Q&A: Tom Doak on Antipodean adventures, land deals and legacy

In a wide-ranging interview with contributor Hal Phillips, the course architect discusses his new Pinehurst project and recent handiwork in Australia and New Zealand

Cape Kidnappers LR 77 12 green* .jpeg
The 12th green at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke's Bay, New Zealand.

Architect Tom Doak gets around — perhaps more than he ever has, thanks to an iconic reputation and a coterie of trusted staff and collaborators. He recently chatted with The First Call contributor Hal Phillips on a range of topics.

The First Call: I was very fond of The Pit Golf Club based on a single, solo round played in 2:45 at dusk in 1994. I was sad to see it close, but glad your Pinehurst project, now under construction, revived it in some fashion.
Tom Doak: I didn’t play The Pit, but went around it when it was new. Most of my course is not on any of the property you will likely remember. The first six of the old holes are on my parcel. But the parcel in the quarry, which works around a big pond — that land they are saving for something else. I suspect they will do another golf course at some point on the other side. All of this land in Aberdeen is actually a piece of ground that Robert Trent Jones Sr. owned.

TFC: Wait. What?
TD: He did the same sort of thing at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Virginia: He bought that property, too, at some point in the 1950s or ‘60s, and sold it off to the developer later. So, he bought this land adjacent to where my golf course will be, near Pinehurst, and sold it to the resort owners in the '90s with the condition that one of the boys do the design. Rees started clearing it in 2001, but 9/11 killed the project. I knew about the land deal, but not that they had ever started doing anything. Now they don’t have to pay Rees again, having already paid him.

TFC: Does this sort of thing happen a lot in the design game? Buying land that your kids or heirs will eventually design a golf course upon?
TD: It’s the only time I’ve heard of that. Of course, Dan Maples bought the land that became The Pit and developed it himself. That happens a lot. But buying land for 20 years down the road? Mr. Jones is the only person I know who did that.  

TFC: Has Mr. Jones given you any ideas, Tom?
TD: Kind of too late, at this point.

TFC: I’m just back from Australia and New Zealand, where the hand of Tom Doak is everywhere, seemingly. You’ve decluttered the landscape and redone the diabolical greens at Yarra Yarra, in the Sandbelt south of Melbourne. You’ve redone the greens at world-beating Cape Kidnappers in Hawke's Bay, on New Zealand’s North Island. And we’re waiting on the finished product at Te Arai Links, where your North Course opens in November. You hadn’t been back at Cape Kidnappers in a long time. What struck you upon revisiting?
TD: When I worked on this golf course 20 years ago. What struck me most was the scale of it, the way it sits so high above the bay. And this is still true, of course: There is nothing like it in golf. There are a lot of seaside golf courses and a lot of varied seaside settings, but nothing else offers that sort of perspective. You’re just so high above the water. From that high up, it looks like someone threw a rock in a pond and those waves on Hawkes Bay are just ripples. It doesn’t quite compute.

TFC: Those cliffs rise some 135 meters above sea level. To put it further in perspective, the seaside holes at Pebble Beach sit only 30 meters above Carmel Bay. How did those cliffs affect the design at Kidnappers?
TD: Cape is sort of famous for its holes hanging off the cliff, but we thought about trying to build at least one hole that used the cliff-edge even more dramatically. In the end, though, we backed off doing that and here’s why: In general the design is very subtle, but not easy, because the tilt of the land toward the water is more than the eye can really see. It’s really hard to get the ball to stop, on a hole like 12, for example.

TFC: It looks and feels like those holes out to the water and back are relatively level. You’re saying they’re not.
TD: It’s subtle, like at Garden City [Golf Club], but that’s why there’s such a big approach area in front of 12 green. We had to allow for the ball to roll out. The holes coming back the other way, away from the water, are actually sort of grinding, uphill holes where the greens are naturally sloped back-to-front, where you don’t want to be above the hole. Basically, with that factor and the deep ravines that come into play, we didn’t feel we could add more difficulty, and I wasn’t sure we really could, without cluttering these amazing panoramas and making the course even harder.

