By Kevin Markham
Copyright © Kevin Markham. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
WHEN TOM DOAK SELF-PUBLISHED a handful of copies of his Confidential Guide in 1988, he was quite happy to give honest, frank opinions of the courses around the world that he had visited. Back then he was a young man finishing his first golf course design; today he is a revered golf course architect, but, as his considerably expanded new series of five Confidential Guides is published, it is clear that little has changed when it comes to stating his opinions.
Of course, one man’s opinion is another man’s criticism. That’s the way of reviews and scores, but Doak and his three collaborators (Darius Oliver, Ran Morrissett and Masa Nishijima) have reputation, experience and credibility on their side. Not to mention the 2,200 courses they have played. Whether you agree with the reviews or not matters little: this is a serious book with seriously intelligent reviews.
It costs $70 and is a full color hardback book of 180 pages available through Tom Doak’s Renaissance website. This is the first of five new world guides, and it focuses exclusively on the UK and Ireland. The remaining four volumes will cover: The Americas (winter destinations); The Americas (summer destinations); Europe, Middle East and Africa; and Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
The writing style is informal and relaxed. Humor can be found in many of the reviews and some courses end up damned with faint praise. One thing is for sure: the reviews are illuminating, insightful and intelligent. You only have to read St. Andrews (Old) to appreciate the joys of what a first time visitor will see, feel and experience.
Every course is reviewed and then scored out of 10. Once you get to grips with this "Doak Scale" of scoring, you will appreciate that a score of 6 means the course is well worth your time. A score of 10 is exceptional and he gives only four Great Britain and Ireland (GB&I) courses that mark (St. Andrews, Royal Dornoch, Muirfield, Ballybunion).
A 10 on the Doak Scale means a course is: "Nearly perfect; if you skipped even one hole, you would miss something worth seeing… Drop the book and call your travel agent, immediately."
A score of 3, meanwhile, is: "About the level of the average golf course in the world."
A score of 0 … well if you get a 0 score, as the St. Andrew’s (Castle) course does, you’d really rather not be included in this book.
It is also worth noting that, at the back of the book, the four contributors spell out their individual scores for the courses they have played. The scores of 6–8–8–7 for Waterville reflect how differently the four men rate the course, and Doak makes a point of this early on, saying that while the panel of four often disagree, their individual scores for a course never vary by more than two points. That said, the difference between 8 and 6 is sizeable, which pretty much sums up the varying esteem in which Waterville is held.
The Irish Angle
As an Irish golf writer, my knowledge focuses on Ireland’s courses and a handful more in Great Britain.
The book covers 57 Irish courses and, not surprisingly given the nature of the book, they receive mixed praise. Reviews range from a couple of lines to an effusive two pages each for the three Irish courses (Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Lahinch) that make Doak’s top 18 Gourmet’s Choice courses in the British Isles.
The Gourmet’s Choice is a delightful inclusion, introducing the 18 courses that, in the author’s words: "stir our souls."
And while golf writers, tourism bodies and golf magazines sing the praises of so many GB&I courses, the foursome behind this book feel no such obligations. Tom Doak gives both courses at Ballyliffin and Rosapenna a somewhat humbling score of 5. He backs up the scores with enlightening commentary. Sure, you may not agree, but his points are clear and well made.
The Design Factor
Mount Juliet gets a cold splash, too, with the comment: "The rolling mounds, flattish Nicklaus bunkers and obligatory ponds have been done to death in other parts of the world, but nowhere are they more out of place than in Ireland."
Then again, few in Ireland actually worry about such things when they’re playing one of the country’s most glamorous parklands. Visiting golfers, however, may turn tail and run.
Commentary swings both ways: Surrey’s acclaimed Wentworth, and Ernie Els in particular, get chastised for his redesign work – "None of us cares to go back and see the wreck"; while the relatively unknown Silloth on Solway is heaped with praise – "It is hard to believe that that this charming golf club with so many fine holes still manages to exist in relative anonymity."
It is this emphasis on design that is, perhaps, the only downside of the book – if you can call it that. There are times when the fun of a course or hole is sacrificed in the interests of design. The majority of amateurs do not look at golf courses in the same way as golf architects: they want and like different things.
For instance, when talking about Carne, in Co. Mayo, Doak says that the 11th and 12th holes are "silly 90-degree doglegs," which misses the point that they are inspiring to play, just standing on either tee is stunning. Similarly, at Ballyliffin, most golfers who have enjoyed the two courses would consider them a must-play and considerably above a score of 5. That design finesse may be lacking, but few walk away less than thrilled.
But, in the cases of both Carne and Ballyliffin, Doak’s analysis still pulls out the positives, balancing the rough with the smooth.
Reviews and scores are not all the book offers. There are 14 pages of entertaining "Best" lists, a whopping 74 of them, ranging from "Most Hospitable Clubs,", "Dumb Blonde Awards" and "Courses Where You Are Most Likely to Hit an Animal," to "Biggest Dunes,"’ "Best Par-4s" and "Windiest Courses." There are best holes, ultimate 18s and a wish list where each of the four contributors gets to list those courses they want to play. It’s an entertaining end to a seriously entertaining book.
So, agree or disagree, the one thing you can guarantee with this book is that as soon as you open it you will be turning to the entries of courses you have played – quickly followed by those you want to play. And isn’t that precisely the point?
Finally, it is refreshing to read such candid commentary in an era where golf writers are so often expected to brush their criticism under the rug and use vanilla terms to keep advertisers and resorts happy. Tom Doak et al are considerably more than just golf writers, but their insightful and honest appraisals should be welcomed, admired and, most of all, heeded.
This is a book for golfers who take their game seriously, who value or are interested in design, or want the invaluable insights of Tom Doak and his collaborators. And let’s not forget those who want to know which courses to play on their odyssey to Great Britain and Ireland.
Kevin Markham is the author of Hooked: An Amateur's Guide to the Golf Courses of Ireland and Driving the Green: An Irish Golfing Adventure. He writes about Irish golf courses and related topics at theirishgolfblog.com.