18 Sep 2020 | Clubs and Facilities | Feature stories |

Storytelling: The Renaissance Man

by Contributor

Gunnamatta course image
Tom Doak's Gunnamatta course at The National has won strong reviews. Photo: Renaissance


First published in Golf Vic magazine 2019

In just the last five and a bit years, Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design has built a world top-100 course in New Zealand, a Europe top-20 course in France, two courses back home in Michigan, including the world’s first reversible layout, plus a 12-hole par-three course to sit alongside one of his other world Top-100 courses at Ballyneal in Colorado.

In Sydney, he’s completed a significant overhaul of Concord and has rebuilt the famous short hole by the water at the New South Wales Golf Club. Which brings us to Victoria, where he has almost totally redesigned the old Ocean Course at The National to create a new Gunnamatta Course, while restoring Yarra Yarra on the Melbourne sandbelt to past glories.

It therefore comes as a surprise to hear one of the world’s most acclaimed architects declare: “I’m not a very good multi-tasker. ”That’s why Doak says he tries to avoid his projects being at the same stage at the same time–especially at the heavy-construction phase when fairways are still being formed, greens still being moulded and questions are still being asked by anxious committees or boards about every mound, slope and bunker.

So when he is in Australia or New Zealand, his projects back home are either still in the planning stage or on standby.

“If I had to go home at night and answer 30 emails about what is going on back there, I would shoot myself. Or close to it, anyway,” he laughed. Like the football coach taking it one match at a time, Doak is taking it one course at a time and his win rate is spectacular.

His work on Gunnamatta at The National is now completed and the new course could well challenge sister course, the Greg Norman-designed Moonah, as the highest ranked of the four National courses. The Renaissance work at Yarra Yarra, under the management of his lieutenant Brian Slawnik, has already won widespread approval and is certain to arrest the slide in the rankings of the sandbelt course, once top-20 in Australia.

Added to his creation with Mike Clayton of Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania and St Andrews Beach in Victoria 15 years ago, plus his work at Royals Melbourne and Adelaide, at Concord, and New South Wales, it makes Doak the most influential course architect in modern Australian golf.

His two most recent projects make a fascinating contrast in that at The National, he has made massive changes to the original course design of Thomson Wolveridge and Perrett, while at Yarra he has protected the original design of Alex Russell by restoring the course to the way it was intended. He is in no doubt which is easier. “A lot of the clubs we consult for in the States, they are very good old courses,” he said. “The brief is to restore them, get them back to where they were and not to totally re-design them.

“I’ve always been shy about wanting to re-design a golf course because in a private club you have got hundreds of members who join, presumably, because they like the old course okay and you are going to close it, spend a lot of money and they still have 18 holes when you are done. And it is all a matter of opinion whether it is better or not.

“Most architects won’t see it that way, but it entirely is a matter of opinion whether what we’re doing is good or not.”

Doak can rest easy that member opinion at The National is with him. The club appointed him after playing patterns, scoring statistics and a member survey showed the Ocean course was significantly less popular than the other two at Cape Schanck. He has produced a course which has already had overwhelmingly positive feedback from members and a high entry in the magazine golf rankings.

Golf Digest and Golf Australia magazines had the Moonah and Old courses ranked in the teens while the Ocean had fallen outside the top 50. But Gunnamatta made the top-10 on Golf Australia’s latest rankings.

Opened last spring, the original Legend couch fairways on the Ocean were replaced some time back by wintergreen. The greens, previously A1 are now a blend of Pure Distinction and A1 with the approaches Fescue. At 6023 metres from the men’s blue tees and 4842 from the women’s green tees, it’s only marginally shorter than the respective Ocean tees but the important difference is the routing, especially the reduction of the number of elevated greens.

“My first impression of the land was it must be a little too hilly, because that is what the Ocean course felt like it turned out–that is was just a little too up and down and you were fighting your way up the hill too much,”said Doak. “But it is all a function of how you play the holes on the land. I really think we have escaped a lot of that with the routing that we have done. It is substantially different than the one before.”

Doak has kept two of the strengths of the old Ocean course–the first and 18th holes, albeit with the opening drive softened and the approach to the first green eased by the removal of a couple of bunkers. The second tee is also essentially the same, except the green has been intriguingly brought forward and tucked into the left–the first of several wonderful short par fours.

From there, the course alters drastically, the third hole a dog-leg up the old 17th fairway and while many of the fairways of the old course have been at least used in part, the 18 new greens and more restrained bunkering make for a spectacular playing experience. The par-three 16th will be the signature hole, looking out to the ocean, with a nod to the iconic seventh hole on the National’s Old Course.

Back in Melbourne, Doak’s Yarra Yarra work through Brian Slawnik has also met with strong approval. Boundary issues at Yarra had forced a number of changes down the years,notably the ruination of the old third, now fifth, hole. Other changes were also criticised and conditioning problems a few years back combined to impact on the course’s reputation.

Doak embarked on a plan to restore the course to something closer to the original intention of Alex Russell and with the removal of numerous trees and bushes, a more open layout and more consistent bunkering is expected to restore Yarra as a sandbelt gem.

“I always felt like it had seven or eight of the best holes on the sandbelt and it just seems like since I first saw it 30 years ago, the other holes that weren’t good have gotten worse instead of better,”Doak said. “Some because of boundary problems and having to make changes and some because they were not sure which way they were going.

“When you have an old golf course like that, when you start tinkering around with certain holes too much while you leave the others alone, they just start to feel like they are different styles and they don’t all fit together anymore.

“A lot of work we are doing now is to go back and make those holes look like they belong with the rest of the golf course and do features that are the same scale and the same size, and that bunkers all look like they were built 75 years ago instead of three weeks ago.” Initially the club had wanted Doak to renovate the course in stages but when the first stage proved so successful, he was asked to continue. By then, though, he had other projects in the Renaissance schedule. The changes at The National and Yarra, while vastly different in scope, have had the same result in mind – to make a round of golf less confronting.

Doak is proud of his CV, not just for the long list of great golf courses on it but also for something that is not on it – a professional playing record. The lowest handicap he has ever earned is six and as much as he loves the game, his heart has always been more in the architecture of the course than the mechanics of a golf swing.

He believes many of the pros who have turned to course design have produced their courses for the elite players, making them too challenging for the average player. And as the pros like Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and company have been smashing the golf ball distances never dreamed of, the courses have been made longer and harder for the wrong group of golfers.

Doak has a simple solution to the distance debate: ignore it.

“The whole time I have been in the industry the governing bodies have been in denial about it. But they insist that if it really gets out of control they will dial it back. But they haven’t dialled anything back in the 35 years I have been in the business. So I don’t listen to that anymore.

“All the clubs I consult for say things like, ‘Adam Scott hits driver and eight-iron to our par five–we have to do something about it.’ I say, ‘do you hit driver, eight-iron to that par five? Is your handicap going down?’

“Why worry about those guys (the pros)? We would love to be able to preserve the challenge for those guys but if we design for those guys, it would be impossible for everybody else. So I just try to put them out of mind for the most part and not worry about it too much because the distance problem is only the top five percent of players. Everybody else is struggling like they always have.”

The philosophy that drives Tom Doak’s course designs is that golfers should at least enjoy that struggle.

Edited and republished with the approval of Golf Victoria.

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