“I didn’t like your movie, dude!” – David McLay Kidd
I’ve wrote about this before but it bears repeating for a number of reasons. Years after Bandon Dunes established itself as a bastion of North American links golf, open to the public nonetheless, which revolutionized the resort golf model and golf design in several ways, David Kidd and Tom Doak were at some kind of question and answer session talking about their respective courses at Bandon. Someone asked them what they what do different with their courses in retrospect. Doak went into technical detail about how he would change this feature and that based on what he’s seen from the course since it’s built, providing the kind of architectural expertise dicta that comes easy to him, likely to the delight of the crowd. Once he was finished, the room turned to Kidd, with whetting anticipation. Kidd took the microphone, gathered his thoughts and gave his response. “I’d go second.”
Brevity is the soul of wit and boy does that sentence speak volumes. While it’s interesting that both Kidd and Doak seem to competitively rumble about their courses a bit at Bandon; Doak once commenting Pacific Dunes was the most “ignored” course at the resort and Kidd inferring, even with the above comment, about how they’re ranked (Pacific is higher), one thing is relatively certain.
I’m not sure any of this happens if Kidd didn’t go first.
Refreshingly outspoken, passionate with an ability to appeal to us all, Kidd was a breath of fresh air at the time Bandon was coming around. The more famous course architects at that time had reached stratosphere celebrity status, oftentimes relying on their name and brand recognition to command hefty fees for the production of “signature hole” centerfold fodder. Of course this is a generalization, but the point is most of the successful architects at that time had no reason to stray too much from their design model, which had proven popular for decades. Keiser’s vision was so much different from any resort out there and likely realized he needed someone beyond the top of the food chain. Someone who was eager to prove themselves. Someone with expertise and an intimate experience with links golf. Someone from Scotland.
Of course, the other dynamic is Keiser wanted someone he could work with and maintain involvement. So even though all of the marketing business models strongly encouraged his using a big name architect, Keiser stayed focused on his vision and how best to accomplish that. This vision was specific. A full blown devotion to links golf that would appeal to the masses, not just a hardcore contingent of golfing purists. As “Dream Golf” writes, even Tom Doak was considered too controversial a pick for the maiden course. The project, resort and course needed widespread appeal, even if it defied most standard business norms at the time.
How it ultimately came to be that Kidd was the designer of the first course is not as seamless as Keiser outright selecting him. Like many things in life, it’s more complicated than that. Kidd and his father were selected and while there were several things that complicated the process, including his father withdrawing his involvement at some point, what Kidd did with the opportunity and how he went about it is what makes the whole story serendipitous. Like many things in life, some times things have a way of working out the way they should.
“Follow me or get the fuck out of my way.” – David Kidd
Barrels of ink have been dedicated to the story of Bandon and how it came to be. What Bandon tapped into is the soul side of golf. What it banked on is that the golfer would be drawn some where that focused on that spiritual aspect of the game, on a pure coastline, miles and miles away from their lives. There are countless components that needed to fit just right for it to work. Marketing teams, consultants, evaluation reports, Keiser’s buddies as his own retail research team; the project was planned carefully. This meant discussion, different viewpoints, conflict. On one side was Kidd, fully in on Keiser’s vision and hellbent on building a true links course that would win over the traditional American golfer. He knew just how to do it but had to win over Mike a number of times when questioned by others. The tenacity, along with the ability to lead by example and articulate his passion, surely went a long way in ensuring his design concepts went unhindered. Like many things in life, talent alone rarely gets it done.
Specifically, however, the focus to appeal to a wide ranging audience yet remain authentic seems to have been mutually beneficial for Kidd and Bandon. For Bandon, the course struck the right notes in how it presented and played as a links, how it incorporated its ideal coastal location and how it resonated with most who played it. Leaving the course, those visions of the rolling fairways, sod faced and center line bunkers fundamentally changed their golf perspective. Many went back to their regular games and after a few months of re-living every shot and not able to find anything resembling it any where else, in unison began to whimper like Jack in “Lost” – “We have to go back!” And so it went. Pacific Dunes was next, then Bandon Trails, then Old Macdonald, then Bandon Preserve, then Punchbowl, now Sheep Ranch. But that first domino was Bandon Dunes. And Kidd possessed that perfect combination of talent, vision, background and personality to accomplish what Keiser had in mind. All of who he is resides in that design, which is the only way it could have been. He built it and the people came. In turn, the links revolution ignited. If it was anyone else? Someone who would have ceded to the number of Keiser consultants, someone who stayed too close to the standard American modern and strove for the “links style” label, or someone who would have designed something architecture aficionados would “get” while everyone else “just doesn’t get it,” and it’s possible none of this would have ever happened.
