Interview: Kyle Phillips


Sean Dudley
By Toby Ingleton

California-based architect Kyle Phillips is busy at home but his highest profile work is on this side of the Atlantic. With the American Express World Golf Championship being played over his course at The Grove outside London in September, his stock in Europe is set to rise still further. Toby Ingleton recently met Phillips at The Grove to talk design.

Kyle Phillips crosses many boundaries. His work has taken him to five continents. However, it is for his work in Europe, and especially at Kingsbarns, that he is best known. During his more than 20 years of designing and playing in Europe, Phillips has gained his inspiration from the classic courses of Great Britain and continental Europe.

Many of Phillips’ courses, notably the links of Kingsbarns and Dundonald in Scotland, feel as though they have been designed on natural sites. Yet both are essentially created landscapes.

This characteristic has differentiated Phillips’ ‘naturalism’ from the ‘minimalism’ of Doak or Coore and Crenshaw. On sites that require more than minimalism, his courses reflect his affection for golf ’s pre-war Golden Age.

You’ve described The Grove as being, in some way, your homage to Harry Colt. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Colt was brilliant at using the natural landforms to create very interesting shots – the way he disguises certain shots, the way he provides wide fairways, but with one side distinctly advantageous over the other. Colt, however, had natural sites available to him.What I have done at The Grove is to create Colt-inspired landforms that form the backbone for the strategy of the course and then continue that Colt-like architecture all the way through to the putting surfaces.

I really found Colt’s green designs and green complexes applicable for The Grove. Where someone like MacKenzie put a lot of contour into his greens Colt did not.With today’s green speeds you really can’t design severe green contours. Colt style greens offer the ability to have more benign pin positions near the centre of the greens and more difficult pins near the perimeter. These greens tend to spill in or fall away around the edges. For tournaments you can tuck the flags into the corners and have balls running away into tight mown areas.

Colt’s heathland designs are essentially an inland version of the links style, where these extensions of the green continue beyond the actual putting surface before eventually dropping down or rising up. They are often just a very flat extension of the putting surface.

You recently completed some renovations of some older courses including Del Paso Country Club in California.What’s the story behind this work?
Scotsman and professional golfer John Black designed Del Paso in 1916. Then Herbert Fowler, who was already doing some work in California in the early 1920s, was called in to lengthen the course and changed the greens from sand to grass. In the 1930s Sam Whiting came along and rerouted five holes of the course. After four more renovations over the next 60 years by four more architects, which included rebuilding all of the greens, the club had run out of ideas.

After all the years of ‘improvements’, this once great championship course had lost its lustre and architectural identity. In 2001 the club was ready for a comprehensive look at the course and a new vision to take it forward. Unfortunately there were not very good records of the early course or the changes that followed.We were able to pick out old architectural elements, especially the feel of the old Fowler push up greens.

The course is longer, but it is not a course that is simply about power. There is a great variety strategy and terrific mix of lengths. For example, the par fours holes range from 318 yards to 499 yards.

When one works on these old golf courses, there’s always the question of how much that should be done. If you have a top 100 golf course then you want to restore the strategy of the course as much as the site and the modern game will allow. If the course has or has had strong architecture, then I like to restore that architectural style. For example, Del Paso now has a very consistent and classical style.

Although you like your courses to look natural, you don’t shirk earthmoving. What’s your view on the minimalist school of architecture and how would you define your style?
The minimalist school is applicable on sites that have natural landforms. The school of naturalism that I am currently defining is simply a fulfilment of the minimalist school that can be applied to all sites.

If a site has been blessed with perfect natural landforms, then a minimalist approach is a good approach. Unfortunately the majority of sites available today lack natural landforms for golf. In this case more creativity is required in order to give the site a natural appearance and produce the best golf experience. Naturalism is always the best approach. Naturalism seeks to use the natural landforms where they exist, but naturalism also has the freedom on manaltered sites to take advantage of the equipment and technology that is available today in order to achieve a result that appears natural. It has been the ability to harness this technology on less than perfect sites, that seems to have distinguished my work from other designers and I believe the results speak for themselves. It is important that we, as designers, remain focused on the end result – great golf courses that play well and look as though they belong in their respective landscapes.

It’s difficult for developers to obtain permits on great natural sites, because of the many restrictions that exist today. With the tough environmental regulations, future golf developments will be constructed on sites that look very much like the sites did at The Grove or Kingsbarns. The sites may have great locations, but they will be sites that have been degraded by farming or other activities. The landforms will have been softened or even eliminated completely. In a sense, I am turning back geologic time. Take the example of the discovery of the bridge on the 18th at Kingsbarns – nobody, not even the archaeologists knew it existed. It was several metres below the surface, covered by centuries of erosion from farming. Most of the time, it’s easier to get courses approved on open field sites like that than it is on wholly natural ones. This provides me with the opportunity to leave a site with greater biodiversity than in its previous agricultural state.

