Interview: We meet modern course designer, Kyle Phillips

The Scoop

The creator of The Grove and Kingsbarns tells Dan Murphy his design philosophies

Kyle Phillips is the man who created Kingsbarns, Dundonald and The Grove. And that is in this country alone.

He has over 30 years’ experience designing courses, mainly in Europe, and is now president of Kyle Phillips Golf Course Design in California.

He worked on the restorations of Valderrama, in Spain, Morfontaine, in France, and Hilversum, in the Netherlands.

He designed Verdura, in Sicily., the Links and Lake courses at the PGA of Sweden’s National Golf Resort and Abu Dhabi’s stunning Yas Links.

He returned to The Grove, near Watford, some 10 years after this impeccably presented and thoughtful parkland course first opened. So what are the design philosophies of one of the modern game’s most notable architects?

Are your courses more the result of what you wanted to build or a design brief?
If you were the owner and you came to me and said ‘Just go build it’, I would worry about it, I wouldn’t be comfortable, not because I like to be told what to do, because I could certainly go out and do a lot of things but it’s like I give birth to this thing, this baby is born, and then you have to raise it as the owner. So, to me, it’s very important that you, as the owner, are prepared to raise it properly.

At the same time, you can have an owner that gets too engaged. If a club calls me and says ‘we would like you to come look at our golf course’ and I say ‘OK, what are you thinking about doing?’, then they tell you every hole that they want done and I say, ‘OK let me get you a contractor, you don’t need me, you’ve already decided what you want!’

How do you bring a design to life?
I always do images. You can use words but until people see an image, because you can talk about golf, I can talk about golf but what you’re thinking of and what I’m thinking about is, like you’d say I want a traditional golf course, well I have a whole series of course pictures and then you’d say well which one of these do you want? Because they’re clearly, to the eye very different.

Is the location and quality of the site all-important?
I think some people have taken great sites and made good golf courses others have taken great sites and made great golf courses.

I think if you look at the Grove, it’s not a bad site but not a great site. Kingsbarns is a good site, beautiful coastline, but it all had to be made, as did Abu Dhabi (Yas Links).

I think that’s really become something that people appreciate; you started with a field and you come out here.

All sites have beauty in their own way but some of the sites that you’d love to get are the ones where you just clear the vegetation, put in an irrigation system and grass.

Looks-wise, I’m trying to design courses that look like they belong and make sense in that environment. I try to impose my style or a style on them.

I’ll sit with the owners and say ‘ok, what’s our story? You’re going to sit and raise your glass and say “we’re opening this place today and here is what we created”, so tell me what you’re going to say, give me your speech now’, because some might say ‘oh I want a championship golf course’, but what does that mean to them?

You make them dig a little more and usually what I find is they struggle to define what they want. They kind of know, so you try to peel down and make them work a little harder and you help them define it and then we all collectively make decisions based on, usually, an image board.

Tell us about the original brief and plan for The Grove.
Initially there was no concept about what kind of course they wanted designed. They certainly were not at all interested in championship being the mantra. Hotel guests and corporate guests were first and foremost.

That was what made it so ironic to have the WGC here, I mean it was the best field ever to play in the UK. At the British Open, you have a huge field, so it’s diluted, but you get the top 50 players in the world and then you put them on a course that wasn’t designed for that traffic.
Normally with pro events, you start and you work your way up, but to start with that event is like ‘oh my gosh’.

The course held up well, Tiger was playing great and just blew away. I mean, Poulter was -15 which was a good second place score and a fair second place score, but Woods, the shots that he hit out there were just mind blowing, he was just on it to a bizarre level.

Nowhere in the UK is presented in better year-round condition than The Grove. Why is that?
It’s built on gravel. Drainage is a huge part of what we do, so to try to hold the top soil, we had to screen the top soil – the top soil was short – but we made it happen and it drains pretty well.
You make the drainage system not miss the gravel so there is a good amount of drainage all the way through which really helps it long term.

I’d like to say there is a big secret thing that we did but it was just essentially a well-constructed golf course.

It’s also had good maintenance practices. A lot of courses are wet not because of how they’re constructed but because thatch hasn’t been removed and things like that.

I won’t name any sites around here, but that’s happened in the UK with new projects and people are saying ‘Oh we need to rebuild this and we need to do that’.

Long-term planning pays off, because it’s easy in year one, year two, year three to get away and be a bit relaxed, to defer maintenance and it doesn’t catch up to you until year four and year five and now you’re still talking about the good condition of the golf course 11 years in.

To what extent are architects to blame for longer courses?
From the ladies’ tees and the front tees, the courses are the same today as they were 30 years ago because the technology is all about clubhead speed.

Definitely the difference between the front tees and the back tees, though, is just ridiculous. The golf game is growing ten per cent just in the time. What used to be a championship course now has to be 10 per cent longer and that 10 per cent only applies to the chosen few.

How important is length when discussing a new course?
We do talk a lot about length. Look at St Andrews: if you look at the scorecard it looks long, but it really plays a lot shorter because it only has two par 3s and it only has two par 5s. So 7,000 yards with six 3s and six 5s plays a lot longer.

Also, with 800 yards of golf course, you could make a 480 par four and a 320 par four or make two 400s.  So you have to look and say ‘Oh OK, he’s got a bunch of 40-yard holes’ and then you see another one that’s got the little, short drivable one which can be a super-fun hole to play and then it’s also got the long 480 hole.

What I’m trying to do is the 480, 320 option, because that’s what really makes the game fun for the people and even for the professionals. They love that.

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