For Kidd, his success at Bandon vaulted his prestige and demand. For us, this is where it starts to get interesting. For we get an artist so candid in his craft, so human in how he wears his heart on his sleeve that it enlightens us all much more than those who are more focused on always being the smartest guy in the room. His journey is remarkable and far from over.
After Bandon, Kidd’s next project was Queenwood, in West London opening in 2001. The design was similar to Bandon in that it strayed from typical modern design tenets and returned to the more traditional heathland design concept of yesteryear. Notably, however, the terrain was not heathland like the other well known English stalwarts such as Sunningdale and Swinley Forest. So Kidd sandcapped the land and planted the heather, with the greens showing delightful movement throughout. It is one of the most exclusive clubs in the UK. The fairways are tight to the tree lines and the course is widely considered difficult. Exclusive, difficult, manufactured for lack of a better term. Quite different from Bandon but the nod to how pleasing heathland designs are (among my favorite) is consistent with Kidd being different, even if its difficulty undermines that concept. In general, it’s still considered one of Kidd’s better designs, depending on who you talk to.
Nanea on the Big Island of Hawaii was next. Links golf brought to volcanic mountainside landscapes with an emphasis on options and fun, Kidd’s own website describes the course as a “retort” to those who claim anyone could have designed Bandon Dunes. The course features Paspalum grass, which Kidd’s father came up with that can thrive in hot barren climates. The result is an impeccably maintained course that, like Queenwood, is deeply exclusive. Nanea currently sits as the best course in Hawaii on Golf Digest’s list and the 17th best modern course on Golfweek. Many have stated it’s his best design next to Bandon. At this point, Kidd is on fire. Transporting a style of golf, such as links or heathland, to different land and climates, yet on a natural flowing, strategic ilk, Kidd delivered what I’ll call the Bandon aura to those who hired him shortly thereafter.
Yet make no mistake about it, Nanea is difficult and challenging. That’s what Kidd’s marching orders were; a tale as old as time. The client wanting a “test” of golf. Kidd delivered in that respect but made sure there were several other aspects to keep it varied. It’s by all accounts I’m aware of, worthy of high praise.
Chronologically, Powerscourt and Fancourt Montagu were next for Kidd (2003 and 2005, respectively). Powerscourt followed his style of natural strategic and flowing, this time in a more parkland setting in Ireland, while Fancourt was a re-design in South Africa. Both are well regarded. TPC Stonebrae outside San Francisco was next (2007). A massive undertaking on a difficult site, but the course shows the same broad based reach of his courses at that time; capable of professional tournaments (Stonebrae hosted a Nationwide event for some years) yet playable and interesting for everyone else.
Pausing here, Kidd’s designs seem to transplant the ethos of links golf in climates and terrains other than they would naturally produce, yet has a knack for doing so in a naturally flowing manner that doesn’t present forced, contrived or manufactured. It’s not the minimalism we see from Coore and Crenshaw and often from Doak, it’s not the quirk or tournament cache we see from Hanse; it’s distinct. These early designs had an ability to tap into the context of the everyday golfer. It was out of necessity at Bandon, yet I’m convinced is one of the primary reasons the course succeeded so wildly. This perspective carried Kidd on these other designs. Whether ultra exclusive, resort or some other model, Kidd was able to design, sophisticated yet wide appealing courses by likely constantly asking himself how much you or me would marvel at the place, and why. While Coore and Crenshaw artistically weave their brilliance into the landscape with as much gentle suggestion as possible, Doak wants to tell us what we should enjoy because we don’t know any better and Hanse is busy in the tourney circuit, Kidd understands his work needs to communicate and interact with the golfer precisely in line with his perspective. In a recent Feed the Ball Salon podcast, Kidd was told during Hanse’s recent appearance he said he wished he sometimes could explain what he intended to those who played his courses so they could better appreciate it. Kidd compared it to the movies. If you go to a movie and don’t like it, it’s not going to help much if the director talks to you afterwards and explains each scene. I didn’t like your movie, dude! There are no second chances or supplementary commentary; the course is the course. It and it alone must make its impression on the golfer. Kidd has always understood that.
