The Man Out Front Tom Doak High Pointe

The Man Out Front

Tom Doak examines his life in the game from the course where it all started

Tom Doak has a decision to make. Sand kicks up onto his well-worn work boots and khakis as he marches down what will be the 18th fairway at the new High Pointe Golf Club. To his right, the spindly shoots of a hop farm, tethered to poles by coconut twine, stand in vertical rows—a reminder of this course’s tumultuous past. Over a hill, out of sight, an excavator maws at brush and dirt. The rat-tat-tat of bulldozer tracks slapping against the earth drowns out birdsong. The golf course is months from completion; across the landscape, workers buzz in isolated pockets of activity, each with their own task on this early summer morning.

Doak first took this walk nearly 40 years ago when he built the original High Pointe. He made it many more times when the course closed and went fallow and the hop farm took hold. Now he’s back, gifted the chance to revive his beloved home course. Oblivious to the thrum of activity around him, Doak strides down the throat of the closing hole and makes up his mind. He pulls out his phone and pecks a message.

Nearly 4,000 miles away, just outside of London, England, Rod Trump’s phone lights up. After a successful career as a tech entrepreneur, Trump—no relation to the former U.S. president—had recently decided to get into the golf business, and he’d discovered the opportunity at High Pointe on a tip from a friend. Within months of his first conversation with Doak, Trump had begun the process of acquiring the land that would be his first golf club. They also had started talking through what’s always been most important to Doak: the course’s routing.

Trump’s initial request was to make the final hole a par 5. “It’s always great when you can make a birdie on 18,” he reasoned to Doak. “A birdie keeps you coming back.” Doak, in the same blunt fashion that has made him one of the most controversial figures in golf course architecture, replied that he didn’t do things that way. The land would decide the hole, not any predetermination. The conversation wasn’t contentious; Trump had heard all the rumors about Doak being difficult before embarking on this project, but he’d quickly dismissed them. Doak had always been firm but respectful with him. Besides, geniuses should get some leeway on traditional social graces. And with Pacific Dunes, the Renaissance Club, Tara Iti and a stunning array of other courses firmly entrenched on top-100 lists, Doak more than qualified. Believing the 18th hole was still an open question, Trump boarded a plane for a golf trip to the U.K.

The prodigal son returns: After decades of designing courses all over the planet, Tom Doak returned to his hometown to rebuild his beloved High Pointe.

While there, he played Swinley Forest, one of the lasting gems from all-time-great architect Harry Colt. After a thrilling round, Trump rushed to text Doak. He remembered that Doak had told him that the first time he’d seen the land at High Pointe, it had reminded him of the famous heathland course. That Doak never returned his text didn’t bother Trump—he knew his man was buried in work.

Now that he actually has a text from Doak, Trump can’t open it fast enough. “Hey, I need to chat with you,” it says. “I’m working on the 18th green, and [the course superintendent] stopped me because I’m doing it as a 4. He thought you still wanted it to be a 5, so I need some direction from you.” Before Trump can reply that he trusts Doak’s judgment and to do what he thinks is best, three blinking dots appear. Another text pops in: “I know you loved Swinley, and it only has one par 5. Would you have told Harry Colt to build more?” Trump bursts out in laughter. Only Tom Doak.

He doesn’t want to talk about it. Doak knows that returning to High Pointe, the course he built at 26 that served as his announcement to the golf course architecture world, could be seen as an occasion to sum up a career that’s taken him from this patch of land in Traverse City, Michigan, around the world several times over. He knows people like me will want to rehash his spectacular entry into the golf space—the brutally honest reviews of his contemporaries, the game-changing shift away from his mentor Pete Dye and toward minimalism, the start of rumors that have persisted over the years that he is a hard man to work with. 

Now 62, in what one of his associates says is “most likely the back nine of his career,” Doak understands why I’m here. And while by all accounts he is softening a bit as he gets older, he’s still strong willed and relentlessly focused on the tasks at hand. He’s also thirsty. Doak walks past the bulldozers to the parking lot of the old clubhouse. He pops the lid of his hatchback, plops down inside and fills a stainless-steel cup with water from a milk jug. “Sorry, I don’t have another cup,” he says.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, Doak admits that while he doesn’t do it on every project anymore, he climbed back into the bulldozer and rough-shaped all 18 greens here. “Very rough,” he says. Most wouldn’t peg him as being sentimental, but when High Pointe hit hard times he tried to save it, even calling on Herb Kohler and Mike Keiser to help him buy it; both counseled against it. After the Great Recession forced its closure in 2008, Doak, who has lived here throughout his career, still regularly brought his dog out for walks on the property.

