The Architect of Every Golfer’s Dream

Imagine a ride in one of the first Ferraris, and being driven by the car’s creator, Enzo Ferrari.

You could ask him about the distinctive roar of the engine, the uncomfortable seats, and twiddle the knobs until he responded with a stream of invectives.

I had a similar experience recently when I played a round of golf with Kyle Phillips, the architect of Yas Links Golf Club.

Kyle who? you might be asking. The world of golf architecture is split in two: on one side Arnold Palmer; Jack Nicklaus; Ernie Els; even Tiger Woods – legendary names of golf recognised the world over; and in the other camp Pete Dye; Robert Trent Jones; and Kyle Phillips – hardly household names.

However, mention Kyle Phillips to golfers and even granite-like Irishmen get a tear in their eye and start to wax lyrical. “The course is fantastic, you can run balls in, they’ve got lots of great run-offs,” says Graeme McDowell, the US Open champion and Ryder Cup star who played the course this week. “You can hit lots of different shots in and around the greens. I think Kyle has created something pretty cool here.”

At Kingsbarns, a course he designed in Scotland, Mr. Phillips created a masterpiece out of a couple of flat fields. The course on Yas Island was just a sandy strip but has already been showered with accolades by the trade. American Golf Magazine called it a “game-changer”, while Golf Course Architecture magazine called it the “best golf course in the Middle East”.

Chris White, the general manager of Aldar Golf, which commissioned the Yas design, is full of praise for Mr. Phillips. “Working with Kyle has been nothing other than amazing – he is an extremely professional person who has an eye for minuscule detail, to the degree that if 30cm needed to be removed from a greenside mound or bunker face he would remain on site until [the job was] satisfactorily completed.”

I was on the practice ground hitting a few holes when a colleague rushed over to me and said, “You’re playing with Kyle Phillips?

“That’s like meeting Elvis.”

Instead of an Elvis quiff, Mr. Phillips sports a military haircut – think Stewart Cink rather than Rory McIlroy. He’s a striking figure with green eyes and a ready smile who laughs off the comparison with the “King of Rock and Roll”.

“Elvis? I’m not Elvis,” he says. “Elvis can sing and dance.”

The king of golf course design is stiff from a long flight from Spain the night before, so he limbers up before the first drive. It is a shotgun start from the 12th tee. Along with me, who will be Mr. Phillips’s partner, there are two other players. He immediately engages them in banter.

“What are we playing for guys? My handicap is 10.2, I used to be a 2, but I don’t play as much as I like. I haven’t played for two weeks and my knees are bad. I’ve just had a cortisone shot. It lessens the pain but may not do much for my swing,” he says.

We agree that we will play for the bill at the clubhouse. Most of our drives go vaguely in the direction of the fairway, so we head to our carts.

“It’s a shame we’re not walking,” says Mr. Phillips. “I’ve designed this course so that people can walk, but most people seem to prefer to take a cart. Maybe it’s something to do with the heat.”

When we get to looking for his ball, we find it in the bunker.

“Which fool put this bunker here?” I ask him.

“I did,” he says with a chuckle. He splashes the ball out and we move on. I quickly realise that Mr. Phillips is not a silent partner in a round of golf. He has a view on every aspect of where I should aim the ball and where I should hit it. I quickly learn that the best thing to do is to listen patiently and nod sagely. I manage a four and we move on to the 13th, a short par three.

For anyone who has not been to Yas, the course is designed along a shoreline, a bewildering series of bumps and dips and hollows, the very model of a links course as first played in Scotland. So was this already present? Did just have to add the tees and greens?

He laughs. “There was nothing here but a flat piece of sand,” he says. “We had to define the shoreline, dredge the shallows and then use that material for shaping the ground. It was all hand-drawn, because I like to create long highs and long lows, in other words make different levels, but it also needed to look believable.”

Stand on the tee of the short 13th, with waves between you and the pin, and it looks unbelievable that you will manage to reach the green. Or if you do, it will go over the back. The following day I played with Jean Van der Velde, the great French golfer who came within a whisker of winning the Open in 1999.He said he thought Yas was a magnificent course, and “the 13th is definitely my favourite hole”. Unlike Van de Velde, who birdied the hole, Mr. Phillips hit his first ball into the water.

“Dang,” he said.

My ball flies into a bunker at the back.

“You see?” he said. “There’s more room than you think. I designed it especially, but you don’t always realise that when you are standing on the tee.”

My four is not good enough to beat our competitors, who somehow sneak a par. As we drive to the next hole, the golf course designer admits to growing up in Kansas City, where the local hero is Tom Watson. Mr Phillips studied landscape architecture at Kansas State University, then got a job with Robert Trent Jones II, where he worked very happily for 16 years, designing courses all over the world. Eventually he decided to set up his own firm.

“I’d seen other guys do it, so thought it was about time,” he says.

As well as Kingsbarns, his portfolio incudes The Grove near London and Verdura in Sicily, and he has projects under way in Morocco and South Korea. Best known for his links-style courses, he denies he is a one-trick pony, although he likes tight-mown grass around the greens.

“Some architects have very clear styles, such as Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus. I like to do different styles.”

This brings us to the argument that pits the former professional golfers against the trained architects. Who is better?

“I think it is the wrong question,” says Mr. Phillips. “You have pros that do good work, and you have architects that do good work. You also have others that don’t do good work. The question you should be asking is: who does the best work?”

Even so, he accepts that golf course design can be taken over by the lure of a big name, or a big clubhouse or even a big waterfall. But “none of this is my style”, he says.

As we reach the 15th, we turn into the wind.

“What’s the line here?” one of our opponents asks him. To our right is a group of hotels and ahead of us, the Ferrari World theme park.

“Aim at the Ferrari logo,” says Mr. Phillips.

The golfer makes a giant heave and the ball balloons up in the air and is forced sharply right by the wind, heading towards the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

“You’re heading at the wrong logo,” says Mr. Phillips dryly.

His drive is equally unimpressive and two shots later he is still in the rough. I’m on the other side of the fairway when I see his fourth shot pitch on the green, check sharply and run into the hole. Mr. Phillips lets out a holler like a Ryder Cup wife and races on to the green.

“That’s gotta be the best four ever made at this hole,” he says, adding with a laugh, “It’s an easy game.”

The 16th is another tough hole, as is the 17th, which is a long par three over water. After a series of indifferent strokes each, we reach the 18th, which is probably Mr. Phillips’s favourite hole on the course.

“I think it’s a great finishing hole,” he says. “It has a double carry over water, is over 500 yards long into the wind.”

As we drive down the fairway we discuss the golfers he admires.

“I like the grinders,” he says. “People like Justin Leonard and Corey Pavin. I like those that can finish – like myself,” he laughs, as we hunt around in the rough for his ball. “But I’m rooting for Europe to deliver the next big star. Rory McIlroy, perhaps? Who knows? That’s the beauty of golf.”

He would love to see a major tournament come to Yas Links, something like the Presidents Cup perhaps, the competition that pits America’s best players against the rest of the world excluding Europe.

“It’s a beautiful place to host a tournament,” Mr. Phillips says. “There are no houses to ruin the view, plenty of access and spectator walkways, and spectacular views of Abu Dhabi.”

A few hours in the company of Mr. Phillips is an entertaining and enjoyable experience. For those who don’t get the opportunity, the next best thing is to play at Yas Links, for that is his memorial, even though he has no plans to retire.

“I’m just getting started,” he says.

January 2011

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