Writer’s Note: I spoke with Kyle Phillips about two years after the opening of Kingsbarns, near St. Andrews, Scotland, a point at which it was being considered among the best new courses in a generation. I’ve had the good fortune to play it five times, and can say it remains one of my favourite courses anywhere in the world. Phillips recently gained some noterity for his renovation of the California Club in San Francisco.
For years Kyle Phillips toiled in relative obscurity, his name unknown to all but golf insiders who were aware of his work as an associate under Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Eventually, after 16 years, Phillips left the Trent Jones Jr. camp to head out on his own. But even then he found much of his work in Europe, removed from the eyes of the golfing multitudes and the sport’s ever-present glossy magazines.
That all changed when Phillips dreamed up Kingsbarns Golf Links, a course whose location meant it would immediately garner the attention of the golfing world.
That’s because Kingsbarns is located next to golf Mecca of St. Andrews. Phillips upped the stakes even further by creating a true links course just a few miles from the famed Old Course, largely regarded as the best seaside links in the world. The accolades have been feverish, with many critics calling Kingsbarns the best new course to open in recent memory.
Phillips had a lot to do with Kingsbarns, even before the golf course entered construction. Having heard there was a tract of land outside St. Andrews that might be available for a golf course, Phillips approached U.S.-based entrepreneur Mark Parsinen about the project. While the land was essentially a farmer’s field, the land sat directly alongside the ocean and had remarkable possibilities, and Parsinen and partner Art Dunkley agreed to come on board as owners.
Phillips says that the land that he transformed into the wondrous dune-filled golf paradise that would become Kingsbarns did not contain any of the interesting landforms that now exist on the course. Golf had once been played at Kingsbarns, but had fallen into disuse in the 1930s. Afterwards the area had been used mainly for agriculture.
Most architects will tell you that creating a natural setting is much more difficult than starting with a great piece of land. Too often, designers fail in their attempt to create a natural look developing a course that looks overdone. This is probably even more the case with links courses, in which little land is moved and the natural landscape is a big factor in a course’s creation.
Phillips knew that he had a great site for the course that would become Kingsbarns, given its proximity to the ocean. However, the land left a lot to be desired.
In fact, the designer had to convince his employers that his vision of a true links course could be created on a site where it should have naturally existed.
“When I first presented the Kingsbarns site to the eventual developers, I was able to convey to them my vision of transforming the fields at Kingsbarns into a course that would look and feel like a natural seaside links,” Phillips says.
Phillips had studied natural land formations in university and had practiced what he’d learned first hand while working for Trent Jones Jr. in Germany. He felt he could create a natural setting at Kingsbarns.
He’d studied many of the great links courses (a hobby that became “an addiction of sorts,” Phillips says) and felt he could develop a course that would appear as if it was just placed on the land.
There have been new courses developed in Scotland by American designers, but the creations of Jack Nicklaus at places like St. Andrews and Gleneagles always come across as U.S.-style layouts that just happen to be situated in Scotland. Phillips knew what he didn’t want to do and that was to create another parkland-style American hybrid next to the heartland of the game.
After moving tons of land to create subtle elevation shifts and utilizing the remarkable scenery inherent in the area, Phillips completed what may be his masterwork. Rolling fairways lay between looming dunes and golfers hit approach shots to massive undulating greens. It looks both modern and classic at the same time. The course garnered universal acclaim right out of the gate. In 2000, soon after opening and with the British Open being held 8 miles away in St. Andrews, the new course had such a buzz that hundreds of golfers showed up to play it, according to David Scott, head professional at Kingsbarns.
“We went from not having anyone on the golf course to 150 golfers in a single day,” he says. “It was remarkable.”
Gushing reviews followed, with Kingsbarns entering Golf Magazine’s top 100 course in the world at 46. It is currently ranked 13th in the United Kingdom by Golf World.
Was Phillips prepared for the accolades that followed? While clearly aware the project was something special, he claims to have been “cautiously optimistic” about how Kingsbarns would be received.
“Being familiar with some of the new courses in St. Andrews area, I had confidence that something greater could be achieved,” he says. “At that point in my career as a golf course designer, I was up for the challenge.”
While the success of Kingsbarns has awarded Phillips the opportunity to gain more interest from developers in North America, he’s continued to work abroad, including courses in England and Scotland. Claiming that “value” is more important to European course owners who often are not selling real estate to subsidize their developments, Phillips appears content to work largely outside of the United States. New design work has slowed throughout North America, but Phillips has at least one project set to open that will likely turn some heads.
Originally called “Southern Gailles,” Phillips has created another dune-ridden monsters in Scotland. But unlike Kingbarns, where the ocean looms over the entire course, Southern Gailles is more like its famous neighbor, Western Gailles, while Phillips says it has been compared to Carnoustie’s venerable championship course.
He also says the site of the project, which has recently been purchased by the group that runs the celebrated Loch Lomond course, provided magnificent topography. Standing near to the renowned British Open sites of Turnberry and Royal Troon, Phillips has developed a course that looks and plays like those classics. Only time will tell if it gains a similar level of fame.
“I have really worked hard to create a walking course that feels old — incorporating old areas of heather and gorse throughout the site,” he says. “Even though, like Kingsbarns, almost all of the landforms were created, this course is architecturally as authentic of a links course as you will find anywhere in the world.”
Scheduled to open this summer, Phillips can expect the course to be well scrutinized. Does he find it ironic that the best new Scottish courses are being built by an American? Phillips claims he has never seriously considered the issue.
“I haven’t really thought about it like that, but there is a bit of irony in it all isn’t there? On the other hand, many of the great classic American courses we still revere today were designed by Scottish architects early in the 20th century. These designers were able to apply their vivid imagination that came from their familiarity with links courses. I think I can do that as well.”