The Vanity of Art: Tom Doak vs. Medinah

… why hath thy queen 
Summon’d me hither, to this short-grass’d green?

The Tempest IV, i

Looping for one of the incoming officers at Medinah about a month ago, I was told that Tom Doak had been selected to be the architect for a renovation of Medinah’s Course 1—Course 3’s older, but far-less heralded, brother. The Ryder Cup, coming next year, will use a lot of Course 1’s terrain for parking lots, staging areas, and corporate tents, which means the course will be torn up—a perfect opportunity to use that repair work to rethink the entire golf course. The redesign idea is thus no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is using Doak: he’s on record as disparaging Medinah, both in his (infamous) Confidential Guide to Golf Courses (which ripped on lots of famous old courses) and later. Doak is a wild card, and by picking him Medinah is taking a roll of the dice—not least because Course 1, as it now stands, is a paradigmatic example of everything Doak hates in golf architecture.

That makes it like its brother course, Course 3, which has always stood, to Doak, as a pinnacle of bad golf architecture. Here is Doak, for instance, in an interview with Golf Digest in October of 2005: “The most overrated courses,” he said, “tend to be ones that hold important tournaments and major championships.” “Invariably, they’re long, tight, and repetitive, with virtually every hole offering similar shot values,” he continues; “Firestone and Medinah are classic examples.” Many Medinah members would, and have, bristled over statements like this, and my informant tells me that there was quite a disagreement among the members about hiring Doak—the vote, it seems, broke down along generational lines: older members were against, and younger ones were in favor.

Presumably, the older ones remembered Doak’s longstanding opinion of Medinah, while the younger ones were captivated by Doak’s resume since publishing The Confidential Guide in his mid-twenties. As of now, four of his designs are in Golf magazine’s “Top 100 Courses in the World” list: Pacific Dunes (at Bandon Dunes in Oregon), Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, Ballyneal in Colorado, and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand. Cape Kidnappers, in particular, is spectacular in photographs, with holes routed along massive cliffs along the ocean. But photographically-spectacular courses are not really, according to the man himself, Doak’s design aim.

Everything about Doak, in fact, seems contrary to the way in which golf design has headed since the 1980s. While golf courses have gotten longer and longer, Doak says—in an interview with Golf magazine published this month (June 2011)—that “modern courses are too long.” And where a lot of courses designed in the last 30 or 40 years have tried to stand out with flashy, or even kitschy, bunkers (Cantigny’s “Dick Tracy” bunker comes to mind) and “water features” (Donald Trump, anyone?), Doak says that his “favorite hazard is short grass.” That, to a lot of golfers, might not make sense: isn’t short grass the fairway?

Well, yes, it is, but the short grass Doak has in mind isn’t the flat sort of fairway you might find at your local muni. What he’s thinking of is the “collection areas” at Pinehurst #2, Donald Ross’s Carolina masterpiece. “Short grass,” Doak says, “is always subtle and sometimes diabolical.” He’s thinking of the “steeply banked fairway that repels a slightly errant drive into an area where the approach shot is more difficult” (a feature, by the by, of Course 3’s hole 12). He’s considering “[w]ide expanses of fairway that lull the player to sleep so he doesn’t pay attention to the best position for his tee shot, and which makes it hard to determine the distance of a fairway bunker he’s tempted to carry” (a feature of Course 3’s hole 10, among others). Like Carl Spackler in Caddieshack, who made explosive “models” of his enemy the gopher’s “friends” (the bunny and squirrel), Doak believes in using the golfer’s ally (the fairway) against him.

This is nearly unthinkable heresy for American golfers, but it isn’t unknown to golf: it is, in fact, how the game began. St. Andrews for instance is well-known to have nearly infinitely-wide fairways and nevertheless it has been confounding golfers for over 500 years—which brings up another point about Doak’s biography. For two months in the summer of 1982, he caddied at St. Andrews, where presumably he learned of the Scottish methods of playing the ball on the ground instead of, as is usual on American tracks, through the air. It isn’t unusual there, from what I understand, of hitting a 6-iron like a putt from 85 yards. An American would, of course, be likely to use his 60-degree wedge from such a distance (and inevitably mishit it), but to the Scots such a choice has never made any sense. A 60-degree shot requires a precise strike on the clubface; a 6-iron merely needs something nearly precise. Or even imprecise.