When High Pointe opened in 1989, it didn’t herald a movement so much as an original voice. Doak has freely admitted that the course’s celebrated minimalism—a dramatic departure from the trees and water features that were standards of the day—was less design philosophy and more the result of a light budget and that small crew. 

“What I remember at the time was a bit of surprise that his courses weren’t looking anything like Pete Dye’s stuff,” Ron Whitten, the retired longtime architecture editor at Golf Digest, says. “Most guys who started in the business under Dye ended up imitating his architecture a lot. Tom didn’t do that at all.”

Tom Doak High Pointe the Man out Front

Had High Pointe been the first thing that announced Doak to the world, maybe he would be seen differently. He might even see himself differently. But the reality is that before he built High Pointe, then rocketed to stardom with Pacific Dunes, which launched him to Cape Kidnappers, which cemented his place in the highest echelon of working architects, he already had a reputation. His 1987 book, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, scandalized the usually genteel golf industry. He called a Tom Fazio layout “absolutely vapid.” A Jack Nicklaus design was bashed as an example of “classic Nicklaus-client overkill.” 

Lines like that, along with his single-minded mission to build the best courses possible, have led to a legion of golf-obsessed armchair psychologists tracking Doak’s every move. He’s been called a firebrand, an iconoclast, antisocial and much worse. He has become an enigma, a seemingly endless puzzle to solve for the small but ever-growing niche of golf architecture aficionados who parse the sentences he writes and the ones written about him. The motivations of Bill Coore or Gil Hanse are rarely, if ever, discussed. Then again, neither of them ever publicly rated a course from a contemporary as a 0 out of 10. 

Doak may have a bundle of courses in just about every top-100 list, but his personality and past criticisms have garnered nearly as much attention, a fact that bothers him to no end despite years of battling against it. 

“Putting yourself out there and having things written about you is part of the job. It’s kind of essential to staying busy,” he says. “We never know where our next client is going to come from. A lot of young people don’t understand that about the career, so a lot’s been written about me over the years. 

A lot of it—a fair amount, frankly—is kind of annoying, and I don’t think I’ve been portrayed [in it] very accurately.” 

He immediately follows that by saying, “I’ve come to understand that I should not spend any time worrying about it. And, generally, I haven’t. I am pretty strong about what I believe and what I’m doing. If somebody else doesn’t like it, that’s fine. That’s their opinion.”

His voice doesn’t raise an octave or betray any anger. But it seems too simple. After all, he’s not an automaton, and he has pointed out that his skewerings in the early versions of The Confidential Guide were meant to be just that. That original was really a collection of Xeroxed pages stapled together and sent to a small group of trusted friends. He never intended them to go beyond that circle, but bootleg copies found their way into mailboxes all over the golf industry. Yet despite the hurt and bitter feelings the book caused, Doak never backed off from any of it. When he had chances to pull his punches in later editions that he knew were going to the general public, he gave the same honest reviews. That has followed him his entire career, in much the same way an online missive can set a reputation in stone. 

Brian Schneider, a longtime Doak associate, says the books are the source of the belief that Doak is difficult to work with, but counters, “In public or in private, I’ve never heard him say a bad thing about another human being. Personally, I’ve never heard him say, ‘Oh, that guy’s a complete asshole.’”

What Schneider and other associates see is someone who shifted the paradigm of golf course design in much the same way Dye had done many years before him. “He’s been incredibly influential,” Schneider says. “Bill Coore and Sand Hills played a role in [changing modern course design], but Tom’s books and Tom’s work and Tom’s willingness to be outspoken, to be an honest critic and take honest criticism, has changed our business.”

The Man Out Front Tom Doak High Pointe
Like his famous green complexes, Doak himself is full of unexpected wrinkles and nuance. He’s much different at dinner than he is on golf course architecture message boards.

 I’m on time, but the plates have been set and the wine has already been poured. Tom and his wife, Jennifer, are seated at one of their local haunts. They’re in good spirits, and I get a glimpse of the Doak that message-board obsessives would kill for. Here we talk about more than golf, though there is plenty of that. Jennifer explains how she manages Tom’s legendary travel schedule. “I like my own company,” she says with a smile. When they got together—this is the second marriage for both of them—she knew who he was and what he did. “He’s always coming and going,” she says, “but he’s there when it counts.” 

She does admit that Doak, like many artists, is not always fully present when home, describing how his work is sometimes spread across the house, well beyond the confines of his office. Maps cover their floor. There is a chair for thinking. Once, on vacation, an idea struck him and he had to use their bed as a makeshift desk to spread out a map. Doak confides, “If I get an idea at 11 p.m., then I get an idea.” He’s constantly processing and doesn’t easily make decisions, whether it’s trip destinations or dinner. “It’s one of the things that drives me crazy,” Jennifer says, to which Doak replies, “It’s true. I’m not an absolutist.”  

