I Have Dealt With That Ever Since

Tom Doak opens up on his “reputation for being an asshole” and where it all stems from

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from TGJ Podcast 115: You Don’t Know Doak. It has been edited for clarity. You can listen to the entire conversation here. 

For years, I struggled with my relationships with clients. It’s got a lot better in the last, say, 10 years. Part of that is just the age gap disappeared. I started doing this when I was 27 years old and the clients were so much older. It was hard to relate to them. I had never done any therapy or anything like that, so I never thought about that what was really going on was all the baggage I had and my relationship with my father translated into the same stuff with clients because they were authority figures and father figures. I had a hard time dealing with that.

Especially since I’d worked for Pete Dye. Pete was like, “Well, you’ve got to stand up for what you believe in. You have to be ready to walk away from the project if they won’t let you do what you think is the right thing to do.” I was loaded up on that, and it made it that much harder to deal with just normal disagreements about little things. You could be in complete alignment about 98% of what was going on and still wind up thinking the other guy was an asshole over the last 2% and just be very emotional about it.

When I had problems with my second marriage, my wife wouldn’t let me fall back on, “Well, that’s just the way I am.” You should really think about that a little more than that. She had been going to group therapy for adult children of alcoholics and said, “I think you should go too.” I did. It was enlightening and frightening how easily I identified with that. I didn’t think my parents were alcoholics at all. In fact, you’re always resistant to say that they are, but it’s a thing that’s passed down through the generations.

My parents were much older than me. My mom couldn’t have kids until she was 40. Then they got an operation to fix her problem and I was a miracle baby when she was 42. My parents just doted on me and my brother. I always thought we had a pretty good relationship. I never knew most of my grandparents, two of them were dead before I was born. A third died, my dad’s mom, the week after I was born. So I never really had the perspective on our family history. 

My parents were really close to their brothers and sisters. They both grew up on family farms in the Midwest in the depression. I always heard about the good times of that and it wasn’t until years later that I thought to myself, “My mom just never ever said anything about her dad.” Then when I got into ACA therapy, I started thinking about my mom’s family. If I had one word to describe them all today, it would be fearful. That’s like a giant red flag. Finally, several years after my mom had passed away, I asked my dad about it and he was like, “Yes, my dad was an alcoholic, but your mom’s dad was a mean alcoholic.” That was hard to find out at that point in my life, but it did help understand some things. 

Still, I never really thought that would give me problems down the road. But that all affected my parents and how my parents treated me. You just grow up being afraid to express emotions. If you’re in a violent alcoholic family, you’re afraid to express emotions because somebody might haul off on you because you did. With my family, it wasn’t that. It just made everybody uncomfortable, so you just avoid those things. That’s the second generation of it. It just keeps going on until you finally sit down and think about it enough for yourself that you can try to break the cycle. Usually, by that time it’s too late. You’ve already done it to your kids, so you go apologize to them and try to at least express to them, “Don’t do it to your kids too.”

As a student, I was always a perfectionist because you want to make mom and dad proud. I was a really, really, really good student. Of course, that perfectionism has infected what I do. It’s hard to try to let that go when people are paying you a ton of money to build a golf course and they want it to be one of the very best golf courses in the world and every little detail matters. Yet that’s really not a healthy way to live where you’re just obsessing about every little detail, and no matter how good a job you do, it’s not good enough.

I wouldn’t say I had a lot of anxiety about that. I would just say that I neglected everything else in my life at the expense of that. I was really good at it. I just keep grinding on it and doing better and doing better and let it take up my whole life. I’ve got other things to do in my life besides just what I do for my job. I love my job and I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I can really do something that I love, but you can’t just let it consume you completely.

One of my first breaks was George Pepper, the editor of Golf Magazine. I wrote him a letter to the editor when I was like 18 or 19 about how they’d just done a ranking of the best courses in the world and that clearly the system was screwed up. He sent me a letter back like, “Well, this is really the publisher’s deal, but you wrote a great three-paged letter. Do you want to write something for the magazine?” 

George always said I clearly knew my stuff and that I knew more about golf course architecture than anybody he’d ever met already. But did I have the personality and would I be able to relate to the clients and everything? He could see that part of me and how awkward I was around people sometimes. He did a column and it was really about the Confidential Guide. I’d given him one of the first copies of my book, the one that was only for 40 friends. He wrote about it in his column in the front of the magazine and the title of his column was “Boy Wonder.” I was getting used to that, but he also tried to describe me as being awkward, and I think he used the phrase “idiot savant” or something like that. I have dealt with that ever since. 

I always knew I was different around people than most people and I never really understood why. Not knowing anything about it, when somebody says that about you, you’re like, “Well maybe I am.” And if I am, it’s like, “What would I do about it?” I saw an interview with Debra Winger, the actress, once, and she had a reputation for being difficult. She was asked if it bothered her and she was like, “No, it’s kept the weak people away.” I just busted out laughing when I heard it because it was true. There’s some people that are going to be uncomfortable dealing with you, dealing with emotions, and it’s probably because they’ve got their own baggage. You’re going to mix oil and water and you’re better off not being their client. 

That reputation has always guarded me. It’s always been that combined with some of my reviews in the Confidential Guide that was so out of the norm for the golf business. I got this reputation for being an asshole. It wasn’t based on personal interactions, it was based on me having written something about someplace. At least with that, I didn’t have to worry that much about whatever people thought. It’s like, “if you already think I’m an asshole, then why would I worry about what you think?” That is actually healthy. The thing that you learn in group therapy is, it’s none of my business what other people think of me. That is a really healthy attitude. I got to it the wrong way, but I did get to it. I just kept doing my thing as a designer. Even if not everybody loved it, that was okay because, at the end of the day, whether a golf course is good is all a matter of opinion anyway.