Dundonald Course Linking with Past and a Great Future

Scotland on Sunday
By Paul Forsyth

On a warm summer’s evening by the Ayrshire coast, as lengthening shadows are cast across the dunes and the hazy outline of the Isle of Arran shimmers in the distance, it seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that so spiritual a setting, a haven at one with nature, could be manufactured by hand.

But Kyle Phillips has mastered the art. On a short trip from his home in Sacramento, where he is establishing a reputation as one of the leading golf-course architects, the 45-year-old American uses up every last hour of daylight, steering his buggy between the gorse bushes, content that he has played God with the land.

If the future of golf is man-made, this is the man who is making it. By transforming a patch of disused farmland six miles south of St Andrews into the spectacular layout now known as Kingsbarns, Phillips has made his name as the designer who re-creates nature. He is literally altering the landscape of links golf in Scotland.

His latest project is on the course formerly known as Southern Gailes, recently acquired by Loch Lomond Golf Club and renamed Dundonald. On Tuesday, the first ball will be struck in its “preview opening,” a prelude to the official version next summer.

Set among a concentration of classic venues, from Prestwick to Turnberry and Troon, Dundonald has much in common with the acclaimed Kingsbarns. Both sites were home to ancient courses that fell into disrepair during the Second World War; while the Fife venue was later given over to livestock, its Ayrshire equivalent became wasteland.

Phillips, commissioned by Dundonald’s previous owner, Yaqub Ali – who died this month – is attempting to make history. “What I try to do is design a course that looks old. I want it to be very difficult for players to establish what is man-made and what was already there. I’m hoping that in a couple of years, people will think Dundonald has been there for decades.

Which is not to say that his two additions to the country’s links are from the same mould. Phillips studies nearby courses in an attempt to reproduce the land forms and characteristics of that area. The sprawling greens of Fife , for instance, tend to dwarf Ayrshire counterparts.

“Most Americans think links is one thing, something that fits into a little box, but it’s not.

Where Kingsbarns is a course that sits on top of a hill, with those wonderful views in front of you, Dundonald is more like Carnoustie or Lytham St Annes, or even Troon. It’s down among the dunes. You’re near the coastline, but you don’t really have a great deal of visual contact with the sea.”

Dundonald, which will closed in October for the winter, cost Loch Lomond Golf Club an estimated £10 million. Existing members will be given the opportunity to play as part of their membership, while a couple of tee times will be made available to the public each day. As well as developing 40 four-bedroom lodges, the new owners, noted for their emphasis on exclusive luxury, are building a temporary clubhouse while they decide what to do with the existing, half-built one.

“It’s a very traditional golf course, probably as pure as it gets,” says Phillips . “It’s also an old-fashioned, walking course. It’s not a hilly site, and you don’t have to cross busy roads, which is great to see because there is so much emphasis on carts and battery-powered buggies nowadays.”

Conscious that their stellar field for the Scottish Open could be even better were the tournament staged on a links course, Loch Lomond this year will allow their entrants to practice at Dundonald for the Open Championship.

“They have the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond but, from everything I’ve heard, it sounds like a real possibility that it could move to Dundonald,” says Phillips . “The Americans are over here to play the Open, so they want to be playing links golf. It wouldn’t take a lot to bring the fairways in and create some very Open-like conditions down here.”

The designer can see why Keith Williams, vice-president of Loch Lomond, has been championing Dundonald for a place on the Open rota. “One of the advantages of this course is its accessibility,” says Phillips . ” St Andrews is a fantastic place for an Open, but the road system isn’t perfect. It’s easy to move galleries around here, and there are enough elevated positions for viewing.”

One of Phillips’ first contracts when he set up his company in 1997 was to remake the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Manassas , venue for the 2000 Presidents Cup. “That made me more aware of where you might put tented villages and corporate facilities. There is certainly room for that at Dundonald. It’s a spacious site. We have land out the back that could be a fantastic car park.”

Phillips is striving to preserve tradition without ignoring the demands of modern golf. Improved technology has widened the gap between long- and short-hitters, thereby increasing the number of tees and generally complicating the architect’s job.

“What I like best is the creative side. It’s very easy to become obsessed with technical stuff, like which is the best irrigation system, but you have to shut that out. The great links courses had natural irrigation, and the emphasis was on architecture. If we can do that a bit more, we’ll have better courses to play on.”


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