That revelation in particular may come as a shock to fans who have watched Doak go to battle in the forums of over design choices, but seeing him away from the course with his wife, hearing the pair fuss over the details of how they met, watching the sweetness of how they interact, flashes a side of him that’s far different from the aloof, rigid persona that’s often been portrayed over the years.

This all tracks with the recent comments he made on a Golfer’s Journal podcast, where he confessed to host Tom Coyne that his relationships with clients have improved in the last 10 years as the age gap between them has closed. In the same episode, he described how attending therapy for adult children of alcoholics—which Jennifer attended first and encouraged—has helped him evolve. 

This self-awareness has mellowed him—his word—but it hasn’t slowed him down. In the summer of 2023, he had no fewer than six projects going: High Pointe, Pinehurst No. 10, Cabot Highlands in Scotland, a new property in Texas he had just routed that he can’t say much about yet, Rolling Sands in Florida near Hobe Sound and a coastal property in Mexico that had begun construction. “How long do I want to keep grinding on this? I don’t want to be doing it when I’m 90,” he says. But the post-pandemic golf boom, combined with his long-ingrained instinct to take work when it comes, has him as busy as he’s ever been. “I learned from the pandemic that I’d like to build 10 more golf courses. I just didn’t think that would be in a three-year span.”

The Man Out Front Tom Doak High Pointe
Doak admits the toll that all the years of travel took on his personal life, and he’s taken steps to ensure his team doesn’t suffer the same fate.

The 15th hole at the new High Pointe is a par 3 with a call back to its roots. The most direct tee box from exiting the 14th green asks for a mid-iron shot to a wide but shallow green, with a barn in the distance. The green drapes the hillside it sits upon, with steep fall-offs surrounding it and a sinister bunker, resembling a lion’s mouth template, guarding the middle. About 15 yards right of that tee box is the hole’s original tee box. From this angle, the barn disappears and what was the back slope of the green is now the right-hand slope, mirroring the tree line above it, a perfect symmetry between the two landforms. Now the shot is into a narrow but deep green and the bunker is still in play, perhaps even more so since it cuts so deeply into the green from this angle. 

Doak builds options because he believes they make great golf courses. Call it shot value. Call it strategy. Ground game versus air game. Even his greens, criticized by some as too wild and complex, are about letting players make decisions, not designed solely for visual intimidation or punishing poor shots. When looked at this way, Doak becomes an expansive and forgiving architect, one whose mother played golf and whose ability level he still thinks about when designing courses. 

The broad strokes of his biography have been well documented, and, like many who are considered geniuses in their field, his preternatural gifts often get more recognition than the work it took to put them to use. But he’s always been a grinder, from skipping the first grade to getting into MIT (then dropping out after realizing he wanted a career in golf) to winning the Dreer Award from Cornell University, a fellowship from the school’s agriculture department that sends students abroad to study. Doak’s mission was to explore golf courses in the U.K.

His application, which he shared with me, includes recommendations from some of golf’s biggest names. As an undergrad, Doak had reached out to them in his quest to understand what makes a good golf course. In 16 taut pages full of the straightforward prose and subtle jokes that remain his style, he spells out exactly what he wants to do with his life, with a clarity that most 40-year-olds wish they had. It came with a four-page handwritten letter from Ben Crenshaw that stunned the committee. Doak remembers them asking him, “How well do you know Ben Crenshaw?”  

“He was so inquisitive, and we both enjoyed speaking about and visiting different places,” Crenshaw says of that time. “I just liked the way he embraced a lot of different things. When you look at the eccentricities of people’s work—some of the really famous architects—they had such famous personalities they reflected in their work, and Tom picked up on that early.” 

Dye’s letter offers a small primer on golf course design. Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman’s letter emphasizes the importance of England and Ireland’s courses to the game. Doak even wrote to Herbert Warren Wind, who replied on The New Yorker letterhead saying what a fantastic plan it was for him to visit overseas and to contact him once he returned.

Doak was so determined to have this life that he had the audacity to ask these luminaries for help. And he’s never forgotten it. In sending me the correspondence, Doak wrote, “The letters of recommendation are not what you would have expected for a 20-year-old student, and they go a long way toward explaining why I am still working and why I make time for others: because nobody will ever get more help to succeed in this business than I got.”

One thing everyone seems to get right: Doak’s relentless drive to build the best course. He may say he’s mellowed, but he’s always been unwilling to compromise on his beliefs, from quitting Dye’s team in his 20s because he didn’t agree with some of its maximalist design tendencies, to standing by his course reviews, right through to designing the 18th hole at High Pointe.