People change, however. Experience, emotions, personal travails; whatever the case may be, these changes seep into the fabric of our being. This is abundantly evident, and refreshingly conceded, with Kidd throughout his career. Design concepts evolve. Pressure mounts. And with Kidd, a fundamental shift in his courses can be seen. The shift has to do with difficulty; “resistance to scoring.” Before delving in, it should be clear that Kidd’s courses have always included a component of challenge. In other words, it’s not as if Kidd woke up one morning and decided on the change. Evolution takes time. Difficulty became more prevalent in his work over time until it came to a head at The Castle Course.
“David, you’ve got to be kidding me. This is not what DMK Golf Design is all about. This is crazy golf.” – Jimmy Kidd (David’s father, speaking about The Castle Course)
Maybe Kidd felt like he had to deliver the unique magical otherworldly experience every time and had to tap into unexplored territory to conjure distinction. Maybe it was the unremarkable land; a potato farm adjacent to a sewer treatment plant. Maybe the only way to make the course memorable was to emphasize challenge above all else. Whatever the reasons, the Castle Course, part of the St. Andrews Links collection (its seventh course), received strong criticism upon opening. Many felt it was unworthy of the St. Andrews connotation, it didn’t play like a true links, was exceedingly difficult bordering on impossible and many things about it apparently didn’t make sense. Mike Keiser famously is not a fan. Tom Doak gave it a 0 on his ranking scale. This criticism perpetuated itself.
The Castle Course seems to be a dichotomy for Kidd. It’s no secret where this article is headed, which is Kidd essentially regretting his emphasis on difficulty on past courses, then redeeming himself with a philosophy that focuses on instilling confidence in the golfer. The Castle Course is one of the courses that falls into the former, so there’s a type of implicit admission by Kidd he would do things differently there. At the same time, he defends the course, hoping that in time, there will be a better understanding of what he was doing there. In a way, however, that seems to go against Kidd’s ethos. There’s no time for explanation or reflection; the course is the course. While there has been negative critical response, the course is far from ignored. In fact, it should be noted that Castle is the second most played course of the St. Andrews links courses. Again, perhaps many underestimated Kidd’s uncanny ability to understand what the golfer would most appreciate on that land.
It bears mentioning that the site of The Castle was controversial from the get go. Many were against the idea of another course for The Links Trust being built at all. Then you had the site itself, which was bland. Beyond the difficulty of the course, the building concept behind it is worthy of note. Instead of trying to work with the land as is or digging/building up as they went along, Kidd let his shapers loose on the land to go crazy on it. Mixing and mashing like kids in a sandbox, this gave the site a randomness with definition and contours. That was then used as their foundation and a more minimalist approach was taken at that point forward, treating the foundation as the land they “found.” While the initial reception of the course caused some introspection of sorts, Castle has the potential to be used as an interesting design model moving forward and will likely become a lot more appreciated for what it is; an innovative and transformative course on what was once uninspiring land. Kidd stands behind the course, but admits if he were do it again, he would make the greens a little more receptive and add more recovery opportunities around the greens. But that’s it.
When examining Kidd, his design traits and history, there are a few things to take away from The Castle. His tendency is to provide a unique, uncommon play in a way not otherwise seen on the terrain upon which the course sits. Here, he had an unremarkable potato farm, which was amongst a collection of world famous links courses. So he was unable to accentuate the land in the way the other St. Andrews courses had because that land was so limited. Moreover, instead of simply laying out another links course that would likely never measure up to its colleagues, it seems Kidd further distinguished the course in ways the others do not. Very generally, with difficulty. On the other hand, it may have been a case of trying to do too much to assert its identity or achieve a ranking and Kidd seems to acknowledge that. The course has been experiencing a dialing back of sorts over the years, which is also part of Kidd’s design concept. You can always go too far and then step back from it, but rarely can you dial up an existing design.
