KYLE PHILLIPS: Retaining his links with Abu Dhabi

Ever since it opened for play earlier this year, the Yas Links Abu Dhabi has been bestowed by superlatives.

From “stunning” to a “desert miracle” to “the best golf course in the Middle East”, accolades have poured in thick and fast for this Kyle Phillips design.

Sport 360°’s deputy editor Joy Chakravarty caught up with the celebrated designer, and talks to him on Yas Links, and various aspects of his business and philosophy.

Kyle, almost one year now since the Yas Links opened. The reception among members and players has been fantastic. What are your thoughts now?

That’s right. We had the front nine ready last year and the back nine was completed this year in March. I don’t think you can notice the difference between the conditions now.

Mike (Course Superintendent Michael Clark) has done a great job in integrating the two nines. And as I hear the feedback from the members, I am very proud of what we have created here.

Yas Links is something unique, certainly in a place like the UAE.

Are you normally this attached to a golf course you design? This is perhaps your fourth visit to Abu Dhabi after the launch, isn’t it?

Well…I stay nearby! This visit particularly is to see how we lower the mowing of the surface surrounding the greens particularly now that we are coming to an end of the summer months and the paspalum roots are strong enough to endure a closer cut.

The greens, and the other areas can now be cut finer, and water supply can be pulled back to make it firm and fast. Players can now hit their putts from off the greens, hit bump-and-run shots and they will get more rolls on the fairways, which means the golf course will have more links-like feel now.

The rough was particularly dense in the 2-3 metres area after the first cut, which is not what we wanted. Mike has come up with a solution where we can now burn the top and yet have roots intact.

But once I have finished designing, I don’t have much of a role. I look at things like landscaping and planting a few trees here and there. I do like to help whenever I can in the maintenance aspect. Otherwise, having worked for so many days in the hot summer weather when creating this golf course, it is always a pleasure to come back in such beautiful weather and just relax.

Why does links golf excite you so much?

Unlike the American style of courses, where everything is in front of you and you can just point and shoot and make a score, links golf is more like discovering new things about the golf course every time you play.

When I design a golf course, I want players to be challenged, not defeated. If they are in trouble, they might not pull off a shot, but they know they can play that shot. There will be the uneven lies and awkward shots, but they also know there are several options available to them. Links courses make you think before you hit a shot.

You are now perhaps the most critically acclaimed modern-day course designer. After creating such gems like Kingsbarns, Dundonald and The Grove. Where does Yas Links stand in comparison?

A golf course designer is no different than a chef, or a painter. Once the chef serves his meal or the artiste hangs his painting in the gallery all that matters is what the clientele think. It’s the same way with us. Once the course is designed, what matters is the player’s opinion. It is always great fun for me to listen to their reactions about our creations.

What differentiates Kyle Phillips from other links course designers?

There are several great links course designers who can create absolutely marvellous golf courses when given a certain quality of land. They can conceptualise holes which run between the dunes and water.
The thing that differentiates me is that I like to take a landform from zero and create something.

I think Yas Links and Kingsbarns are perfect examples of this.

The site was dead flat all the way to the marina on the other side of the island and only two to three metres above sea level. It required an additional level of creativity to design all of the links landforms into a course that people who have played authentic links golf would appreciate.

You were recently involved with the redesign of a classic course like Valderrama. How do you go about a redesigning project?

It was a privilege to be asked to be involved with Valderrama. But courses like Valderrama and Morfontaine were small changes, just polishing the trophy really.

Then there are some courses which we have really taken back – changed the complete infrastructure, provided new USGA greens etc. Some courses have rick history and unique design elements like the bunkering style or the greens style.

When I redesign them, I like to go back and draw something from their history. I don’t just want to go to a golf course and stamp my name and style on it.

Just like in architecture, if you are making an improvement, or adding something, you want to blend in with the main old building. You don’t want your changes to become an eyesore. Having said that, redesigning is not my core business. My passion is still creating something.

It’s been one year since the new groove rules were introduced, with the expressed aims of making the game a bit more difficult and stop some of the golf courses from becoming extinct because of the advances in technology. Do you think it has worked?

I have my views on it, but I don’t make the rules, so I simply accept them and work within them. Talking of the grooves, I am not really sure if they have set the clock back, or even frozen it for some time.
It’s funny, but I was doing some research, and more than 100 years back, when new balls were being made, they had similar fears about golf courses.

The clubs and balls have improved exponentially over the last 15 years or so, but newcomers to the game and high handicappers are never going to exploit these advances. It is the pros and low handicappers that will keep getting better.

If we counter this by making the golf courses longer, more than the pros, it is the newcomers who will find the game intimidating.

Personally, one of the most unique things about golf is the handicapping system, which ensures anybody can actually play, and compete, against someone like Tiger Woods. By lengthening the courses, we are only taking away from this unique character of the game.

Finally, your take on the superstar architects, by which I mean Tour players who are into designing?

Honestly, I have nothing against them. Some of them are really good.

But I firmly believe that golf at the highest level is all about the product – the golf course – and not its architect. My reputation has been built solely on the quality of the courses I have designed.

The truly great courses of the world are more about the venue, than who designed it. Look at Royal Melbourne, look at St Andrews. You may not remember the course designer, but you will remember almost every hole on that course.

If the best thing you have to market about your golf course is the designer, you are sending a message that the course has under-achieved.

And as I often point out, I may have more frequent fliers miles than many pilots, but you are definitely not going to put me in the cockpit and entrust me with the controls just because of that, would you?

December 2010
Interview by Joy Chakravarty

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