“We always have control over our choices,” he says. “Other people, other architects, say, ‘Oh, I wish I could do what you do.’ And I say, ‘There’s only one thing stopping you: You don’t want to do it. You’re not comfortable with it.’” 

In his young and single early days, Doak had a sense of purpose and freedom that helped forge his unbending principles. He’s traveled countless miles across the planet in search of the best pieces of land, which might seem like a foregone conclusion for a golf course architect, but it doesn’t have to be; Mike Strantz, for example, stayed close to home and built a mini empire in the Carolinas. Doak acknowledges the principle of a mild criticism that has come throughout his career: that better sites give architects better chances to succeed—the line of thought being, “Of course Barnbougle was going to be incredible. No one could screw that piece of land up.” But Doak is quick to tell you that he had to go look at every one of those properties. Even now he will get on a plane if he thinks there is one feature of a potential course worth examining.

He has paid for that ambition and time away. “In the beginning, there wasn’t a family to worry about, and I was entirely selfish about it,” he says. But when he got married and had his son, Michael, he continues, “I did feel guilty about being away. Commuting to faraway sites is hard. It takes a toll on you physically and mentally, and it takes a toll on your family. And that was not the main reason my first marriage didn’t survive, not the main reason at all, but it was certainly a factor.”

Brian Slawnik says the reason he has stayed with Doak’s team for years is “the expectation and opportunity to do great work.” As the lead associate on a number of Doak’s most celebrated projects, including New Zealand’s Tara Iti and its new sister course, Te Arai North, Slawnik says Doak has always been considerate of how travel and time away from family wears on the men and women who work for him. “Shortly after his divorce, we were trying to figure out who was going to go where for different projects and Tom said to us, ‘I’m the only here who’s divorced, and I’d like to keep it that way.’”

Doak swears he doesn’t want to work as long as Pete Dye or Robert Trent Jones did, but he also knows how difficult it will be to come to the end.

To a person, his team says the boss is always focused, and they marvel at the speed of his design brain. He can see both the potential problems of a layout and past the perceived limitations. He is neither effusive in his compliments nor expansive in his critiques, and he never insults. “About five times a year, he might make me feel like an idiot,” Slawnik says, grinning. “But the other 360 days a year, I can do about whatever I want.”

Still in the back of his dust-caked car, Doak looks out toward the hive of activity on the course and finally allows a moment of reflection. “I know I need days now where I just don’t do this shit,” he says quietly. The goal, he claims, is not to be working like this into his 70s. “Not this hard. Just from watching Pete Dye, it’s a hard business to actually retire from because a) You’re not that type of person and b) you’re just more in demand as you get older. I mean, it’s creepy. I saw it with both Robert Trent Jones and Pete: Both of them got really busy near the end of their lives because clients wanted to have the last RTJ or Pete Dye golf course.”

His recent routing work on Zac Blair’s Tree Farm course in South Carolina is something of a trial balloon for his next phase. “I did the thing for Zac because, one, that’s all he wanted,” Doak says. “But No. 2, I could see myself doing more like Alister MacKenzie did and just make one visit, get the routing sorted out, then say, ‘Here’s Brian Slawnik,’ or ‘Here’s Perry Maxwell. They’re going to build it.’ Maybe I’ll come back if I want to. But that’s about all I’ll do, and hopefully help set up my associates for projects on their own and still be involved a little bit at the part where I think I’m best.”

Like the rest of us, he laments what little time he has to play golf, which is extra torturous for someone in his line of work. “I don’t have any time to play golf, and my golf sucks,” he says. “The ultimate fun and success of this career is not getting your golf course rated in the top 100. It’s being able to go back and play it and have fun. And I ain’t got a lot of time for that right now.…Some of those courses—unfortunately, a lot of them—are far away, and it’s hard to do that.”

With that, reflection time is over. He shuts his hatchback and heads back into the rolling hills. Ever the man out front, he marches past the 18th green, whose contours stretch and bend at their edges like an inkblot made three-dimensional, and finds Slawnik on No. 17. They have the kind of conversation that only people who have been working decades together can have, filled with mumbles and gestures and phrases like “yea high” and “yea wide.” Then, loud enough to be heard over the din, Doak announces that he needs a bulldozer. Not the one nearby—the one he worked in yesterday. Slawnik jumps on the phone. Doak passes a few minutes by checking his email. He paces, scanning the horizon for movement. He walks over a hill, then returns. Slawnik fires off a text, still searching. “I’ll just walk over to the one on No. 2,” Doak says. “I can be useful over there.”