Whatever the case, I’d sure like to play the Castle Course and form my own impressions of it. And for Kidd, it was a pivotal moment in his career. He finally reached a point where a design went too far and he realized the negative implications that went along with it. For a designer that seemed like he couldn’t lose, it had to be an interesting experience and certainly allowed for that introspection.
What motivates and influences golf designers? Do they think about what they want to be remembered for? Do they try and make statements with their work? How do they see themselves? Craftsmen, artists, contractors, businessmen, entertainers? Or is it simply about meeting the objectives of the client and producing the best course possible at each site? Would they even openly admit such things?
What makes Kidd so refreshing is how candid he is in this context. Kidd admits that part of his influence in designing the difficulty into Castle was due to the attention it is given by the media and rankings. After Castle, Kidd shifted his approach. Not only did he shift, but he has been clear that his past focus on providing a test of golf was a bit misdirected. Kidd sees himself as an entertainer and with that, wants the golfer to enjoy himself. Golf is hard enough yet a lot of the praise you typically hear of a golf course includes it’s a stern, or complete, test of golf; it makes you use every club in your bag; it makes you think your way through the round; the greens will make you question your very existence. OK, I made the last one up but the point is courses are generally measured by the challenges presented to the golfer. I’ve never heard a course is great for how easy it is. Easy equates to boring for some reason. The pros shoot more than 5 under at a given tournament and Twitter will tell you how boring and awful the course is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a course market itself for how easy it is. “Welcome to Red Oaks GC. Our course features remarkable views of Oak Valley and is known for yielding thousands of personal best rounds each year because of its lack of challenge and incredible forgiveness. In fact, the challenge here is in not scoring well!” Really, however, interest and engagement are the more valued components of course design. While difficulty or challenge are able to conjure interest and intrigue in a variety of ways, the converse doesn’t necessarily hold true.
“There are lots of golf courses where the average golfer is invited to or wants to go because he sees it in the magazines, he goes and plays for whatever reason, and some where on the front nine he’s lost a few balls and his buddies are helping him hunt for his third ball in the rough, he thinks to himself – ‘this is too much for me, I’m not having that much fun; I wish these holes would run out quicker because I feel embarrassed. This reminds me why I don’t love this game’. . . My job, and my peers’ job, is to create golf courses where the average golfer wants to do it again and is upset that the holes are running out.” – David Kidd
Coming back to where we started, part of Kidd’s genius, and what separates him from his contemporaries, is his profound ability to understand and appeal to the everyman. There are a number of ways to touch on this appeal, with striking visuals or flashy conditioning, but Kidd goes deeper than that. Why do we play golf? At its core, most of us are out there for enjoyment of some kind. Kidd understands this, but doesn’t just want you to enjoy yourself. Nay, Kidd is aiming for vigorous inspiration; he wants us to be vigorously inspired out there. That’s not going to be happen just because the course has a 150 slope, hosted the Brand X PGA Tour, or has greens like velvet carpets. It may help, but the only way to reach us the way Kidd tries to with his work is instilling passion to the soul of the course.
In many ways, that’s what ignited Bandon Dunes. The course wasn’t built as a way to sell real estate or fill the hotel rooms, or even to attract tournaments. How it spoke to the golfer was paramount. And while Kidd had to beat away those that wanted to stay grounded in what was then a successful golf business model, Keiser was all the support he needed to see that vision through.
Kidd has often said that the worst thing that could happen to any course is that it becomes irrelevant or essentially ignored. So it could be argued that evoking a strong reception is at the root of Kidd’s motivations, one way or another. While Kidd strayed a bit with Castle and Tetherow by capturing relevance and player intrigue in different ways, he then circled back to the concepts that started everything all those years ago at Bandon.
“My approach to golf today is very much what I had early in my career and I’ve rediscovered it and understand it much better now and I don’t intend to change that.” – Kidd
What’s interesting is that it has never been about how the course looks. The visuals always seem to favor a more minimalist or natural look despite the amount of work that went into them and for the most part, those visuals have always been widely acclaimed. The root of Kidd’s evolution has been almost exclusively with the strategy of the course and how it plays. And while many look at Gamble Sands and Mammoth Dunes as the signal of Kidd’s return to a more strategy funcentric design foundation, the reality is the change took place several years before.