Yet it’s difficult to picture making use of that philosophy on Course 1. It is the antithesis of Doak’s (or should we say, Scottish) ideas. Doak isn’t much of a believer in bunkers, water, or trees (I haven’t mentioned it, but Doak is on board with the anti-tree movement of the past decade or so.) Course 1 however, built in 1924 (the first of Medinah’s three courses, which explains why it’s Course 1), is built around water, sand, and trees. The 10th hole of the course, for instance, gives an idea of how Course 1 operates.

The 10th on Course 1 is a short par-5 of only 460 yards or so, which is shorter than many of Course 3’s par-4s. The tee shot is governed by a pond that stretches along the entire right side of the fairway, all the way to the green. A big drive, however, can easily get within 200 yards—at which point the approach is blocked by a set of massive willow trees that require the golfer to either go around them or over them to get to the green. Any approach that manages to climb over the willows, though, risks landing in a huge bunker directly in front of the green—so you have to judge not only how high you can hit your club, but also how far it will carry. It’s a classic risk-reward hole, but without water, sand, and trees, it’s a kind of lengthy par-4, not a par-5 you might be still be talking about five years from now.

The 10th is also a problem for Doak in terms of routing: it’s the sort of hole that needs to be played toward the middle of a round, after a player has found his rhythm. Only if you’re confident of your swing would you try to take on the willow trees—which is one reason why it is the 10th hole in the current routing. The problem is that the 9th hole—a marathon 600+-yard par-5—is the perfect finishing hole for the course, which in the current routing ends with a difficult-but-sub-200-yard par-3. It’s unusual for a golf course today to end on a par-3—though Congressional, site of this year’s U.S. Open, does in its non-tournament routing—and the current routing has often been a topic of discussion. But to get the ninth as a finishing hole while preserving the 10th’s status near the middle of the course as a whole is a difficult juggling act; it might require demolishing and rebuilding several other holes.

That isn’t hard to imagine Doak doing because many of the holes on the course are fairly pedestrian, especially during a rather mediocre slog through the middle of the back nine. Still, the course is often ranked within the top 20 in Illinois—Course 3 is usually #1—which means that many holes are of high quality. The 7th through the 9th, for instance, are nearly the equal of several of the best holes on Course 3, and it would be a shame for the course to lose them.

Doak though has demonstrated the kind of imaginative ability that a design problem like this one requires—and more than that, a species of contrariness that he’s going to need if he’s going to bring whatever vision he creates to the turf. If he means to implement his stated design philosophy on Course 1 he’s going to have to re-imagine the course completely, which will be difficult to do on a track that’s nearly 90 years old—not to mention the members nearly that age. What he does may just be a kind of tweaking—fixing a bunker here, cutting a tree there. But I don’t think Medinah is paying him for that.

I think that what Doak—and Medinah—may be aiming at is nothing less than a revolution in American course design. If Course 1 can be re-made in line with Doak’s vision, then virtually nothing is impossible for golf architecture. Nothing of Doak’s plan has been made public as yet—I am not sure at this writing whether it even exists. But the canvas Doak has been presented with is virtually unique: he’s been handed the keys to the family’s ancient Rolls Royce and told to pimp it out, with a budget presumably paid for by the proceeds from the Ryder Cup. Where some of Doak’s architectural contemporaries would be tempted to add, say, 22-inch rims and flatscreen TVs, Doak’s impulse seems rather the other way: he appears to question why anyone’s carriage ever needed an engine rather than a horse.

That sounds like rather a diss, but it isn’t: Doak’s object, it seems to me, isn’t just to churn out another sequence of holes that look like, and play like, every other set of holes anywhere in the world, but rather to get at something fundamental, something about how we play the game. Maybe even why we play this game. My choice of the word “philosophy” to describe Doak’s ideas about golf architecture isn’t meant lightly: it’s a word that’s often bandied about, but in Doak’s case I think it actually means something, because he’s a guy who’s actually thought about very, very fundamental matters. This doesn’t mean that his ideas are right, or the only ones, but it does mean that what he does is carefully thought out, and that’s something that’s rare enough in any profession. It also doesn’t mean that Doak’s redesign of Course 1 is destined for greatness—but it does mean that there he has been given a very, very rare opportunity. It remains to be seen what he does with it, whether it be spectacular success or merely, as Prospero says in The Tempest, “Some vanity of mine own art.”

2 thoughts on “The Vanity of Art: Tom Doak vs. Medinah”

  1. Hi David,

    Sorry for the lateness of the reply, but thank you very much for your compliment. It’s very much appreciated, and if you had any other, more specific, comments I’d be happy to engage them. 🙂

Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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