Interview by Richard Wax
Kyle Phillips was fascinated by the game of golf ever since his early childhood. He graduated in landscape architecture an specialized in golf course design. After over ten years as architect and Vice President of the California-based Robert Trent Jones II practice, Kyle Phillips created his own Company. Phillips is at the forefront of the next generation of leading golf course architects world-wide. He has devoted much thought to how the game can develop in the years to come to enhance the enjoyment of golf connoisseurs on the five continents which are seeing his remarkable work. His first contract was at Kingsbarns, only ten kilometers from the “Home of Golf” in St Andrews. The resulting course was acclaimed universally and attained the top 50 course ranking in the world where it has remained ever since.
Richard Wax: Why did you chose to become a golf-course architect?
Kyle Phillips: I love my work and did not become a golf architect for the financial return but because this is what I just love to do. I am overjoyed to drive such immense pleasure from having a profession which is exactly what I love doing – designing golf courses!
How can you reconcile your global travel schedule with a family life?
I feel extremely fortunate that I have a loving family environment with my wife capable of running everything while I am on the road. We have two grown-up children who are a source of great pride to my wife and myself.
Was it challenging to set up your own practice?
The early contracts I secured, such as Kingsbarns, were critically important as they kept me going in the first phase. Kingsbarns was particularly magic as it had all the necessary ingredients: links land with sea views close to St Andrews, the Home of Golf.
How do you feel about your design practice after ten years in your own name?
I am delighted that all my courses have been well received in their respective markets. My aim is now to be included in the list of potential designers by course developers and I feel that we are achieving that goal.
My future work takes into consideration the expansion of the game in Asia. We have two projects in South Korea: one along the rugged coastline and beautiful small bays; the second course is closer to Seoul, where construction starts in 18 months. I also have a project in China where I hope to commence construction in early 2011. Also, a second course in Morocco, following Al Maaden in Marrakech.
What are your thoughts about golf professionals who become “signature” designers?
To golf professionals who turn their hand to design I would ask “who is hitting the shots”? They are masters at playing superb golf, but do they have the skills to take a virgin piece of land and maximize it potential as a golf course?
When did you realize that you had a special ability to visualize golf holes?
I used to think that everyone had the same gift of visualizing future golf holes but now that I come to think of my own early self-knowledge, I realize that at the age of 12 I was capable of improving plans my parents had for their own house. I already understood what these plan would create spatially. I realized that I possessed this aptitude very young and could implement my ideas in reality.
So you realized that you had a special gift at an early age…
Yes, and this is what I have now been doing for many years… visualizing golf holes on the ground and designing them to fulfill my mind’s eye. I walk a raw piece of ground and identify key positions. I locate the good videws and those I wish to avoid using. I then take what I have observed on site and map them into the routing of the golf holes. This is the key phase and where my experience comes into play. It is easier if one is given superb natural site such as Bandon Dunes. It is more difficult with less spectacular land, where one has to create the features and flow of the layout. For example at the Yas Links, in Abu Dhabi, where my reputation of being able to work on man-altered or nondescript sites has delivered a golf course along the links which looks as if it had always been there!
I seek to “turn up the volume”, creating long, flowing lines and have the golfer experience “rooms”, intimate spaces where I can work on the subtleties of slopes and impart the humour of encouraging the ball to move this way and that.
I love to work on links land, as this provides the fullest variety of golf experience. This form of the game is never predictable; one day the ball could bounce in a totally different direction from the day before. I find this refreshing, compared with the American country club classic design where one knows prior to playing exactly how one’s ball will react to the shots. I am also fascinated by the effect of wind on the game of golf, so for me this is the summit of the art, the layout in contact with the seashore.
So it is the course that matters, not the designer’s name attached to it…
That’s absolutely correct. I am not concerned if people remember my name as having designed a particular golf course. What gives me pleasure is that they have spent an enjoyable experience paying the course. True connoisseurs re prepared to travel great distances to visit the great courses of the world. Australia, for its integrity and classic design rather than the artificial waterfalls, exaggerated land movements and over-bunkering we have seen recently. I realize that the golfer is seeking a pure golf experience. He does not focus on whose name is announced as the course designer rather how much did he enjoy playing the course itself. I ask the clients from the outset what they want and listen closely to the response. Do they wish a “championship course”, or should it be user-friendly and not too hard? I gradually identify the type of course they are seeking and can show them exmples of existing fine courses to fine-tune their objectives. This helps to keep the development team focused on the end objective.
Do you have a particular style which you seek to impose on any given piece of land?
Not at all! Many architects have a “style” which they will repeat on any given piece of land. They are creating a brand. This is not my intention at all. For me, every site is a new challenge and calls for innovative thinking to maximize its particular potential.
Which are your favorite holes at Yas Links, Verdura and Kingsbarns?
At Yas Links, I would mention the par 5, 18th hole, a true crescendo as one can attempt to cut the corner and reach the green in two. This is one of the most dramatic finishing holes I have designed. At Verdura, in Sicily, I would evoke the short par 4, 9th on the West Course which benefits from a spectacular shoreline but could lure the player into over-confidence.
My favorite at Kingsbarns would be the par 3, 15th hole to a green on a promontory. We had to negotiate the approval of the coastline walkers’ association to permit this hole to be played without endangering their safety. But this did not turn out to be a stumbling block, as many of the walkers were also golfers! I am also proud of the par 5, 12 hole which bears the unusual title of Orr-deal which traces its origin to a land deal we had to make with the original owner who was called… Mr Orr!
Source: Legends Magazine