TFC: There is so much to see at Cape Kidnappers, it’s a bit overwhelming.
TD: Well, everyone talks about the fingers of the land, but not many people have a sense of the scale of the valleys in between. 

TFC: What do you mean?
TD: I’ve talked to so many people who play Cape Kidnappers and say they were sort of amazed at how different it felt to play the golf course — and see all these vistas and birds and ravines and amazing landforms. I’m convinced the reason is their only impressions of the place had been those aerial photos looking straight down at 15 and 16. Of course it looks different in person — because you’re not a bird!

TFC: Those images have become rather iconic. Cape Kidnappers recently reshot the golf course. Some of those images are running with this Q&A. Did you have input there?
TD: I did, and traditionally there have been physical limitations to the process. To stand on No. 5 tee, for example: I don’t know any place on the golf course that is more striking. But the canyon to the left is so big and dramatic that I've never seen any image that captures it very well from the tee.  I'd love to see a bird's-eye drone flight from the tee there, one that that just goes down into the canyon and has nothing to do with finishing the golf hole!  

Cape Kidnappers 5 copy.jpg
The fifth hole at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke's Bay, New Zealand.

TFC: What other holes at Cape have been underexposed in this way?
TD: I think the most underrated holes on the course are four, five, seven, eight, 10, 12 and 14.

TFC: These are all great golf holes, but they are mainly inland holes. Seems to me the coastal holes at Cape tend to dominate the attention of photographers and golfers.
TD: Yes, but part of the issue is more nuanced: People have difficulty classifying Cape Kidnappers in their own minds. They say, Oh, Cape Kidnappers is not a links. I understand what they’re saying. It’s a really, really good golf course — fairly ranked among the top 50 in the world. But it’s kind of different from anything else in the world. There is nothing quite like it. This is interesting to me, and I come at it from a pretty fair perspective I think: If you give Tara Iti [Golf Club, North of Auckland] credit for being a links, you have to compare it to Dornoch and all the great links on Earth. But when you look around and hold Cape up to the same kind of scrutiny, there is nothing comparable in terms of setting. It really does stand alone and may always stand alone.

TFC: Do you feel it’s overlooked now?
TD: Maybe a little bit, though it’s hard to say that about a course that’s still so highly rated.

TFC: For the record, according to Golf Magazine, in 2021, Cape ranks 51st in the world. It has been rated as high as No. 33, in 2011.
TD: But it’s not the big news in New Zealand anymore, and that’s unavoidable. I think Tara Iti is actually a bit overrated because it’s the top-rated course in New Zealand now. There is a funny quota system at play there. Cape used to get that treatment because it was the top course in New Zealand for many years. I’m not sure Cape will climb all the way back because it was probably overrated a little, for the same reason. But it’s still firmly among the top 50 in the world, in my view.

TFC: I was talking to someone the other day about the golf and lodging at Cape Kidnappers, but also at its sister property, Kauri Cliffs. You get around: Are there two better golf and on-site lodging combos on earth?
TD: Maybe not.  They are spectacular. The only place that comes to mind, with that quality of lodging next to the golf course, would be the South Cape Club, in Korea. And that course, while strong, is not in the league of Cape Kidnappers — where a third to half the people at any one time are there just because it’s the nicest lodge in the country, maybe on Earth.

TFC: Let’s talk about Tara Iti, your private course completed in 2015. You’ve just finished the North course at Te Arai Links next door. It opens in November 2023. The South Course at Te Arai from Coore & Crenshaw is already open. What was the order of battle there?
TD: I did the Te Arai course as part of an unusual deal. Bill Coore went three times during the pandemic and had to quarantine the full two weeks each time. I wasn’t going to do that. I said, "Here’s what I’m going to do: I don’t have much of anything to do these first the months of the year — this was early 2022 — so I’m going to come down and shape it all up and let the crew grass it."

