The National Journal Presents

Tom Doak on Gunnamatta

Now two years since the first divots were taken on the Gunnamatta course, Tom Doak offers The National Journal some intriguing insights into his design process, what makes Australian golf unique, and a hint at what's next for an architect at the peak of his powers.

Words by Tom Doak. Photographed, filmed & edited by William Watt.

The Interview

The National Journal: How pleased are you with how the Gunnamatta Course has been received by members and visitors since its opening? 
Tom Doak: I am always reluctant to take on a redesign job.  You start with 18 holes and finish with 18, and whether it’s better or not is entirely a matter of opinion.  But it was a different dynamic for a club with three courses, where the Ocean course was the least favourite by a long shot.  To turn that around is pretty cool.
TNJ: How would you characterise the Gunnamatta Course and how it sits within the global golf landscape? What elements of the ‘The Cups’ landscape are shared with other great golf regions? 
TD:  The Cups are not quite like linksland because of the added elevation changes, but they do produce the same difficult stances for approach shots, and the wind is a big part of shotmaking.  The trick is to keep the playing surfaces firm enough that you can land the ball short of the green or wide to one side, and use the slopes to get where you want to go.
TNJ: The Gunnamatta course is developing a very ‘Aussie’ feel to it. How are you able to bring out this sense of place so strongly in your designs?
TD:  My crew is living on site for months at a time, and they can’t help pick up some of the local flavor as they are building the golf holes.  I don’t know that it is a conscious thing; we just aren’t trying to import the same thing we did somewhere else. 
TNJ: Is the boomerang green on 8 perhaps a nod to Australiana? 
TD:  That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone suggest that!  The green just kept growing further and further to the left behind the bunker as we were shaping it, and eventually I just decided we might as well have a hole location all the way on the other side.  There is a “boomerang” green at Crystal Downs and I often think about that one, but not because of boomerangs!
TNJ: The 2nd hole on Gunnamatta has quickly become a member favourite. What is it about these enticing short par-4’s that makes them so popular in Australia? 
TD: It’s funny how more accepting you are of that length of hole than my American clients.  Some of it is down to the fact that you measure in meters instead of yards — in the U.S., anything under 300 yards seems too short to people, where 270m is not the same sort of threshold.  But really, it’s that holes of that length at Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath and Woodlands have paved the way, so when people hear about a very short par 4 it’s a positive connotation, not a negative one.  We have now built SIX great par-4’s in Australia and NZ under 300 yards, and I think I’m just working on my first one in the USA, at Sedge Valley.
TNJ: The ‘bathtub’ green complex on the 3rd has such bold contours around it that the surface appears almost flat, yet it contains subtle breaks that can easily deceive. Is contrasting or balancing the severity of a green surround with the putting surface a consideration in your designs? 
TD: It’s always more difficult to read green contours in a bowl because it’s not obvious where the water drains to.  It’s also much more acceptable to have severe interior contours if the outside edges of the green bring the ball back into play; instead of having to get the speed just perfect to just get over the internal contour, you could also bang the ball past the hole and let it feed back.  But I rarely see other architects building anything like that.
TNJ:  Two holes on Gunnamatta, the 12th and the 15th, offer the member or strategic player an option off the tee that a first time player would not expect. Shoot well right of the obvious target line and you may be rewarded with a better angle into the green, depending on pin placement. How rare is it to be able to create these sorts of hidden fairways, and is it something you are looking for more in recent years?
TD: They aren’t any more obvious to us than to the golfer; it takes us a while to see them as a viable option, but a hole isn’t built in a day, so there’s time for us to find them.  On 12, when we were starting to think about how wide the fairway should be, we didn’t want to have a lot of long grass on the right that’s invisible from the tee because you would lose your ball there without realizing, so we extended the short grass and there’s your alternate route.  #15 came about because there was an old fairway up there and we would walk in to the clubhouse that way after work, and we realized that was a completely different look at the green and made for an easier shot to the left-hand hole locations.
TNJ: Some of the shaping of the green surrounds, in particular the 12th (see attached photo), seem to echo the surrounding cups landscape, but on a smaller scale. Is this something you look to craft when out in the field, or just a ‘happy accident’ of the landscapes interacting?
TD: The 12th green is a happy accident . . . we thought we needed to make it flatter and pushed a bunch of dirt to the front, and then realized it wasn’t nearly as steep as we’d thought, so we had extra dirt and we used it to guard the left side of the green, instead of building bunkers or something else over there.

#15 came about because there was an old fairway up there and we would walk in to the clubhouse that way after work, and we realized that was a completely different look at the green and made for an easier shot to the left-hand hole locations.

