Wednesday, May 29, 2024

NC golf: Designer Tom Doak explains what makes a course better than average

When Tom Doak was selected to transform 900 acres in Aberdeen in Moore County into the Pinehurst Resort’s tenth course, I recalled his 2016 LINKS Magazine story titled “How To Rate Your Home Course.”

Ask 10 people to rate the same courses and scores can vary all over the board. The North Carolina Golf Panel uses 10 rating categories to create the North Carolina’s top 100 list: routing, flow, design, strategy, fairness, memorability, condition, variety, aesthetics, and ambiance. 

Three courses — Grandfather Golf and Country Club, Elk River Club, the Country Club of North Carolina (Dogwood) — have perfect 100 scores on my ballot. Pinehurst No. 2, is a 99, falling from 10 to 9 in the fairness category. Have you played those greens? 

Doak rates a course using nine categories and rates courses from 1 to 10. He starts with a 3 average, not a 5, to avoid the “all above average” approach made famous by Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon children.

Doak offers six factors that might add a point or two to a course’s rating, plus three that can take it down a notch.


GREAT LAND: Land for a course is great only if the architect uses it right. Courses near an ocean may make for great viewing, but the layout needs to use the breezes to force golfers to hit a variety of shots. “Great land is actually worth a lot more than one point in the Doak Scale,” Doak wrote in his column, if the designer takes advantage of it.

GREAT HOLES: Champion Hills, a Tom Fazio design in Hendersonville, has great mountain views and interesting holes. After the 18th hole, a playing partner said, “We just played 18 terrific holes, but all together, they do not make a good golf course.” In his column, Doak wrote, “A great course may be more than the sum of its parts, but usually not much more.” Pine Valley Golf Club in Pine Valley, New Jersey, is long known as the world’s finest course because it has the best set of 18 holes.

GREAT ROUTING: This is the “least understood part” of golf course design. In addition to finding spaces for great holes, “it’s also about exploring the property, making the most of beautiful views, and avoiding back-and-forth monotony.”

GREAT GREENS: Do the greens “create opportunities for interesting recovery play and dictate strategy all the way back to the tee?” Great greens “make every shot count,” Doak wrote.

GREAT HAZARDS: “Golfers dig bunkers and even more so when they have a bit of eye-catching style. Beautiful bunkers are only great bunkers when you put them in compelling spots that force the golfers to deal with them.”

WHAT MAKES A COURSE DIFFERENT: Don’t overlook “creativity in favor of consistency,” Doak noted. Great courses have local characteristics that can’t be replicated anywhere else. 


PLAYABILITY: Some courses are designed with low handicap players in mind with little regard for the difficulty to the higher handicap players. If customers get beat up on the course, that course may not survive. “You would not enjoy the game if you had to hit multiple wood shots on every hole.”

GOOD PLAYING SURFACES: “It’s hard to enjoy a course if the fairway lies aren’t tight and the greens aren’t true,” Doak wrote. “It can change year to year and day to day,” so he doesn’t give it much weight in rating.

WALKABILITY: Walkers love courses where the next tee is close to the previous green with minimal uphill. “If you’re hiking uphill to every tee, it will spoil the flow of the game.”

Jim Pomeranz is a member of the North Carolina Golf Panel. He writes about golf and other sports topics at

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