Huntsman Springs in Idaho (2009), Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland (2009), Laucala Island in Fiji (2010) and Guacalito De La Isla in Nicaragua (2013); all of these were the predecessors to Gamble Sands that showed how Kidd was returning to the strategic concepts he focused on and flourished with at Bandon. Giving the golfer confidence off the tee by showing him most of the hole, emboldening the golfer to be aggressive and use the land in ways he can. While Mackenzie focused on deception and trickery, camouflaging features of the holes to reward a deeper knowledge of the course while keeping the golfer in a constant state of alertness and wherewithal, Kidd strives for the opposite. Instead of the traditional design tenets that focus on keeping the golfer on the defensive, Kidd fosters self belief. Yes, that slope will help you. Yes, carrying that bunker sends your ball forward an extra fifty yards. Yes, yes, yes. It’s much more fun when the golfer is charged with the vigor upon which his passion for the game was initially borne and believes in his experience and skills, as opposed to the usual self doubt ritual that can become a silent seething struggle at times for a lot of us. Mind you, this does not mean the course has to be easy, or that it’s boring because of a lack of challenge. In fact, Kidd typically starts by forming a core strategic line from tee to green that challenges the higher skilled golfer for birdie, then once that hole is found, goes on to find as much forgiveness as possible for the rest of us. It’s only too wide if there’s no strategy to it.
Another component to this is realizing that difficulty and playability is not a zero sum game. That is, a course does not have to be uncompromising in its difficulty. Oakmont has been cited by Kidd in demonstrating this. The course is as difficult as anything out there but that difficulty can be molded and approached in different ways so that it remains interesting. The difficulty doesn’t result in lost balls or a litany of penalty strokes. This concept can be taken further by extending the playability to allow more, various and forgiving paths to the hole. Otherwise, the course would simply be a test of hitting one specific tough shot after another. 250 yard carry tee shot or penalty. Flying it 175 to the green and having it stop in a 5 yard circle or penalty. And so on. Difficulty and challenge can coexist with fun and playability. How it’s done and fused is something Kidd has been mastering for quite some time now. Just as Kidd gets philosophical about it, the philosophy behind it has the ability to move us all towards a more enlightened game.
I wrote about it in my review of Rolling Hills Country Club https://golfadelphia.com/2019/09/02/rolling-hills-country-club/ that this approach to golf course design has the potential to completely heighten the game. Instilling confidence in the golfer intrinsically leads to more fun. It goes beyond fun, however. It goes to just how mental this game is. The golf club business does very well in part because the golfer takes his new driver or putter and for a brief window, plays with a renewed gusto that makes him believe he’s found Excalibur. Instead, it’s the confidence. No longer burdened with the checkered history of bad swings and shots of the club prior, every swing with the new weapon gives him newfound confidence. Hell, a lot of us play in search of it. That one swing, one birdie, one chip in that reignites the loins and surges you onward, once again certain you have the game figured out. Some go seasons waiting for it.
So what if that feeling, so difficult to kindle, was with you every time on the course? I certainly felt it at Rolling Hills. In fact, the couple I was playing with asked if I used to play professionally. No, I was playing no where near that level but I was playing with no fear. Going for par 5’s in two shots, lining up ridiculously long and curvy putts to make them, trying to pull off wild shots because I could see where missing it would leave me, I finished the round humming.
When we ask what is next in golf course design, what is the next big thing, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be it. Golf courses that are with the golfer and not against him will certainly lead to a lot more starting and staying with the game. I think of it like the difference between blackjack and craps. In blackjack, everyone typically gets beat by the dealer, the players work against each other more than with and it’s very rare someone goes on a streak that everyone is genuinely happy about. As for craps, those tables are always happier, the players cheering each other on, more and easier ways to win; you want to come back to the casino and get to the craps tables. In blackjack, I’m always checking my watch and waiting for my drink, hoping I can survive until I can come up with an exit plan, everyone at the table is usually miserable, pissed that you hit or stayed when you weren’t supposed to, pissed at the dealer, pissed they’re losing money. Golf should be more like craps. And while short courses and putting courses and Top Golf and whatever else are helping some what, one of the best ways to fundamentally transform the game and expose some of its richer experiences more often and to a wider cross section of golfers is through course design. Kidd knows it, re-discovered it and is now crafting it.
