Phillips’ Next Masterpiece could be Roseville course

Sacramento Bee
by John Schumacher

Kyle Phillips stands in the dirt on the eighth tee at Morgan Creek Golf & Country Club in Roseville, motions with his hands and starts speaking his favorite language – Landforms. Contours. Ridge lines. Heathland. Dust drifts by as a bulldozer rumbles past. Phillips, the course’s balding, personable architect, doesn’t flinch, pointing out bunkers where there is only dirt, and praising an irregular-shaped oak tree that hugs the right side of a soon-to-be fairway. “Trees like that are just fantastic,” he says. “It works with the golf hole. It’s lost a big limb. If it lives another 30 years, we’ll be thrilled.”

As a kid in Blue Springs, Mo., just outside Kansas City, Phillips sometimes got in trouble for drawing golf holes in class. Now, instead of being sent to the principal’s office, he receives pay and praise for his creations.

Phillips, 44, ranks as one of the game’s top architects, thanks to a 16-year run working for legendary designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. in Palo Alto and stunning success since launching his own company in Granite Bay five years ago. Under Jones, Phillips worked as the lead designer on a number of courses, including Granite Bay Golf Club, the Resort at Squaw Creek and Bodega Harbour.

Once on his own, the engaging, energetic and down-to-earth architect gave the golf world Kingsbarns, a links-style course six miles from St. Andrews, Scotland, that opened in 2000 and already ranks among the world’s top 50 courses. Golf Eichenheim, another Phillips creation, is ranked as the top course in Austria by Peugeot Golf Guide, which rates Phillips’ Golfsocieteit De Lage Vurrsche as one of Holland’s top five layouts.

The Grove Estate in London and Southern Gailes in Ayrshire, Scotland, both set to open next summer, add to Phillips’ portfolio. So does his renovation of the Robert Trent Jones Club in Prince William County, Va., which hosted the 2000 Presidents Cup.

His latest venture is Morgan Creek, a private course between PFE and Vineyard roads, just north of the Sacramento-Placer county line, that’s scheduled to open late next spring. While Kingsbarns provides sweeping views of the North Sea and a rocky coastline, Morgan Creek will meander through a housing development.

“I’m really excited about what Kyle has done,” says project manager Dave Cook. “He’s shown his depth of talent by coming up with a different flavor that’s still traditional.” Says Phillips: “I’m trying to do something that’s different for this area. A few greens with drama to them … a heathland (open land with heather and shrubs) kind of look.”

Hear the passion in his voice as he talks about design concepts — trees and mounding hiding houses from tees, bunkers set farther from greens than they appear and the importance of a course’s entry point — and realize this is a man doing something he loves. “I like the whole process,” says Phillips, who prefers to design walkable courses. “I love doing routings. I love doing grading. I love to spend time on the site.”

Even if the site is challenging. Phillips grins as he talks about designing a course for Jones on Nevis Island in the West Indies, where he flew into a small airstrip and found nothing there. A few years later, there was a Four Seasons Hotel and an inviting golf course. “It kind of makes your work feel like it’s worthwhile,” says Phillips, a 7-handicapper who started playing golf when he was 5. “All this work so other people can have fun.”

An intensity simmers below the surface as Phillips talks shop. His philosophy is to make something look natural; his style is to connect with everyone from the CEOs and developers to the guys doing the blue-collar work.

“I really enjoy the variety,” he says. “You try to be approachable as an architect.” And flexible. One man’s vision can be another’s nightmare, and sometimes developers can be insistent about what they want.

Phillips can be stubborn, too. He laughs as he tells the story of butting heads with Jones, a strong-willed intellectual and a natural entertainer. “I remember one day he walked in and said, ‘You’re strong, and you’re wrong,’ ” Phillips says. “He walked out. We laughed about that for years.” Phillips recalls long talks with Jones about golf and politics and life, and says he learned a lot working for perhaps the game’s best-known living architect. “Even in his most difficult moment, we could say our piece and still be friends and move on,” Phillips says. “Whether he agreed or disagreed, he was always really open to criticism.”

Five years ago, though, Phillips reached a crossroads. He was secure working for Jones and enjoyed an atmosphere that encouraged sharing ideas, but with his 39th birthday approaching and his oldest child in junior high, Phillips realized the clock was ticking on notions of going solo. Everything said it was time to give it a shot,” says Phillips, who joined Jones after earning a degree in landscape architecture from Kansas State, thus avoiding the family notion that he would become a lawyer.

