Twenty Questions with Tom Doak About His Stone Eagle Golf Club

Editor’s Note: One of golf’s hottest designers, Tom Doak, is currently overseeing the construction of his latest project, Stone Eagle Golf Club in Palm Desert, Calif. The private layout will occupy 210 acres of a 640-acre parcel, with the remaining land left as preserved open space. In addition to Doak’s course, Stone Eagle will feature a 14,000-square-foot clubhouse and a driving range-practice facility. Here’s a Question and Answer session with Stone Eagle’s designer.

In your eyes, in what areas must a course excel to be considered as a truly great test of golf?

If a course includes a great variety of holes, it will eventually find out any weak areas of your game. I do spend more time thinking about recovery play than most architects, especially the shots around the green; I believe the short game deserves equal attention as tee-to-green play.

Do you have a basic design philosophy, or is each site unique?

Every site is a different puzzle, and each one has a lot of possible solutions. I'm looking for the best solution which takes advantage of all the features of that particular piece of ground. The client's input matters a lot in the finished product, too.

When presented the Stone Eagle site, what were the initial steps you went through in designing the routing of the course?

Most sites have certain natural features which divide the property into certain parts. Ridges are the most defining feature; if we don't want to wind up with blind shots, we're going to start and stop the holes at natural ridgelines. At Stone Eagle, those ridgelines run downhill from the mountain, so a lot of the holes wound up running up and down the hill, enabling us to use the natural rock outcroppings as features in the design.

What excited you most about the site?

The background of the mountain is spectacular, and not like anything I've ever worked with before. The other attraction was the absence of housing or even a golf clubhouse on the site. A lot of my design decisions are taken from visual cues, so it's more difficult to work where future development will impact on the design.

Tell us a bit about Eric Iverson, your design associate for this job.

On each project I rely on one of my associates to shepherd my ideas and to add their own touches to the finished product. Eric has been perfect for this job. I got to know him 20 years ago when we were both starting out in the golf business. He went on to build some big projects in the Far East for Dye Designs, and then designed a course on his own – Staley Farms in Kansas City – before coming to work with us. He's an excellent golfer [better than me, anyway], and he's shaped greens for me in New Zealand and Australia and Washington before coming to run Stone Eagle. His experience on several sites in Asia allowed him to make a difficult job here look easy.

What about working at Stone Eagle has surprised you?

I'm surprised by how much soil there really was up there, and how easily some of the surface rock broke up into usable material. We did have to use a bit of dynamite on some of the major cuts, but it's a lot less than you would have thought.

You have always prided yourself in designing "playable" courses. What attributes of Stone Eagle will ensure playability for the "average golfer?"

First and foremost, the grassed corridors are very wide. There are a lot of holes which tempt you to play close alongside a natural hazard to shorten the hole or get a better angle of approach, but if you go in those hazards it's your own fault; there are acres of ground on the safe side of most holes. You have to make carries from a few tees, but none of them are too long.

Many of our members have played your course at Bandon Oregon (Pacific Dunes). Are there any similarities that could be drawn from the two?

Neither course is very long and both are pretty wide, so it's possible for the average golfer to get around with a respectable score. But in both cases, there is an “X” factor that makes it difficult for good players to post low numbers. At Pacific Dunes, the wind always has to be taken into account; at Stone Eagle, it's the elevation changes which will make it hard to dial in the right distance for approach shots.

How does the Stone Eagle routing plan benefit from the absence of homes and streets throughout the course?

Once you get to the first tee, there's nothing to distract you from the golf, and there is a lot more visual variety to the course because not all the holes are the same width . . . They tie together in different ways, instead of being hemmed in at the sides.

What course or courses do you expect Stone Eagle to be compared?

As a desert course, Stone Eagle is bound to be compared to the most dramatic courses in desert environments . . . The Quarry and Bighorn here in California, and Desert Highlands in Arizona, which was the forerunner of the type. We've borrowed ideas from each of those courses, but we've also consciously done things different than they did, too.

Which holes at Stone Eagle are shaping up to be your own personal favorites?

The tenth hole, which plays up into the mouth of the canyon leading into the mountains, was one of the first holes I latched onto in the design. On the other hand, the par-5 eighth was a hole I was worried about early in the planning; I thought it would be difficult to make it turn back along the side of the mountain, but that great fairway bunker on the inside of the dogleg makes it work better than I imagined. Good players will be tempted to try and make a three there, but they can also make a seven with a wayward shot or two.

Will members be more impressed with course or the views at Stone Eagle?

For me, the visuals are an integral part of the golf course design; part of getting the routing right is to use the best backgrounds for holes and to use the natural features as hazards which matter. It all comes together on a hole like the par-3 15th, where we are playing right down the canyon between two large peaks, and we've fine-tuned the elevation of the tees in order to make the horizon of the green more dramatic.

What has been the greatest challenge(s) at Stone Eagle and how have you over come it?

The greatest challenge is gravity – the natural tilt of the property back toward the pavilion. On the uphill holes it's difficult to see the putting surface, so we've had to be creative in our greens designs to give players a sense of the target from below. On the downhill holes we've had to grade the fairways carefully so the ball won't just get away from you.

What differences are there in designing a private course such as Stone Eagle versus a public course such as Pacific Dunes?

Golfers aren't really that much different in terms of skill level; you have to make the course playable for everyone. But a private course doesn't necessarily have to appeal to as wide of an audience; it only has to find a membership full of people who will enjoy it.

How will the bunkering at Stone Eagle look and play?

When we started on the course we weren't sure how our bunkers would evolve. All of the elevation changes offer a lot of opportunities for dramatic bunkering, but we were afraid the scale of the site would dwarf our man-made features. Instead, I think the bunkers have helped to blend the course back to the desert visually, and make a good playable transition area as well. The bunkers on the eighth and twelfth and eighteenth holes are awesome in their scale; members will live in fear of them but enjoy telling stories of their guests' attempts at recovery.

This is your first California desert design. What have you learned about working in the desert that you didn’t know previous to your work on Stone Eagle?

I'm surprised how much plant material exists up on the site. My first impression was that it was pretty barren, but that was in drought conditions when the plants were barely leafed out. When we got that rain in January all the plants sprung to life.

What are some of the unique features on the course members at Stone Eagle will enjoy during their rounds?

The greens are one of a kind; there is a lot of contour to deal with, and it's going to take some local knowledge to figure out which way the putts break. “Everything breaks to Indio” is only the start of the equation here.

What give you the most satisfaction from your work?

There is nothing more fun than going back to play the courses you've designed. It's especially true at private clubs, because the members are all so familiar with the course; they appreciate our work on a regular basis, and they're more inclined to make observations about the design which we hadn't thought of.

Where will Stone Eagle fit into your body of work?

Most of my reputation has been based on courses where we didn't have to do major earthmoving, so Stone Eagle is a departure for us, an attempt to do something new and different. Whether it will lead to similar projects in the future, I can't really predict.

What do you hope a player will “go away with” after finishing a round at Stone Eagle?

The ultimate compliment is when people want to go back out and sneak in a few more holes before it gets dark. I think that's the kind of place Stone Eagle is going to be.