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Catching up with architect Kyle Phillips

Andrew PennerBy Andrew Penner,

CALGARY, Alberta - Before he began, the field was horribly flat and rather uninspiring. Its only virtue, seemingly, was its close proximity to St. Andrews and the views of the North Sea. And they were, undeniably, impressive. But the land itself, it seemed a long way from being able to yield an engaging course - let alone a convincing links-style course. Ask anyone who saw the land prior to 1998 and they'll tell you: it just wasn't there.

But that was then. And now, a stirring course called Kingsbarns unfolds atop these "fields" - a symphonic route that rivals the finest links courses in the world. Created, sculpted, molded from barren fields, it is a remarkable achievement. It is the work of one of the fastest rising architectural stars in golfdom. His name: Kyle Phillips.

Kyle Phillips, an American golf designer whose firm is based in Granite Bay, Calif., learned his trade from one of the finest in the game. For 16 years he worked for Robert Trent Jones Jr. His career as a golf architect was successful and, obviously, well guided. He could have stayed with RTJ Jr. for, well, a full career - and been quite comfortable. But it wasn't in the cards. Just like that field wasn't meant to stay a field. In 1997 he ventured on his own. He is now working on courses all over the world. But Kingsbarns, the epic seaside links just six miles from St. Andrews, is his most impressive accomplishment, so far.

Recently, I sat down with Kyle and recorded this conversation.

Your work at Kingsbarns has been praised in almost every major golf publication around the world. Is the phone ringing off the hook?

I don't know about that. However, we have been fortunate, particularly in Europe, with some good design opportunities.

What made you believe you could transform the farm fields into a naturally appearing links?

My confidence came not only from the specialized university courses I had taken during my university training, but the many years of practical experience in golf course design of learning how to make artificial landforms virtually undetectable. Since I had assembled and worked the key people involved in the construction, I knew they had the ability and commitment to achieve the look and feel that I had envisaged during my first visit to the site.

I can't imagine it, but is there anything about Kingsbarns that you would like to change, alter in any way?

There are things on every course that I would do differently, but I believe that my courses should always be designed first and foremost for the pleasure of the players. So the comments of the players are where the final evaluation of my success lies.

You seem to thrive on the artistic elements of golf course architecture. You truly enjoy sculpting a golf hole, don't you?

Yes, I really enjoy working with the land both at a macro and micro level. Where natural golf landforms exist I strive to utilize them in my design, but where they do not exist I strive to create new landforms that appear to be natural to each particular landscape. From there I spend a considerable amount of time working out the details. I also like replicating different types of landforms like I did at The Grove, my new course opening this year near London. There I have taken another flat site and detailed the landforms to be reminiscent of the classic English courses.

New advances in equipment are always a hot topic. What's your take on it?

Can a 6,500-yard golf course still hold its own? I think there are a few shorter courses, such as Cypress Point that are so well designed that they continue to present a challenge for the professionals. But clearly the ideal length of a golf course today is 10-12 percent longer than the ideal length as described by architects 75 years ago. If something is not done to control the equipment, then we will indeed see ideal course lengths approaching 8,000 yards by 2080.

I know you've mentioned - and perhaps revere - the work of Harry S. Colt. Is he your favorite?

Colt is my favorite - and the more of his courses that I see and play, the more I appreciate just how relevant his design concepts still are for the modern game.

What other architects from yesteryear do you admire?

Several really - many with great imaginations derived from their study of the links. Besides Colt's protégé Alister Mackenzie, I have a great deal of respect for Stanley Thompson - the mentor to Trent Jones and several others. Any unsung heroes you care to mention? Probably Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor did not get the recognition they deserve until just recently.

What about the architects of today? Any you like in particular?

Tom Fazio has done some very good work and has now built an equally good team of people around him.

Your work is laced with old-style architecture. What's drawn you to that?

It stems from years of playing and designing in Europe. I find that there is a symbiotic relationship of design elements that exists in the old traditional golf courses of Europe that have been lost in contemporary architecture. My goal is to design new courses with the functionality for the modern game, but at the same time providing the synergy of the classic courses. Simply, I am trying to design new courses that feel old.

What are some of the things that don't sit well with you when it comes to contemporary layouts/architecture?

Such things as long walks between holes, mandatory carts, too many forced carries, contours that have no relationship to the strategy of the shot being played, large amounts of non-native vegetation, awkward fairway lies caused by deep catch basins and large commercial looking tee signs are not very popular with me.

Do you play much golf?

Never enough, but I have some how found enough muscle memory to still maintain a single digit handicap!

You seem to be gaining a reputation for being a "globe-trotting" architect. Would you rather work abroad as opposed to staying in North America?

It is always nice to work closer to home in North America, but I have great affection for Europe and what I have learned and continue to learn from studying some of the great courses of the world. Also Europe has provided me with the opportunity to design the traditional walking golf courses that I love creating.

Where will we see the next golf course boom?

I don't have a crystal ball, but I believe we will see local booms like have in China now, or when countries open up politically and wish to attract hard currency. However, I see a long time passing before we experience another boom period like we have had in the past two decades.

Water is becoming a scarce resource in many areas. How is this affecting your work and what will this lead to down the road?

I prefer the natural look of the lower water and lower fertility courses we see in Europe, so I don't see it affecting my work as it might other architects. Secondly, outdoor recreation and green places are vitally important to the health of people and we must continue to develop green space.

Green space is people space and our cities need to do a better job managing and distributing their water. Between the loss of drinking water through old leaking pipes and the dumping of unused reclaimed water into rivers I estimate that we are losing well over a billion gallons of water every day that could be used for recreational purposes. It should also be said that desert regions and corporations are doing a better job managing their water in a continued effort to provide green spaces for their communities. We will also continue to see more desalinized water as well as high salt tolerant grasses being used in desert climates near the sea.

The struggling US economy and the threat of war is affecting many professions. Are you feeling the effects?

We have been very fortunate to be in a situation to receive inquires and accept opportunities that not only interest me, but also identifies us as a world class design firm. I feel that this may be, in part, that we have been able to offer our clients the highest level of design product and personal service, at a time when the sophisticated developers are becoming increasing aware of the value of good fresh design in a competitive marketplace.

What are some of your hobbies?

In my spare time, when I am not attending my children's sporting activities or traveling, I like to play golf and design golf courses.

Favorite golf book?

Essays on Golf Course Architecture' by Colt & Alison.

If somebody offered you $10 million to design a course with extensive use of concrete bulkheads, quintuple tiered greens, sand traps shaped like traffic signs, and golf holes shaped like Britney Spears, would you do it?

Never! Now for $11 million ...

When it's all said and done, what do you want people to say about Kyle Phillips as a person?

He loved his family and he cared about people.

How about as an architect?

His work was creative, fun to play and stood the test of time.

What's the most important thing in the world to you?

That I not waver from the course that God has designed for me - I don't want any bogeys!

For more information on Kyle Phillips check out www.kylephillips.com.

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America and Europe. You can see more of his work at www.andrewpenner.com.

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