The golf course industry in 1996, when Tom Doak's "Confidential Guide to Golf Courses" was first printed by the Sleeping Bear Press, was quite a different place: an age of architectural excess; unlimited budgets, and far-flung projects. Las Vegas' Shadow Creek was the shiny new toy that developers coast-to-coast wanted to emulate. Bandon Dunes wouldn't open its first course for another four years.
But as with any boom times, folks don't really like to listen to the sober guy in the room too much. Doak's writing, often times pugnacious in tone and directed at architects with big budgets like Fazio and Nicklaus, was too little too late.
Twenty years later, the herd has thinned. Many modern courses are closed or on their third owner, and there are golf course architects now designing apartment complexes. But few could argue that what is getting built now is in many ways more thoughtful and subdued compared to courses born in the '90s.
And while Doak can certainly be credited with one of the loudest voices in the movement back to sustainability, the fruits of such dirty work have been spread around. Doak has lost out on high-profile jobs to other top architecture teams. Coore & Crenshaw, the duo of soft-spoken, Southern gentlemen who could be dispatched as international diplomats tomorrow if necessary, have been plenty busy as Mike Keiser's go-to guys. And no architect has had a better year than Doak's former associate, Gil Hanse.
But Doak's willingness to push the envelope, in part by re-imagining traditional themes in design, has kept him a favorite among avid golf course seekers. His opinion is as influential as ever as the new Confidential Guide to Golf Courses was re-released as a glossy, five-part set at the same time that his latest achievement, The Loop, the first truly reversible golf course to come to destination golf since the Old Course at St. Andrews, debuted.
The full set, at $280, runs similar in price to what many signed copies of the 1996 Confidential Guide goes for on eBay. The new guide is leaps and bounds beyond that original, packaged up in hardcover with loads more photos and illustrations. Having released three hardcover books of the five volumes in this series, it is well on its way to becoming a candidate for the most comprehensive (and critical) golf-course book around.
Video: Golfing World profile of golf course architect Tom Doak
To amass such a massive roster of courses around the world, Doak enlisted the help of three co-authors, all of whom he felt would be able to provide consistency to the books. That voice, as was the idea behind Doak's original, self-published guide in 1988, reads more like chit-chat with a well-informed friend over a pint in a corner booth than something that's been polished and packaged by a team of editors and P.R. pros.
If you're planning a U.K. trip, vol. 1 on golf in the U.K. and Europe, released in 2014, is essential reading. The greatest joy in Old World golf isn't playing an Open Championship layout but instead finding a lesser known (and cheaper) local course. And Doak, who spent considerable time overseas thanks to a scholarship from Cornell University, gives you plenty to choose from for your itinerary. The original Confidential Guide helped turn avid travelers onto courses such as Pennard Golf club in Wales, a truly raw links experience -- hardly perfect -- but as memorable of a round as I've ever played (in fact, I've now been twice).
While some critiques of U.S. courses from the '96 guide have been softened, there is still plenty of bulletin board material by Doak for other architects to chew on. But he also critiques himself: "I still wonder how good this course might have been in I'd taken my foot off the gas a little," Doak ponders about Black Forest, an infamously tough design (at the request of the owner) in northern Michigan that, if recent reviews on Golf Advisor are any indication, appears on the brink of going the way of High Pointe.
As for his biting conclusion about Florida golf from '96 ("I'll take Seminole and you can keep the other 999 courses in Florida"), he further examines the state's design woes as a result of the housing corridor model responsible for the vast majority of uninspired layouts. (After all, Streamsong's remote, dunes-like landscape shocked everyone when it was revealed). But nevertheless I'm dumbfounded Doak or his co-authors didn't get El Campeon at Mission Inn on their radar, an historic, hilly resort course that in my opinion could be a solid 6- to iffy 7 on the "Doak scale."
That isn't to say some lesser-known publics aren't covered. I was pleased to see how many munis are mentioned. Doak lauds New Orleans' short Audubon Park as one of his 18 courses to play in vol. 2, and Fowler's Mill, an affordable Pete Dye design in Ohio gets a nice write-up. I do wish he had the time while in my neck of the woods in Texas to ditch some of the more average private courses and instead stop by Axland & Proctor's Delaware Springs, or the city of Austin's historic Lions Municipal, where not only are there a handful of fun, old-school holes, but dogs are always welcome, and I know Doak is a big fan of that.
I don't have a problem admitting that I, and many of you (the average score on Golf Advisor is 3.8/5) aren't as critical of courses as the "Doak scale," which seems to give a lot of courses I love a "5/10." But if the reader can look past what can at times feels like overly-harsh criticism, they will certainly learn something about how courses, and the process to build golf courses, have evolved over time thumbing through the pages. It's pretty tough to not start plotting out your next golf trip, with a mix of top and lesser-knowns in your head before putting the guide down for the night. That in itself makes the new guide essential reading for anyone with plans to see as many of the world's great courses as they can.