Jack on Doak

The most recent Score magazine has a Q&A with Jack Nicklaus (which I can’t locate online) that was conducted over two interview sessions earlier this year. Rather than talk to Jack about his Masters wins, or the role of fatherhood in Tiger Woods’ golf career, we spoke about golf design, and his evolution from a player to a designer.

Lots of things struck me about the conversation, but among the most interesting was how dismissive Nicklaus was of working with Tom Doak on Sebonack, a collaboration in Long Island. Let’s put it this way, Jack doesn’t do collaborations any more, unless it is with one of his sons, and those, in my mind aren’t really collaborations — more Jack giving direction to individuals in the family firm. Nicklaus had to be forced into collaborating with Doak, and would not do it again, though Sebonack has been well received since opening.

Secondly, there is the issue of who did what. Nicklaus contends he did all the strategy, leaving aesthetics to Doak. He says Doak is incapable of understanding the needed strategies of the game because Doak is not a great golfer. It is an intriguing argument, which would suggest only a pro golfer could design a course for a pro golfer. It would suggest that average players, like Alister MacKenzie, who did courses like Augusta and Cypress Point, didn’t understand strategy.

Here’s Jack’s quote:

Do you think you bring something unique to golf design because of your experience as a player?

JN: Lets put it this way, Tom Doak is not necessarily a golfer. Lets just say I dont think he understands what a golf shot should be. Thats not a criticism. He just doesnt know. And thats what I bring to a project. Thats why Sebonack turned out to be a nice golf course, because most of the strategy there is what I did. Most of the look I let him have because I like that look too. It is the combination of putting those two things together that make it work. Tom did a beautiful job of that and it turned out to be a very nice golf course. But Ive now done that. Frankly I learned from that and I think you learn from that any time you do something like that. It is the same every time I play at St. Andrews. I always say, ËœGee Id like to do more things like St. Andrews. Every time I play Augusta I say Id like to do more courses like that. Same with Pebble Beach. You are influenced by everything you see and do. Theres nothing new. It is just how you apply it.

This issue came up yesterday while I was playing St. George’s with golf design Tom McBroom. McBroom recently completed a project, the Raven at Lora Bay, with Tom Lehman. McBroom said all pros insist they are the only ones who understand golf strategy.

“Tom would say, just leave the strategies to me,” McBroom said.

Is there any truth to the fact they understand strategy better than a good golf designer like McBroom (who is a fine single digit handicapper)?

“That’s just nonsense,” he said.

In fact, even if a pro understood strategy better than anyone else, I wonder why one would hand a golf project to them, unless it was holding a PGA Tour stop. After all, 99.9% of the time, the course will be played by amateurs, not pros. And a course is only successful if amateurs seek it out and support it with their dollars. So in that regard, who cares whether strategies are a match for pros who hit the ball 300 yards all the time?

Truthfully, I think there’s very little support historically for the notion that golf pros understand the nuances and the strategies of the game better than anyone else. In this I think Jack is wrong.

Lastly, I’m still stunned by Nicklaus’ contention that he doesn’t go to see courses designed by others. That would be like me saying I don’t read the writing of my peers — you do so at your professional peril. That Nicklaus wouldn’t have taken the short drive to see Sand Hills in Nebraska while working at the nearby Dismal River, is just arrogance. Jack isn’t the best designer in the world — and even if he was, one should always pay close attention to the work of your peers that is being heralded as among the best. Of course, maybe Jack doesn’t think he has peers when it comes to golf design….

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

9 CommentsLeave a comment

  • RT. I read your score article as well and it struck me that Jack either contradicted himself or was misquoted when he said he thinks Crenhaw & Coore and Doak do nice jobs aesthetically, yet he hasn’t visited other designers courses in the last 20 years.

    You know you should put this up on GCA and watch the reaction from the Doak fan club – would be very entertaining.

  • as tempted as i am to write on GCA, i think my comments will be better heard here…

    i too, pass Jack’s Doak related comments off as misguided, misinformed, ignorant, or arrogant. or maybe all of the above. that said, we’re all entitled to our own opinion…

    however, that opinion is rather unfounded when he hasn’t seen any of Doak’s “strategy” work, and assumingly commented on the aesthetics via photos.

    This is what is concerning to me… as an artist, designer, golfer… to not seek out the work of other designers or “competitors” (leaving the meaning of the word behind…) is he not holding himself back creatively? Building architects, landscape architects, artists etc all seek out work of their colleagues to push themselves forward, for inspiration, for new ways of thinking, or new twists on old themes.

    Is he not doing himself and by extension, his clients a disservice by not attempting to be the best designer he can be?

    Maybe i’m ignorant myself in thinking he’s into it for the “design”… but why then comment on Doak’s ability to understand what a golf shot should be?

    and maybe his associates do all that leg-work for him…


  • “He says Doak is incapable of understanding the needed strategies of the game because Doak is not a great golfer.”

    By which criterion, David Leadbetter shouldn’t be coaching tour pros because he was only a journeyman himself.

    Jack Nicklaus is one of my four all-time sport heroes but I too am really alarmed by some of his comments here. What happened to that legendary graciousness? Or, at the very least, tact?

    Doak might be feisty but I think it’s now clear to anyone that he has a certain talent for what he does.

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