Tom DoakGolf Course Architect

The ‘hidden fairways’ of 12th and 15th holes offer a completely different angle into the green, which can be advantageous depending on the pin position. 

TNJ: How important is it having a superintendent/course manager of the calibre of Leigh Yanner on site, to tend and enhance your designs over time? Is this a consideration in what jobs you will take on these days?
TD: There’s a cliché in the business that your designs are like your kids… If you want to extend that analogy, then the superintendent is the guy your daughter is going to marry.  And you’d be happy if she married someone like Leigh. Many courses get worse over time as things evolve; the best courses have gotten better, and that’s all credit to the club and their key staff.
In the end, the greenkeeper has to be someone the client is comfortable with, more than who I’m comfortable with.  We want someone who’s going to stay there for the long haul, and not move on after five years, where you have to re-set the process with someone who wasn’t around when the course was built.  We would never have time to explain to Leigh’s successor all of the things we talked about while we were working on the project together, but if Leigh keeps things evolving in that direction for the next 10-20 years, his successor will be on the right track.
Video piece – Sunset over Gunnamatta
TNJ: How are the upcoming works on the 17th likely to affect the final sequence of holes?
TD: I am not sure we’ve settled on a final plan yet.  It’s fair to say that most people love the 17th hole and they would rather we change other things to fix the safety issue, but if we go that route it’s going to affect not just the 18th but probably also the 1st hole.
TNJ: How difficult is it to predict and prevent issues arising like the 17th/18th from happening, especially as club and ball technology continues to expand the big misses?
TD: Well my love for short par-4’s has really bitten me in the butt here, because if people weren’t tempted to swing for the green there wouldn’t be a problem.  I should have caught it, but I did my re-routing on the ground by walking everyone around the existing course and pointing out changes, and I didn’t see the problem, because the 18th tee is invisible from 17.  If I’d been working off the maps instead of out on site, I wouldn’t have boxed myself in so badly.
TNJ: While on site for the build at Gunnamatta, did you ever look over the fence at the neighbouring property, with its rolling cups landscape, and imagine a few hole locations (see attached photos)? What is the first thing you see when looking out on a field like this (eg. green locations, or stretches of fairway)?
TD: You can’t help but look at that land when you drive into the entrance and come over that first hill.  The thing is, that’s exactly what the land for the Gunnamatta and Moonah courses looked like 25 years ago when Mike Clayton and I were interviewing for the project.  But you lose that feel when you take the cattle away from grazing it wall to wall.  The unmowed areas between holes grow up and start giving redefining the space, instead of the big wrinkled comforter look of the grazed land.
What I would love to do one day is to build a course out there where the fairways are just grazed — there are some like that in New Zealand — or, do a routing where the holes are squeezed tighter together so you could just irrigate everything and mow it all short, and let the contours take the spotlight.  But it’s hard to do that in Australia, because water is scarce and you can’t waste it.  It would be easier to build that in New Zealand or Scotland where it doesn’t take so much irrigation.
TNJ: With St Patricks, The Lido, and soon Sedge Valley and Te Arai opening, it is an exciting time to follow your work. How do you maintain such a consistently high standard of work over such a wide variety of projects? 
TD:  Sedge Valley is still underway but the rest of those are done, and that’s actually a really odd part of the business, coming back to a project we built a year ago and trying to be excited about that, when we’ve already moved on to the next thing!
The reason we maintain such a high standard is that (a) we only take projects we are excited about, and (b) I have a lot of talented people working on each construction job, who take personal pride in the result and want to show what they can do.  When you’ve set such a high bar, the people who can’t jump over it don’t apply for the job.
TNJ: What future design project are you most excited about at the moment?
TD: I don’t even know how to answer that right now.  Our new course at Pinehurst was just announced and it’s gotten so much attention that everyone thinks that must be it.
But at the same time, I’m in the middle of Sedge Valley which is the par-68 course I’ve always wanted to build in the USA, and we’re about to start on a new version of my first original design at High Pointe that closed years ago, and then we’re also just starting at Punta Brava in Mexico which I would have dropped everything to do, because the site is so spectacular.
I would have been happy just working on any one of those projects, but trying to tackle them all at once is kind of like that dream I used to have where I’ve got to take a final exam in a college course I forgot I had, and never attended!  With so much happening at once I will have to lean on all those talented associates even more than normal, but who knows, the courses might be even better if they’re a bit less about me.

The reason we maintain such a high standard is that (a) we only take projects we are excited about, and (b) I have a lot of talented people working on each construction job, who take personal pride in the result and want to show what they can do.

Tom DoakGolf Course Architect