Again, we’re not talking about easy or pushover courses. No one wants it given to them. And while fun and golf have been traditionally relegated to family friendly par 3’s or something with glow in the dark golf balls, or more recently with short courses more focused on the social aspect, what we are talking about are designs that are just as complex as anything else…with a different focus.
Similar to The Castle Course, the site upon which Huntsman Springs (now “The Tributary”) was essentially a pile of mud. Very much similar to Dye in this respect, Kidd does not shy away from sites such as this and different from Dye, focuses and excels at creating something that makes it seem it’s been there forever. Here, the course is wide open and even though it had to deal with a number of environmental restrictions, was able to provide several options to each green, flexible in its approach. It now sits as the Third best golf course in Idaho with Golf Digest and 50th best modern course with Golfweek. At one point, Kidd remarked it may be his best work considering what the site was before they started. This raises an interesting point of discussion. Is it more impressive when an architect designs a great course on a great piece of property or kind of a great course on bad property? Kidd believes the latter and his knack for not shying away from creating on poor sites and making it appear natural is one of the underrated core characteristics of his design. Kidd has emphasized that the cut and fill that’s not adequately tied in is one of those problems that most of us don’t realize is the reason we don’t like a course. That’s the contrived look, that’s the look of a course that doesn’t flow right and it does make a huge difference.
On the other end of the spectrum, Machrihanish Dunes was set on a very environmentally restrictive site. Much more natural and gentle in his approach, the course is not irrigated or chemically treated. A large course, the reception seems to be all over the place, with some praising its versatility with others claiming it’s overly penal. It’s an outlier, mainly because Kidd was not allowed to change anything except the tee and green areas, so is a great example of Kidd’s versatility, going very minimalist here with a highly sustainable maintenance model. With all those restrictions, the course that now exists is nothing short of miraculous. Laucala in Fiji was not disturbed much from its natural terrain and the flowing fairways within the tropic fauna is along the lines of Hunstman Springs in its dedication to providing as much width as possible once that strategic line was established.
Going from one remote location to another, Guacalito de la Isla in Nicaragua was built on the coast line with a work force native to the area, whom were trained on site. Once again taking a gentler approach with the land and even leaving most of its native trees, the course maintains the visuals Kidd has become known for, is very playable and fun with forgiveness at every turn. Look no further than the Second, where a bank behind the green feeds balls back towards the pin while those who want the pin will need to negotiate the interior undulations of the green, which are significant. Same with the Third, a par 3 with a sloped bank to the left of the green that can be used all day to feed the ball on. And the Seventh and Fifteenth. Landing locations and advantageous points short right, home of the weak slice, and on it goes. We see these types of broad slopes and areas around the green at Rolling Hills as well.
In examining Kidd’s career, it becomes clear there was no clean shift from one style to the other. What we’re seeing is a very clear and very vocal evolution of a very talented designer who started off with a meteoric rise, became highly sought after and through it all, was still someone developing his design principles. His courses show us that development. It was never about making courses difficult and much more about making them relevant and interesting. It appears he has now become more interested in a specific strategic approach to his designs. Most of the remote courses above document this evolution after Castle and Tetherow while Gamble Sands, Mammoth Dunes and Rolling Hills give us a more accessible look.
And so, after building courses at all corners of the world for over a decade, Kidd found himself back in the Pacific Northwest, again in the middle of no where. Yes a different middle of no where than Bandon, but middle of no where nonetheless. I once drove from Jackson Hole to Seattle and there’s a stretch in the middle of Washington that was rather open and I thought was in the middle of no where. I was certain this is where Gamble Sands was built. Turns out the course is 2 hours north of that, 4 hours northeast of Seattle. With a small budget yet sandy terrain sitting majestically above the Columbia River, Kidd was yet again tasked with building a public course.
