The King of Links

Acclaimed designer Kyle Phillips speaks to Joy Chakravarty as he gets ready to add another jewel to his portfolio with Yas Links

Kyle Phillips, the man behind the soon-to-be-launched Yas Links, is as unique as his creation.

Like the last thing you expect to find in the desert landscape of the UAE is a piece of Scotland – and that’s exactly what the stunning links course at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island looks like – it is equally difficult to link Phillips, an American, as the designer of some of the most acclaimed modern links courses, a domain monopolised by the Scots and the Irish.

But that’s the truth. Kyle Phillips has cemented his place in the history books of the game as the designer of Kingsbarns and Dundonald – two of the finest modern links courses of recent times. That list may soon have a new addition when Yas Links is unveiled. Situated on the west shores of Yas Island, the par-72 golf course will play to 7450 yards with all 18 holes having coastal views. Virtually starting from nothing, Phillips has created a true-blue links course.

Phillips remembers his first site visit. “Three meters up from the water, it was dead flat all the way to the marina on the other side,” he recollects. “So, it was great fun to come and create all this landforms and make something that people who have played links golfwill appreciate. I think they will actually find it hard to believe that something like this exists over here.”

If Yas Links and Phillips appear an oddity, what was even more odd – at least going by the prevalent norm – was property developer Aldar’s decision to built a links course, and then hire the services of Phillips instead of some big name player-turned-designer, as is the trend in the region.

“I guess what Aldar were looking for when they approached me was to do something different, something fresh, something that is a complete novelty in the region,” says the California-based Phillips,who has made more than eight trips to Abu Dhabi since being awarded the project.

“I firmly believe that golf at the highest level is really about the product, the golf course, and not its architect. One thing that I have told all my clients is that if the best thing you can say about your golf course is who designed it, then you have probably under-achieved.

“Just look at any great golf course Turnberry, Muirfield, the Old Course at St Andrews, Royal Melbourne, Pebble Beach, or even Kingsbarns – any great venue is first known for its course. You may remember the designers of all these courses, but you will also remember a majority of holes even if you have never played there.

“I’d rather have golf fans come here and say they loved playing the Yas Links course, or go and play The Grove, or Kingsbarns or Dundonald and love the experience, and then say’0h …by the way, all these courses have been designed by Kyle Phillips’.”

Phillips may not say it in so many words, but he is confident that golfers will love Yas Links as much as they have lapped up Kingsbarns and Dundonald, or The Grove – another of his spectacular designs.

“I wish I could say Yas Links will be better than Kingsbarns, or Dundonald. Actually, a golf course designer is no different than a chef, or a painter. Once the chef puts out his food on the table and the artiste hangs it on the wall, his opinion about it no longer counts,” says Phillips.

“It’s the same way with us. Once the course is designed, it is up to the players. It is always great fun to listen to different reactions about your creations. Two players in the same fourball can have completely opposite views of any given hole. Actually, those holes which draw the maximum reaction are the ones which are most memorable.”

An expert on links golf, Phillips is extremely passionate about the subject and has some interesting views on the subject. Like how you need to develop a taste for them… Says Phillips: “Links golf is the purest form of golf. That’s where it really began and the links courses are inspiration for most other great golf courses in some way or the other.

“Links courses have a lot of mystery about them because you cannot see most things right in front of you. Unlike other courses, where you just know what shot to play if you know the yardage and the general layout of the holes, that’s not the case in links golf

“Lee Westwood,when he played Kingsbarns for the first time, I heard him talking to Darren Clarke at the clubhouse and he just went ‘oh… that golf course.. .I can’t play it.. .it’s blah blah…”.And look at him now – he has obviously figured it out and he loves it. In fact, he also holds the course record of 62 there. The same happened to the legendary BobbyJones,who said he would never come back to the UK after his first links course experience at St Andrews when he withdrew from the 1921 Open Championship. He did come back and win three Opens thereafter.”

Or,why links courses are tougher than most other style of courses…

Phillips explains: “Links courses were built at a time when the term ‘par’ did not exist. Most tournaments and matches were match play. So,you could pick up your ball if you got into a pot bunker and were having trouble getting out. You could make the courses as difficult as you wanted, because the objective was not to make par.

“Once ‘par’ and ‘bogey’ came into existence, the golf courses evolved. If the par was four, no modern golf course designer would like to make a hole where making an eight or 10 was a distinct possibility.

“The old courses can be quirky. Take the 17th hole of the Old Course at St Andrews. Most people will look at the green and say ‘My gosh…what a green! I can’t believe they can design greens like that!’But what they do not realise is when that green was designed, the hole wasn’t supposed to be a par 4.”

“Talking of the 17th green of the Old Course, the 14th green at Pebble Beach is almost similar in design. I wonder if it was inspired by the 17th. Something I’d definitely try and find out if I go to heaven and chat up with the guys (Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, the designers).”

It doesn’t come as a surprise that even in death, Kyle Phillips wants to discus links golf! As I said before, a man passionate about his subject.

Middle East Golfer
By Joy Chakravarty
January 2010


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