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Flying under the radar with golf course designer Ken Kavanaugh

Shane SharpBy Shane Sharp,

GOLD CANYON, Ariz. - His Dinosaur Mountain course at Gold Canyon Golf Resort recently was voted the No. 1 public golf course in Arizona.

He single-handedly morphed the short, flat layout at Randolph South in Tucson into a tree-lined, undulating circuit fit for an LPGA Tour event (The Welch's/Fry's Championship). His first crack at Longbow Golf Club in Mesa met with rave reviews, and his recent redesign of the popular East Valley course is rumored to be even better.

Still, even the most ardent Arizona golfer couldn't pick him out of a lineup. He is Ken Kavanaugh, and he has some interesting takes on course design, the state of the game, and his own relative anonymity. However, when asked to explain his seemingly low-profile reputation, Kavanaugh is quick to point out he designed 15 courses in 18 states.

"I'm huge in Oregon," he laughs.

Still, golf course architecture fans in the Grand Canyon State want to know: who is this guy?

Kavanaugh grew up in southern Illinois with designs on one day becoming (gasp!) a golf course architect. With thoughts of sunshine and 18-holes a day, he moved to Tempe to attend Arizona State University. The original plan was to pursue a degree in accounting (the prudent undergraduate major of the times.)

But an internship with local golf course architect Greg Nash and a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright Museum in Phoenix changed everything for the young Sun Devil - including his future as a Sun Devil.

"I became enamored with architecture seeing Wright's work, and I knew I had to be in architecture," Kavanaugh says. "Working with Greg, I became infatuated with golf courses."

Because ASU had no landscape architecture program, and nearby rival University of Arizona did, Kavanaugh transferred to the U of A to hone his design skills and his love of college basketball. Unlike most young golf course architects, Kavanaugh eschewed an apprenticeship with a highbrow firm and dove headfirst into his first solo project - a nine-hole course for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at Happy Trails RV and Golf Resort in Surprise (Ariz.).

"I had a $35,000 budget, and I thought that was just the best thing going," Kavanaugh says laughing. "And I got to work for a couple of legends. I was hooked."

His next project would be a bit more complicated, but would put him on the map in Arizona to stay.

The original developers of Gold Canyon Golf Resort were in need of an architect to finish a 36-hole desert golf playground at the base of Dinosaur Mountain in the far eastern part of the Valley.

"They had nine holes of what is now Sidewinder completed and nine holes of Dinosaur were under construction," Kavanaugh says, explaining the project. "Holes one through four and 14 through 18 had been cleared for Dinosaur Mountain. I worked on those holes and then I came back a few years later and finished the remaining nine holes."

Kavanaugh says he had a different approach to his work when he returned to complete Dinosaur Mountain. Instead of trying to upstage the site's amazing view sheds with a overdone playing surface, he deferred to the layout's natural drama. The result was one of the most jaw-dropping 18-hole experiences in the Southwestern U.S.

"It is a roller coaster ride with one memorable shot after another," Kavanaugh says about Dinosaur Mountain. "It is an approach shot golf course and that is how you defend par these days, via the greens and the surrounds. It is resort golf and it is dramatic golf."

Yet despite its popularity with the local golfing public, the course is yet to land in the golf media's slew of national rankings, the ones perennially graced by Troon North, Grayhawk, the Boulders, Talking Stick and more recently, We-Ko-Pa. Kavanaugh says he has a good notion as to why that is, but he's reluctant to go down that road.

"It probably has something to do with location and pricing," he says. "If you build a good product in a particular area, you can command a certain price point. If you have a strong price point in a hot area you get some attention."

Kavanaugh will be getting plenty of attention for the redesign of his popular Longbow Golf Club in Mesa. The 18-hole desert layout is set to reopen this summer, and Kavanaugh says golfers who'd played it before won't believe their eyes.

"Golfers won't recognize it," he says. "There are 15 brand new holes out there. Three holes are the same but they are out of sequence from the old routing. I have really enjoyed the project, because I always thought Longbow was 150-acre course built on 130 acres. Now, I would describe it as a 'longerbow' and 'widerbow.' It is a development driven project, but it is still a core golf course."

Kavanaugh doesn't claim to have a design philosophy, per se. He says he likes to keep his options open and prefers not to be pigeon-holed into one school or the other.

"I'd be a minimalist if I was working with the types of sites some of the minimalists work with," he says. "I'd move a lot of earth if the client wanted to and it was the right thing to do. To me, protecting par and overall design integrity is more important than the classifications. Like I said, I think the best way to do that is around the greens."

Mission accomplished at Dinosaur Mountain. The often small, always undulating putting surfaces make for some of the head-scratchingest putts in the Valley. Case in point being the diabolical green on the opening hole. Sloping severely from back to front, approach shots that land above the cup are "fried" as Kavanaugh is prone to saying. Putting back down the green, balls easily can roll all the way back to the front of the green.

"They aren't all like that, but the emphasis is on the approach shot on almost every hole," Kavanaugh says.

In addition to Longbow, Kavanaugh is designing a 27-hole course in Fountain Hills (Vista Verde) and he'll continue to bid on projects throughout the western United States. At least until his beloved Wildcats take the floor this November.

"I will always make time for basketball," Kavanaugh says. "I am a diehard (Arizona) Wildcat basketball fan. They have great players, a great coach (Lute Olson) and a crazy environment (the McKale center)."

If the word finally gets out, there will be plenty of diehard Ken Kavanaugh fans around Arizona.

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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