“Sometimes you have to force yourself out of the nest.” So far, out of the nest has been good to Phillips, whose Kyle Phillips Golf Course Design has been circling the bases ever since hitting a home run with Kingsbarns.

Phillips, who resides in Granite Bay with his wife, Jill, son Aaron, 18, and daughter, Kelsey, 15, recalls walking on “horrible, flat terrain” on his first visit to Kingsbarns. But with the sea and rocks beckoning, there was much potential. So Phillips went to work, consulting with Kingsbarns co-owner Mark Parsinen of Granite Bay to create a course drawing rave reviews.

Golf Digest’s Ron Whitten wrote: “Whatever it takes, get there. Kingsbarns is worth a king’s ransom to play.” Golf Magazine ranked it 49th in its 2001 world rankings. Golf Digest voted it the best new international course in its February 2001 edition.
Count Granite Bay golf artist Jim Fitzpatrick among the believers. He was at Kingsbarns for the first 10 days, hearing countless praise. “Ben Wright came through, he plays and says, ‘The greatest golf experience of my life,’ ” Fitzpatrick says, referring to the longtime British golf commentator. “It was like that every day there. I heard a guy on his cell phone, he’s talking after his round, and he says, ‘You know, I’ve played over 500 golf courses all over the world and this is by far the best.’ “

Phillips’ office hints at an influence from across the pond. Besides photos of his own creations — Kingsbarns, The Grove, Southern Gailes — a large aerial view of St. Andrews hangs on the wall across from his desk. “I was just excited to be able to re-create a links course,” Phillips says. “I was trying to create landforms that look like they naturally belong. Long lines, long landforms. “I knew Kingsbarns was going to be a big hit.”

Such success contributes to a curious reality: The man from Missouri who lives in California is better known in Europe than anywhere else. “I’m interested in doing more courses in the U.S.,” Phillips says. “You’re just known in certain parts of the world. “I’m like this homeless person. I work here, but it’s, Oh, yeah, but you always work in Europe. Over there it’s, Oh, but you’re an American. You don’t understand how it is in Spain or how it is in Holland. “All the places I work make me a better architect.”

Phillips learned in Europe there are different ways to get things done. Over there, they’re not obsessed with every blade of grass being green.

And he learned from Jones just as Jones learned from his father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., who designed Spyglass Hill. “Kyle is a wonderful architect,” Jones says. “As I was mentored by my father, I mentored him and others. He’s part of the Jones family tree. “I tend to think of him as a personality — his work speaks for itself — somewhat like a surfer. When he sees a wave coming, he knows how to ride it and knows how to get off it.”

Cook describes Phillips as a breath of fresh air. “He’s thoughtful and enthusiastic,” Cook says. “Compared with a couple of other architects I’ve worked with, he’s not egotistical, he’s not brash, he’s focused, he’s persistent. “Even though he’s easy to work with, he doesn’t back off if it’s something he believes in.”

Phillips believes in designing courses that look as if they’ve always been there. He starts by walking the land, scribbling notes on a topography map and focusing attention on areas that will prove difficult to design. Soil conditions, water sources and environmental issues all factor into the design process, with Phillips coming up with a routing plan and sketching green sites.

Phillips, a big fan of English architect Harry Colt, likes to design a number of potential routings, prompting Jones to dub him “Mr. Alternative.” Ask Phillips how many routings he did for Granite Bay and he notes “there’s hundreds of holes out there. Pick your best 18.”

Cook, an original partner in Granite Bay, marvels at the layout Phillips helped create just off East Roseville Parkway. “From the time you arrive,” Cook says, “it looks like it was there before all the rest of Granite Bay.”

Phillips never appears to tire of his passion. “Early on, I looked at things as individual pieces: Here’s a tee, here’s a bunker, here’s a lake, here’s a green,” he says. “Now I’ve come to a point I see it as one total landscape.”

A canvas, if you will, to create something. And then to turn over the keys to someone else. “By the time a golf course opens up, I’m well down the road to other things,” Phillips says. “You have to give birth to it. Somebody else has to raise it.”


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