Design Special

Sacramento Magazine, March 2001
By Mike Bowker

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to design a golf course, consider this. You are standing in the middle of a 300-acre oak forest , your view on all sides blocked by hillsides covered with poison oak and cut through by a half-dozen streams choked with blackberry bushes. If you can envision that perfect par 5 that runs up the glade, around the bend, across the creek and between the two big oaks to a perfect little green that slopes from left to right – not too severely, mind you, because this is a difficult hole to reach in two – then you might be cut out to be a golf course architect.

For those who have this incredible “sixth sense,” and who are lucky enough to find a slot in the harshly competitive world of golf course architecture, life can be good. If you are successful, chances are you will be asked to design courses in some of the more spectacular places in the world, such as Hawaii , the Caribbean , the Far East and Northern California.

Your work will likely stand for decades – if not centuries – as horizontal monuments to your talent. And you can make a comfortable living, if not become downright rich.

Of course, there are downsides. Every golfer who misses a putt, catches a bad lie or just has a bad day will not only call into doubt your design ability, but possibly the legitimacy of your ancestry. And then there are the developers – who pay your salary – who usually get their way when they want to unbend your perfect dogleg so they can cram in another house or two. Perhaps worst of all is the current and unfortunate trend for a “name” golfer to be paid more than you to place his name on the project and take credit for your work.

But, all things considered, many of us might gladly take on the challenges of being a big time golf course architect. We caught up with one from Northern California.

If you’ve played the 12th hole at Granite Bay Golf Course, you can understand my mistake. It’s a long, uphill par 5 that looks like it was plucked from the Scottish Highlands. “This one has a great natural feel to it,” I told one of my playing partners, Kyle Phillips, who happened to be the course designer. Phillips immediately broke into laughter. So did our other playing partner, Dave Cook, one of the principal developers of Granite Bay.

“We moved more dirt on this hole than just about all the other holes combined,” Phillips explained with a grin. “But, you saying that is about the biggest compliment I could ever get. It’s the effect we were trying to achieve.”

As we finished the hole and looked back down the fairway, I realized the hole is a microcosm of the Phillips style, which already is breaking new ground for golf course architects worldwide. A former protégé and employee of perhaps the most famous course designer in the world – Robert Trent Jones Jr. – Phillips designed more than 35 courses on several continents under the Jones logo. He also has completed work on courses in five countries since going out on his own in 1997.

Last fall we spent a day hitting it around Granite Bay and talking about his philosophy of architecture, which was pure heaven for a golf course design junkie like me. We also talked about his split from the Robert Trent Jones II Design Group and the reasons behind his relocation to the Sacramento area. But, most of all, we talked about the future of golf. Phillips was easygoing and unassuming – he enjoyed talking about his family as much as he did his work. But by the end of the evening, it was easy to understand why he is considered one of the world’s most thorough and innovative designers. His naturalistic style may well play a major role in influencing what golf courses will look like in the future.

If Phillips, 43, were a writer, you would say he had spent most of his career as a highly successful ghostwriter. For 16 years he served as a principle architect for Jones Jr. never receiving public credit for his work. (Although you will never hear Phillips complain about it.)

For example, few Northern Californians know Phillips did most of the design work on the Bodega Harbour Golf Links, The Resort at Squaw Creek, Granite Bay Golf Club and Adobe Creek in Petaluma.

The reason is that the marking of the golf industry is still a celebrity-driven phenomenon and the Robert Trent Jones name is highly salable. Jones Jr., of course, is part of the most famous lineage in golf course architecture history. His father, the late Robert T. Jones Sr., designed Spyglass Hill in Pebble Beach and the Mauna Kea in Hawaii , among many other famous layouts. Phillips joined Jones’ design company is 1981, fresh out of Kansas State University.

“I’m not sure I knew how lucky I was to get the job,” said Phillips, who moved in 1981 to the Jones Jr. headquarters in Palo Alto . “All I knew is I loved what I was doing and so did everybody else. There was a tremendous amount of energy in that office.”

During the 1980s, Jones Jr.’s company went from being a popular course architecture firm to a burgeoning international conglomerate, handling the design of hundreds of new resort courses around the world. Phillips was one of four primary designers under Jones’ tutelage. As a results, he traveled the world to places including Barbados , Austria , Malaysia , Portugal , Italy , France , Finland and Aruba , building golf courses. Although the junior architects did much of the work, all the courses are considered Robert Trent Jones Jr. designs.

“At the time, it was well worth the trade-off”, said Phillips. “I learned a tremendous amount from Bobby and his father. We didn’t always agree on things and more than once Bobby called me ‘strong and wrong,’ but he gave us a lot of leeway to design courses our own way.”

In 1997, Phillips decided to make a break from the Jones fold. It was a gutsy move because working for Jones Jr. was interesting, lucrative and secure. “I really did some soul searching,” Phillips said. “In the end, I knew if I was ever going to make a mark on my own, I had to try it. I didn’t want to reach the end of my career with regrets that I never took that step.”

One of his motivations for going out on his own was to further explore his ideas about creating the most natural-feeling golf courses possible. A major tenet in any Phillips design is detailed attention to what he calls “landforms.” These are the slopes, ridges, mounds and rolls that occur naturally within the local landscape. They are critical elements to Phillips, who is a master at extending what nature gives him.