A broad canvas, this area of Washington is some what sheltered from the temperate coastal weather, getting less than 10 inches of rain a year and not a lot of wind. The dunes reach as high as 1000 feet above the Columbia, arcing and sweeping along the horizon. Fairways as wide as 100 yards, no water to speak of and while massive bunkers are in play, they typically are there to engage the most aggressive and skilled of us. The course is firm and fast. On a grand scale such as this, inspiration conjoins with sporting in watching the shots rise to the heavens or bound and roll infinitely among the dunes until it all comes to rest in the hole. While Kidd’s strategic approach became more prevalent prior to this, Gamble Sands was the first opportunity to market it for the public on land seemingly created for this very purpose those millions of years ago. With all of it coming together, Kidd let his message be heard. We want you to play your best golf here.
“You want to try to score here or you want to have some fun?” This is what my caddie asked me while at Chambers Bay, less than 24 hours and one speeding ticket after driving through that great expanse in the middle of the state. We were at the Eleventh green. While there was a line straight to the hole, there was also a way to use the slopes on the left to have the ball come back and try to get it in that way. I was putting for par. “Fun. Always.” So we used that slope and saw just how close I could get to the hole. It was a pretty good roll yet peeled off at the end. I made bogey. I forget what I shot that day and where I made par or double or whatever. But I remember that hole and specifically that ball careening off the slope and coming back. And everyone cheering for it, then groaning when it peeled off. And my caddie was right, it was fun. And that’s what I remember. That’s the soul of the game.
The other thing I remember about Chambers was I played it when it was still all fescue. It was thrilling. My caddie showed me how to hit these punch shots that ran for miles with my 7 iron, then my 9 and then on the back, my 5. I stopped caring altogether about how far my ball was going to carry and started thinking about what hills I could use and how much to put on it to make it roll where I wanted. My caddie and I would get into deep discussion about each of these shots, like we were getting plans together for a rocket launch. And the thing is, I started playing really well. Going from shanking almost everything the first two holes, I became charmed by this entirely different way to play with the fescue. It no longer mattered if the pin was 230 yards away; I didn’t need to hit it that far, I needed to figure out a way to get the ball to go that far. Could the wind help? Could the land? In all of this, more fun, more interaction with the land and its elements invariably leads to better, and more enjoyable golf.
About that fescue. Gamble Sands is likewise all fescue and one of its less talked about attributes is how it ages like a fine wine. As the weather and play beat down on it and it grows stronger year after year, the course will play a lot better. While courses open before this maturation period (similar to Sand Valley right now), it’s another example of how courses evolve as living, breathing wholes. So it is with the designers, so it is with the land. It all evolves.
“In the end, what the hell is this all about? “- Kidd
While Gamble Sands and even Mammoth Dunes are on expansive property where Kidd had ample freedom to consort with the land as he saw fit, Rolling Hills shows us that you don’t need endless acres and width to follow this model. In fact, Rolling Hills is on a smaller 80 acres. Yet it’s the use of the land, opening up those hills, having the holes meld together at times and providing limitless joy around the greens with their movement and slopes that makes it feel like Gamble or Mammoth or even Bandon. Rolling Hills is also used for college tournaments, so the challenge and aggressive lines are there, within the ground game and well, rolling contours. The connection to the land, how the play interacts with it, how it interacts with you, not as your enemy but friend. This.
One of the other features Kidd focuses on that didn’t occur to me right away is his propensity to build his greens at grade instead of raised. Greens at grade are more difficult to build, but are more common on links and engages the ground game a lot more. Greens at grade, or even below the fairway, tend to stick out to me and are more inclined to be versatile and receptive to multiple angles. Kidd’s emphasis on this is yet again one of those subtle features that makes so much more of a different than most of us realize.
Kidd asks what the hell this is all about in the end. It’s about the journey, my friend. From those gorse lined cliffs at Bandon where he stayed true to the vision he knew would appeal to us all to some of the more remote idyllic places in the world working on everything from naturally accommodating land to milquetoast uninspiring terrain he needed to transform to exclusively private to public everyman playgrounds, Kidd has had quite an extraordinary journey. Not married to any particular school of design or method, his versatility has been wide-ranging, as has the style of play enunciated at each of his courses. The adventure that has been his in creating these courses, the evolution of his craft as well as its perspective has come to where we are now. The focus is far-reaching in its implications. Drifting from the longstanding notion golf needs to be a struggle, guarding its glory from all of us in an emotion suppressing siege, course design can help transform what the hell golf means to all of us, in the end. Elation. Happiness. Rooting for all. Fun. Always.