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Kyle Phillips Gets His Grove On

Golf course architect Kyle Phillips speaks on The Grove on the eve of the 2006 American Express World Golf Championship.

Golf course architect

Kyle Phillips isn't a household name like Tom Fazio, Rees Jones or Jack Nicklaus, but that's starting to change.

After 16 years working for Robert Trent Jones II Golf Course Design, Phillips formed his own firm in 1997.

In 2000, he became an overnight sensation two decades in the making with the opening of Kingsbarns Golf Links in St. Andrews, Scotland, which was quickly voted Best New International course by Golf Digest and ranked among the world's top 50 courses by Golf Magazine.

Phillips followed this triumph with two more highly acclaimed U.K. layouts, the Dundonald course at Loch Lomond Golf Club and The Grove Resort in London, which from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1 will host the world's best golfers at the 2006 American Express World Golf Championship.

spoke with Phillips from his Granite Bay, Calif., office. What motivated you to become a golf course architect?

Kyle Phillips

: I realize now that my interest and aptitude for designing has always been there -- I certainly got into trouble more that once for sketching golf holes in class!

Describe your apprenticeship. How did you reach where you are today?

Having this interest in course design, I was advised after high school to pursue landscape architecture at the top program in the country, at Kansas State University. As the golf business was very small in the 1970s and difficult to get into, I needed all the help I could get.

My parents were pushing for a law degree, so a compromise was made whereby if I graduated and could not find work designing golf courses, I'd ... go to law school. Fortunately, I did well enough to receive national honors and just as I was graduating, Robert Trent Jones II was looking for a junior designer. They hired me and off I went to California.

I could not have had a better place to learn course design, starting at the bottom and working

my way up. I was involved in literally every part of the business. The international experience, particularly in Europe, allowed me to broaden my knowledge and initiated my desire to design new courses that feel old.

Do you have a design philosophy? And do you in any way consider creating a consistent brand?

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My goal is to create special golf places that look like they belong in their location.

For example, it seemed only appropriate to design The Grove in London in a style that would look and feel traditionally English.

I visited several different English-style courses with the owner and shaper, so that we all were in sync with what we were striving to create -- not only how the course would be designed and constructed, but also how it would be maintained. We focused our efforts on giving The Grove its own unique identity, or brand.

If Tom Doak and the team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore are minimalists, and Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus are, well, the opposite, where do you place yourself on the spectrum?

I have been said to be a "naturalist." Where the minimalist school is applicable on sites that have natural landforms, the school of naturalism that I am currently defining is simply a fulfillment of the minimalist school which can be applied to all sites.

If a site has been blessed with perfect natural landforms, then the minimalist approach is a good approach.

However, the majority of sites available today lack natural landforms for golf. If this is the case, then 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 ...

it uses the natural landforms where they exist, but ... also gives the freedom to take advantage of the available equipment and technology to achieve a course that appears natural.

It is important that we, as designers, remain focused on the end result: great courses that play well and look as though they belong in their respective landscapes.

How good a player are you, and how relevant is that to being a good designer? Nicklaus used to be criticized for building courses suited to his game -- is that somewhat inevitable?

I have never been better than a 2-handicap.

Certainly, low-handicap players have turned out

both good and bad courses, so it would be wrong to imply that one's ability as a player directly relates to one's ability as a designer.

What's important is to have an intimate understanding of how the game is played at all levels.

Kingsbarns is a British Open qualifying course as well as host to the European Tour's Dunhill Links Championship, and now The Grove will host a WGC event. How can you build a course that's playable for average Joes but can be set up challenging enough for the world's best?

There is a matrix of items that needs to be considered.

I make a concerted effort to provide alternative lines of play for the average and high-handicap players. An 18-handicap, for example, who is a good putter but short driver will normally not be able to reach most holes in regulation. I like to provide

players with alternative areas to play in order to reward their strategic skills.

What changes will be made to The Grove in preparation for the pros?

Very little, really. We added a couple of back tees on two of the par 4's, two of the par 3's will play one tee forward and one par 5 will play as a long par 4.

Of course, the fairways will be narrowed and the pins placed in challenging positions.

How do you think the course will stand up to the test? What's the winning score going to be, and do people care too much about protecting par?

The winning score will depend largely on the weather.

Professionals today are +5 or +6 handicaps, so in theory after four days they should be 20-24 under par.

However, we don't recall the great tournaments based on the winning score, but the excitement, drama and the competition between the players.

Is there a type of player you expect the course to favor?

The Grove is a shot-makers' course more than it is a power course, especially with the narrowing up of the fairways. The correct driving position is best determined by working back from the greens.

Players who know how to think their way around a course, are strong iron players and can recover well around the greens should do well.

You're the rare American whose work has been widely praised in the U.K. What do you see as the reasons for this acceptance?

I am strongly influenced from years of playing and designing courses in Europe.

I find that there is a symbiotic relationship of design elements that exists in the old traditional courses of Europe that have been lost in modern architecture.

My goal is to design new courses with a functionality that responds to the modern game, but at the same time provides the synergy of the classic courses.

You have many current overseas projects. What's the difference between working in the U.S. and outside of it?

In the States, the budgets tend to be larger, the contractors more experienced, materials more readily available and maintenance budgets bigger.

Overseas, I find that clients have a greater appreciation for traditional architecture and a walking course, where golf is viewed more as a natural park rather than a corridor for condos.

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Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. A former executive editor at Golf Magazine, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.