out there to help them out. It’s been a great experience for the guys who work with me. We’ve got to hang out there, rebuild bunkers and features and see how great they were built. It is not as fun as building new courses. On that (type of) course, you either do a good job preserving it or you mess it up. It is not as creative a process, but I look at it as a responsibility to take care of the great old stuff.”

MG: What’s your take on the technology debate? Will designing longer golf courses become the norm?
TD: “Honestly, a lot of designers are overreacting. Technology has made great players much longer, but does anybody have a better handicap than three years ago? No. There is a little too much attention paid to that.”

MG: What do you remember most about creating Black Forest, one of your two northern Michigan designs?
TD: “All 18 holes are surrounded by trees. I had to do a lot of bunkers to make the holes distinct from one another. I thought about the old Alister MacKenzie or George Thomas style of bold bunkers. It was not done much in the 1980s.”

MG: What other things are you working on now?
TD: “We’ve had two projects this year. We will open one in Scotland (in 2007). We’ve got a resort project in Mexico north of Cabo San Lucas, and a private club in Bend, Oregon. We are just breaking ground and another project in northern California. The fourth course at Bandon Dunes is a couple of years away.”

MG: There’s been some talk about you working again with High Pointe, your first course in Michigan?
TD: “I’m not sure on the status of that. It’s right across town. I would love to help them, however, they need the help.”

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