Tom Doak hands top marks to three Scottish courses

Tom Doak is a hard man to please, giving only three Scottish courses top marks. Picture: Getty
Tom Doak is a hard man to please, giving only three Scottish courses top marks. Picture: Getty
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Nowhere amidst the vast and ever-growing compendium of golf literature has more disingenuous nonsense been written than in the area of course reviews. Inevitably constrained by the at least tacit influence of potential advertising revenue (and/or losses), the vast majority of those ever-so enticing and tempting claims made in myriad publications are ludicrously overblown. If they are to be believed, almost every course in the land is apparently an absolute belter and not to be missed. What rubbish. Take it as given: Those so-called “hidden gems” are more likely to be rough diamonds than flawless pearls.

Still, if you know where to look, more accurate, honest and useful information can be found. And that is exactly what you will get in Tom Doak’s The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, the new edition of which covers Great Britain & Ireland and is available now. In a long-awaited follow-up to his now more than 30-year-old underground classic – penned when he was on a 12-month post-graduate trip funded by his alma mater, Cornell University – the now famed course architect (alongside fellow authors Ran Morrisset, Masa Nishijima and Darius Oliver) tells it how it really is with the courses on these shores.

Applying his eponymous “scale,” Doak grades each course with marks ranging from zero to ten. The lowest mark is applied to “a course so contrived and unnatural 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”. Happily, only one course, the near unplayable David McLay Kidd-designed Castle Course just outside St Andrews, is regarded with such disdain – and rightly so.

At the other end of golf’s varied and wide-ranging spectrum, marks of ten are given to a select few that meet the following criteria: “Nearly perfect. If you skipped 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.” In Scotland, we are talking only – at least in Doak’s estimation – of the Old Course at St Andrews, Royal Dornoch and Muirfield. As should be clear by now, he is one tough assessor.

Away from the often controversial aspect of grading each course, Doak takes time to tell us how he arrives at each conclusion. It is a section of the book every member of every golf club committee in this country should read and re-read until it penetrates their well-meaning but often architecturally ignorant brains.

“We hate designs that punish the golfer hole after hole,” says Doak, in a thinly veiled reference to thick rough and penal design and set-up. “Whether that golfer is a 30-handicapper or the tour professional.” Then there is this: “We prefer golf holes where the last two or three shots (on the greens and recovery play around the greens) are just as interesting as the first two or three shots.” In other words, close to putting surfaces, short grass offers more shot options than long grass does. And this: “We love a golf course where the playing surface is well presented – which is not the same thing as perfectly green, or perfectly uniform. Golf is part of nature and nature is full of variety and randomness that we should embrace.”

Back in the body of the book, Doak and team have gratifyingly removed little of the original volume’s propensity for bluntness. Some might even say callousness. The review of the Greg Norman-designed Doonbeg in County Clare, Ireland concludes as follows: “In the end, it’s a beautiful place and full of thrills, but like the rest of Norman’s career, a bit haunted by the thought of what might have been.” Ouch.

There is no doubting what is Doak’s favourite course, though, the Old Course at St Andrews – where he caddied as an impecunious student. “As wrinkly as the comforter on an unmade bed” is one of his more evocative descriptions of golf’s most famous and historic venue. “The unique challenge of the Old Course is that tactics play just as big a part in a successful round as ball-striking does,” he says. “You have to sort it out for your own game because no architect has consciously tried to enforce a ‘right’ way to play the holes.”

Doak’s enthusiasm for the Home of Golf is infectious. He loves such features as “the moguls on the approach to the 2nd green”, “the sharp mound in front of the 4th”, and “the nest of blind bunkers in the middle of the 12th fairway that dupes the cautious golfer to play wide into trouble”. On the other hand, Doak’s criticism of the on-going alterations to the Old Course – misguidedly led by R&A chief executive, Peter Dawson – is both scathing and accurate.

“Such features are beyond the imagination of any human designer, which is why the recent changes to the course by the R&A are so troubling,” he writes. “For the first time in 100 years, men have succumbed to the belief that they are smarter than the course. I side with the wisdom of the original gospel of golf, which has managed to stay relevant through three centuries of improvements in equipment and technique.”

All of which is not to say that readers must agree completely with what Doak and his collaborators have to say about any of the courses within the book’s 180 pages. That would be silly. Course architecture is not an exact science. Indeed it is not a science at all, but an art form to be studied and appreciated before any propensity for criticism kicks in. By way of confirmation of this fact, it is this observer’s opinion that some of the grades given to courses in my home county of East Lothian are at least mildly inaccurate. Gullane No.3 scores a “5”, the same as Dunbar, Longniddry and Luffness? And the Renaissance club (designed by one Tom Doak) is a “7”? Come on, you’re having a laugh there mate.

Then again, the assessment of another East Lothian venue, Craigielaw (designed by the incredibly overrated Donald Steel), is spot on: “Its small, elevated greens are so fortified by bunkering and fall-offs that on windy days, even the best players are sometimes unable to find a way to hold certain greens in regulation.”

By way of wider justification, Doak et al continue: “Everything in golf course design is a matter of opinion and everyone’s opinion (even ours) is based on their own limited experience of a course. How well they played, whether their hosts were generous or rude, the condition of the course and even what the weather was like.

“However, if you are one of those people – as (three-time Open champion and prolific course designer) Gary Player professes to be – who believes that all courses are good and that no one should criticise another man’s course, we can only apologise that this book is not for you.”

No apologies necessary. A great and thought-provoking read.