Hopefully, what we’re doing today will help open the minds of developers and other designers to the fact that greater possibilities do exist.When in the past there may have been a feeling that not much could be done other than create artificial appearing courses, now they can see that it is possible to create a great natural golf experience on less than perfect sites. This can be done without moving millions of cubic metres of earth. At Kingsbarns less than 300,000 cubic metres were moved. It’s good for the game that those of us who are interested in creating natural feeling, traditional golf experiences are now being recognised as the future of golf course design by the public, the players and the developers.

What does strategic design mean to you?
Strategic design incorporates options – alternative angles of play. The next question is what elements do you use to create strategy? It seems as though many modern courses have gotten into a rut of using only water, bunkers or trees to create that strategy, while forgetting about contours and landforms. Yes, golf is more of an aerial game today, but the kind of contours seen on links courses, even if it’s not a hard-running surface, can still come into play. You can still create opportunities for the ball to run away, if it’s not struck just right, into areas the player would really rather not find himself. I like to emphasise the use of contours to create strategy. When I began designing courses, I really liked building holes with water. Now, I have great respect for courses that don’t have any water. I think it’s due to playing and studying the great links courses of the British Isles during my work in Europe over the past 20 years. I have become more interested in the strategic use of landforms and have learned so much from the strategy of the courses and the origins of the game. This is where the spirit of golf dwells.

Strategic design using landforms is more forgiving for higher handicappers, but can be more challenging than sand bunkers for the professional players. The pros are just so great at recovering from bunkers now, that they have little fear of the sand. What they do fear is the landforms or lips around the sand bunkers. A diagonal contour can be a hazard just as meaningful as a lake, a ravine or a bunker. A fairway might be 50 yards wide, but a strong contour can separate the fairway as well as any sand bunker. This makes the game fun and higher handicap players can swing freely, but there is still a premium on accuracy, rather than purely distance.

Tell us about your current projects in Europe
We are now under construction at Verdura, in Sicily. Sir Rocco Forte has found a beautiful piece of seafront ground where he’s developing a five star hotel, 36 holes of championship golf, plus a nine-hole par three course and full practice facility. It’s a unique low-density concept for a coastline property, with only electric vehicles allowed inside the resort. Golf purists will love it. Near the sea I’m trying to give it a linksland feel, with a rougher seaside look, transitioning to large rolling Muirfieldlike landforms as it moves back away from the sea. It is exciting that you can be at the most inland part of the site, but still feel connected to the sea, in a similar way that you do at Kingsbarns. The goal is to create a firm fast surface, with greens and surrounds that have a links style feeling to them. Both courses have roughly equal amounts of seaside and inland parts, and so you could create a composite course that features the ocean holes.

We’ve also been working with the PGA of Sweden to design a new golf resort near Malmo. The location is very convenient for such a development as both Malmo and Copenhagen airports are less than 30 minutes from the site. It’s going to have two very different styles of courses – one we’re calling the links course, and the other the lakes course. We’ve also laid out a third course for a later phase. This first phase will also include a nine-hole par three course and a first class teaching centre.

Would you be interested in working in one of the new golf markets, like Dubai?
There’s plenty of good land in the UAE and I’d certainly like to work there. In new emerging golf markets however, there is a certain insecurity that tends to believe ‘bigger is better.’ As these markets mature, they eventually begin to understand that in golf design, better is better. As the UAE golf market matures, I remain hopeful that there will be a desire for a golf development that is something special, one with a world-class course that will stand on its own merits against the world’s great courses.

We are also in the design stage in new markets in Africa and South America, so stay tuned!

How does increased length affect course architecture?
It is having a negative effect on the game as a whole. The power game is too dominant in golf today. There is such a disparity in length between the professional and the ordinary golfer. We used to design with two or three sets of markers and now it is five or six. Now, maybe the amateur golfer drives it 220-250 yards, and the professional 280-310 yards. When you do the math through the whole golf course, it’s a huge gap. You can’t make holes too long for the pros today. A player who is not able to generate club head speed does not receive the same advantage of the technology.

Should we be interested in protecting par?
I don’t think we will look back and recall the great majors based on the winning score. Professionals today are plus five or plus six handicaps, so in theory after four days they should be 20-24 under. Even with the course being toughened for a competition, what is the matter with a winning score at eight to 12 under par? They’ve now taken Augusta and made it so long, they’ve tried to make it a power course, which I think is a shame.

After the first time they lengthened Augusta, it was being called ‘Tigerproofing’. At the time I said, ‘What do you mean? It’s exactly the opposite.’ I was pleased that Tiger recently addressed this and reinforced the fact that they are in fact making it easier for a player like Tiger to win.

Regardless, as an architect, it is not my job to make the Rules of Golf, but to respond to the rules. It’s my job to design great playing grounds for the game we love and courses that players of all calibres can enjoy. Often our clients want courses designed on which championships can be played. For the business side of golf to be successful however, courses must be designed for the enjoyment of the 15-25 handicap players.

I find it particularly satisfying that The Grove is playing host to the 2006 World Golf Championship because this was an ownership that was rightly interested in a golf product first for their hotel and conference market, rather than for hosting championships. Out of that success, it has now been selected to host the top 60 players in the world.We focused our efforts on giving The Grove its own unique identity, with the emphasis on being better rather than just bigger.

This article first appeared in issue 4 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2006.