TFC: Whereas normally you would drop in to see a project, then zip off to the next one after a few days. What did this concentrated time on site mean to the design?
TD: Well, it was a lot of fun to get back on the bulldozer without any time pressures. I’m not really that good on a dozer. It makes me feel good, though, and it does allow me and encourage me to do different things. But the point is, I had time to do it at Te Arai. Usually I have five days at a time at any particular project, and I’m trying to get four to five holes done from that visit. At Te Arai, I could take my time and get out in front and play around with things a little bit. That was really fun.

TFC: And the whole time you’re there, Bill Coore and his crews are working on the South Course at Te Arai?
TD: Yes. We love the property we got, but Bill had first choice and he took the very south end of this property, with a spectacular stream coming out to sea and small dunes that form around that small estuary. That’s holes four through six. He came pretty far north with his layout because his golf course runs mostly north and south, along the water with a couple of holes inland. As such, there’s wasn’t much frontage left, but the property we got is really cool. We have the first two holes on the water, then you go inland, then back down to the water at eight, then right back inland, then back to the ocean for 16-18.  But the inland terrain on our course, the North Course, is pretty awesome: dunesy, with big undulation and stuff that looks a lot like Pine Valley in there. 

TFC: Was there any sort of negotiation as to which architect got which bits of property?
TD: Not really. I said I’d do it if I could go into a huge high dune on the property by the sixth hole. Turned out the dune was some kind of old Maori fort — what they call a pa. The question was, Can we get close to that? It was a pretty nuanced discussion, philosophically. I mean, is it disrespectful to work around and expose it, so that people can really see it? After some back and forth, we reached an agreement.

TFC: Was it protected from the get-go? Describe it.
TD: No one had any idea it was there, at the start. It was deep in the pine grove and quite overgrown. It was a basically a very high dune fronted by a kind deep gully and ridge that served as a sort of defensive battlement. I’m no expert but it appears to have been some kind of a defensive apparatus where these earthworks made this high ground more defensible. To me it looks like it was camouflaged, as well, so anyone approaching wouldn’t see the moat or gully feature, or that it was filled with 200 guys! Not until it was too late. It’s a little longer walk now from five green to six tee, to preserve it. But now everyone can see it!

TFC: I know you’ve worked a lot where Coore & Crenshaw has worked, but was it weird to be next to your own design at Tara Iti, in competition with yourself, and Bill Coore, in real time?
TD: It doesn’t feel that way to me, not too much. I’ve worked next to Bill and Ben a few times. I’ve also worked next door to the National Golf Links and Muirfield, and I guess I don’t think about that sort of thing much. It’s more, I’ve got a good property right here. What is important is that my clients have something different than what the neighbors have. When you’re following up yourself, you might think that’s a bit harder. But I don't think my style is that narrowly defined, so why not do some different things? It’s late in the game for me now. I’m extra motivated.

TFC: Is it good legacy management to even attempt an encore there?
TD: Well, let me say first that I hate the idea that you have to hire a different name to do every golf course. Mike Keiser always said, "I had David here and Tom does the next one ... ." That wasn’t true back in the old days. Royal Melbourne had the same guy do both courses. But in the modern world, because I already built a golf course in New Zealand, now it’s someone else’s turn? Ric Kayne [developer of Tara Iti and partner with Jim Rohrstaff in Te Arai Links] was thinking that way for a while. He was following the conventional wisdom. So I’m like, "I dunno, Ric: The first one turned out pretty successfully. I’ll be bummed if I don’t get a chance to work there again."

With Tara Iti next door, the big difference is: It’s private. Most of the Te Arai Links players won’t get the chance to play Tara Iti. So that’s nice. I also think the timing is good, with two new courses opening up there within a year of each other. Nice to have New Zealand back in the conversation.