Q & A with Kyle Phillips

Golf Course News International 2002-2003
By Trevor Ledger

Kyle Phillips spent 16 years with Robert Trent Jones II before creating his own practice. His first course in his own name is the highly acclaimed World Top 50 course, the Kingsbarns Links near St Andrews. This summer he opens another spectacular new layout: The Grove in Hertfordshire. Trevor Ledger talks with him.

GCNI: 16 years with RTJII. What prompted you to branch out on your own?

KDP: Working with Bob and his team was really great and I could have stayed there forever. I just felt the time for me to start my own firm was right. I was 39 and our children were 9 and 12 years old. If I had waited, it would have become more difficult for them to relocate.

GCNI: Kingsbarns was a great opportunity for you, wasn’t it?

KDP: Indeed it was. To have such as strong location as St. Andrews and the natural coast line along the North Sea provided a good foundation. My good friend, Richard Wax, with whom I had worked closely during our years with RTJII, introduced me to the site. The original developers were looking to sell. I was then able to bring together an American developer for whom I had already designed a course, his financial partner and Southern Golf, the contractor with whom I had an excellent relationship during the construction of the Wisley Golf Club. This formed a solid team.

GCNI: What did you think when you first saw the property?

KDP: When I first walked the property at Kingsbarns, I wondered how the guys at Pebble Beach must have felt when they explored that truly outstanding site. I knew a golf course could be designed on the existing farmland, but what I envisioned was to transform the farmland into a dramatic links-style course.

GCNI: How do you feel about the results?

KDP: For purity of a “land meets sea” venue, I feel that Kingsbarns is unbeatable worldwide.

GCNI: Kingsbarns has received remarkable ratings by Golf Magazine and more recently by Golf World’s panel of judges. Why do you think this is?
KDP: One of the reasons is that many players perceive the course as a natural links–even though it was all man-made. Also it can be set up for all levels of play. At the Dunhill Links Challenge, the pros enjoy the strategy from the back tees. The amateurs also derive great pleasure from their tee boxes as the tee shots leave both levels of players facing similar strategic decisions to achieve their scoring objectives.

GCNI: The Grove in Hertfordshire opens this summer. Could you describe the development?

KDP: This remarkable property lies within the M25 less than 25 miles from the centre of London and is also easily accessible from the airports of Heathrow, Stanstead and Luton. The British developer owns two successful hotels in the London area. They researched and identified the need for an hotel and golf venue where both elements were top quality. The users will be hotel guests, conference and event clients as well as some green fee play.

There will be a 227 bedroom five star hotel. A world-class spa is in construction as well as banqueting facilities for 500 guests. A feature will be the landscaped gardens around the restored mansion which was the former home of the Earl of Clarendon. It is destined to become “London’s Country Estate”.

GCNI: What were the site and soil conditions like when you began?

KDP: The site had two levels, both very flat with very different technical issues. The upper level was largely gravel with only a thin layer of topsoil, while the lower level along the canal had a high water table. The site also required removal of a considerable amount of old concrete from the old chicken sheds and military style buildings that were left from earlier owners.

GCNI: What theme did you incorporate at The Grove?

KDP: In general, I like to create courses that look and feel old-even though they are new I like them to look and feel as though they have existed for many years. At The Grove, it seemed only appropriate to design a course that would look and feel traditionally English. I have always liked the heathland style of architecture, particularly the

Harry S. Colt designed courses. I visited several different English Style courses with the owner and shaper, so that we all were in sync with what we were striving to create-not only how the course would be designed and constructed, but also how the course would be maintained.

GCNI: What sort of golfer is the course aimed at?

KDP: Even though it is true that the course was designed to be capable of hosting professional tournaments and is ideal for viewing by large galleries, the primary user will be 15-25 handicap players. Besides having a choice of 4 tee locations, bogey players will find available to them alternate angles of play, allowing them to play around hazards instead of always over them.

GCNI: The previous boom of golf courses springing up everywhere has apparently died. What can bring such days back? Do we want them back?

KDP: The marketplace is simply supply and demand. Currently there is an oversupply of certain types of golf facilities within certain markets. Just as in the lean times of the early 1980’s and early 1990’s, developers in the next several years are going to look harder at where each dollar is spent. Hopefully we will come out of this period with a greater appreciation of the importance of architecture.
GCNI: Where do you see golf going from here?

KDP: In the short term, I do worry about many of the new courses out there that have under achieved architecturally. They have a good location and all of the bells and whistles– nice clubhouses, irrigation, green construction and so forth, but the architecture of the course is either uninspiring or just plain no fun to play. For whatever reason, these courses have failed to realise that the architecture, not the infrastructure of the course is ultimately every course’s sustaining attribute-the architecture is the engine that drives it’s success.

In competitive markets, these courses are certain to struggle against the courses that may have less infrastructure, but are better designed and more enjoyable to play.

One thing that is certain in these uncertain times, great architecture will stand the test of time. It always has.

GCNI: What is your major influence when considering golf course design?

KDP: I like to carry out extensive visits in the region of the proposed golf course with the construction team. In the case of Kingsbarns, I went with the developer and shapers to visit some of my favourite Scottish links courses, photographing the bunkers and green complexes prior to commencing the site works. In the case of The Grove in Hertfordshire, we were welcomed by the club secretaries and greenkeepers at the fine Surrey and Berkshire courses, where designers such as Harry Colt were masters of the art of strategy.

GCNI: Finally, with which other projects are you currently involved?
KDP: Southern Gailes in Ayrshire will also open in the coming Summer. It is at the heart of one of the greatest concentrations of classic courses in the World: Turnberry, Prestwick, Royal Troon and adjoins Western Gailes. Morgan Creek Country Club, near my home in California is nearing completion of construction, and we are in the design phase of new courses in Spain, Italy and just across the bay from San Francisco.

GCNI: Is there anything else you would like to contribute to modern architecture?

KDP: Probably two things. One is that I really enjoy traditional golf courses and hope to be able to demonstrate that new courses can look old while providing the functionality of the modern game. The second is to impress upon developers that a great design does not cost money; it makes money. Ninety to ninety-five per cent of the construction costs are predetermined by the site the owner has chosen and the expectations of the marketplace.

Today many sites that are available for golf do not possess interesting natural landforms. As at Kingsbarns, the landforms must be created. If we are going to restore golf course design to the greatness it provided some eighty years ago, then we must do a better job of creating natural looking landforms. I hope my work at Kingsbarns, Southern Gailes and The Grove will broaden the vision of developers and designers to realise that a minimalist look can be achieved without necessarily possessing a superb natural site from the outset.


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