“That’s what you saw on the 12th at Granite Bay ,” he told me. “We took what was an unplayable slope and created an acceptable fairway by building the same type of long ridges that occur naturally on the rest of the course.”

Phillips’ concern with natural landforms is a distinct departure from the design concepts that have dominated golf for the last four decades. Beginning in the 1960s, course architects moved away from the approach of designers such as Jones Sr., who turned as little dirt as possible. Instead, designers began a long love affair with a singular design tool – the bulldozer. The minimalist or naturalistic trend that produced courses such as Pebble Beach , Spyglass Hill , Riviera , The Olympic Club, Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot and other classis courses was shipwrecked by a fleet of D-8’s. Many of the ’60s courses turned out flat, long and virtually featureless.

Later, artificial mounding became the vogue, leaving many courses hemmed by mogul-like bumps that looked like the aftermath of an invasion of giant moles. Golf course design reflected the disco styles of the late 1970s and early ’80s – loud, flashy and about as natural as an oil slick. The ’90s brought about even more radical designs, full of blind, 90-degree doglegs and nightmarishly tough greens.

Today, Phillips is helping pioneer a new style of naturalism. His inspiration comes from the great architects of the past. He talks with great reverence about “Tillinghast bunkers,” “MacKenzie greens” and other trademarks of the classic designers.

“What we’re doing now is looking back at what they did and recognizing that we haven’t actually been moving forward in the past few decades,” Phillips said. “Hopefully we’re through with this era of demolishing the natural terrain.”
One of Kyle Phillips Golf Course Design’s first contracts was to remake the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Manassas , Va. , site of the 2000 Presidents Cup. His work drew high praise from the PGA Touring pros.

Tom Lehman, for example, once said: “He improved the course dramatically. It’s just a much better test.” Phil Mickelson agreed. “I thought the remake of the greens was fabulous,” the lefty said. “I thought all the subtleties made it a much improved track.”

It was praise enough to leave one red-faced, but even that was nothing compared to the reviews Phillips has received for the most ambitious project he has taken on since leaving Jones in 1997 – the Kingsbarns Golf Links near St. Andrews , Scotland.

“Kingsbarns was a total challenge for me because the area was nothing more than a flat field that once housed horse barns for the king of England , ” Phillips said. “Really, the land was pretty uninspiring”.

Before he turned a shovel of dirt, Phillips studied the shape and sizes of the surrounding landscapes. Then he went to work recreating similar slopes, berms and landforms on the Kingsbarns site. “I created the landforms first, then fit the golf course into them,” he said. “That, I believe, is the difference between me and many other designers. I think a golf course goes beyond flattening the terrain, then just building tees, greens and bunkers. Building a course is like peeling an onion. There are layers of detail. In the end, a designer has to consider every single land form when finishing a course. It is the subtle details that separate the great courses from the others.”

Did Phillips succeed at Kingsbarns? It would appear so. The February 2001 issue of Golf Digest rated Kingsbarns the Best New International Course. “Whatever it takes, get there,” wrote Ron Whitten. “Kingsbarns is worth a king’s ransom to play.”

Dave Perkins, a respected golf writer, wrote that in Kingsbarns, “Phillips has produced a reputation-making course that one day may stand beside Pebble Beach as Jack Neville’s first-time wonder.”

This is all high praise indeed for the work of a virtually unknown golf architect from Granite Bay , California.Yet Phillips appears unaffected by his success. He rolled his eyes and laughed when I called him a world-renowned course designer. He was more eager to talk – with a father’s obvious pride – about his son, Aaron, 16, and his daughter, Kelsey, 13, than he was about the fabulous places he has been. His children’s welfare was a big reason Phillips and his wife, Jill, chose the Sacramento area for their home in 1997.

“The quality of the schools and the community were a big draw for us in Sacramento ,” said Phillips, who sometimes flies home from an overseas project just to watch his children’s weekend soccer games. “We were considering several different cities around the country, but Sacramento seemed to have everything we wanted as a family.”

Phillips’ next project, currently on the drawing board, is the Morgan Creek Golf and Country Club just northeast of Sacramento in Placer County . He and Dave Cook are working together on the project, a private course that will wind through a subdivision. “It should be an exciting course when we are finished,” said Phillips. “Right now we’re in the longest phase of any course development. That, of course, is getting all the permits we need.”

By the time we finished our round at Granite Bay , I had become aware that Phillips the “ghostwriter” also was a fan of mysteries. What I noticed was that most of the greens at Granite Bay are only slightly visible from the fairway. And what you can see looks a bit imposing, as though every angle into the hole is a tough one. Yet, when you reach the greens themselves, you realize the visual intimidation is mostly bluff. The greens are far more receptive to approach shots than they appear. When I called Phillips on it, he just grinned.

“A little mystery and complexity makes golf more fun, don’t you think?” he said. “A good design should help players experience the course with all their senses. They should feel they are walking a natural landscape, and they should feel a bit of intimidation and a little triumph, too. I like to build courses that reveal a little more of themselves every time you play them.”


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