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Kinloch Golf Club

One of the premier amateurs of his generation, asked to help design a daily-fee golf course, ends up fashioning a unique private club in his own image

By: Jeff Neuman

Appeared in November/December 2004 LINKS

For such an impeccably built and carefully managed club, Kinloch has thrown me off stride with an atmosphere that seems upbeat-bordering-on-jovial. I share this impression with my host, unsure how he might respond.

“Wait ’til you meet Paul,” Vinny Giles replies as we begin our tour of the property. “I call him ‘Mr. Happy.’”

Marvin “Vinny” Giles III has spent his life in golf, as an outstanding amateur player and as founder of an agency that represents such champions as Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins, Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon. Giles, the 1972 U.S. Amateur champ, 1975 British Amateur winner and four-time Walker Cupper, is the guiding force at Kinloch Golf Club, a three-year-old refuge tucked into rolling Virginia woodlands some 20 miles from the state capitol at Richmond.

“A local landowner named C.B. Robertson approached me about designing a golf course on some family property,” says Giles. “I told him, ‘I don’t know how.’ I can read a topo map, I can get you from point A to point B, but I don’t know anything about drainage, say. Then I looked over the site, and I told him I’d love to do it—if he’d let me design it with someone who knows what he’s doing.”

The land Giles surveyed featured frequent elevation changes, meandering creeks, a 70-acre lake and a wealth of natural greensites and teeing areas. He chose Richmond-based course designer Lester George to join him in bringing out the potential of the property. “We could have talked to some big-name architects, but I knew they weren’t going to spend the kind of time here that we wanted,” Giles recalls. “Lester came out here … I hate to think of the number of hours he spent. With minor modifications, the routing is exactly what Lester designed from the start.”

The original plan called for an upscale daily-fee course with housing alongside, but as the clearing progressed, the designers realized the course had the potential to be extraordinary. Giles went back to Robertson and proposed a private equity club devoted to golf and golf only—no tennis courts, no swimming pool, just a place for those who love the game to come together and play with and against each other. The resulting layout opened for limited nine-hole play in late 2000, with the remaining holes completed the following year.

The club takes its cues from its gracious and sociable leader. The goal, clearly stated by golf director Phil Owenby, is to have the course in tournament condition on a daily basis, and to provide “service of the highest quality, in a comfortable setting.” The telling word is comfortable: Kinloch is a club without pretension, one where a visitor feels instantly at home. Many great clubs leave you feeling lucky to be granted a visit. At Kinloch, the staff sends the message that it feels lucky to have you stop by. One member summarizes club priorities by noting, “We hire for attitude and train for skill.”

The club bends itself to whatever its members want; there are no tee times and few restrictions. If you want to play by yourself when the course is crowded (and it’s rarely crowded—60 to 65 golfers a day is typical of its busiest times), they’ll shuttle you out to the fourth or 10th or 13th hole, wherever you can start your round in comfort and play at your pace. Want to tee off in a sixsome? Go right ahead. As a pure-golf establishment, it is a second or third club for its members, and is dedicated to making that golf experience as rich as possible.

The most unorthodox decision was to have bent-grass fairways, a rarity in the region. “We were willing to be guinea pigs,” says Giles. “We’re the first course in this area except mountain courses to use bent.” The fairways are designed to play firm and fast, and thanks to the extensive care they receive from superintendent Peter Wendt, they held up through the bone-dry summer of 2002 and the drenching conditions of the following year. The bluegrass rough is penal, but not inappropriately so, given Kinloch’s 50-yard-wide fairways.

Shots from the rough are unlikely to hold the greens, but the vast majority of holes will accept a run-up. Putting surfaces here are subtly wrinkled, using the natural slopes of the land to provide sufficient challenge without artificial aid. “I said, ‘Don’t bury elephants in those greens,’” recalls Giles. “As a result, they can play as fast as you want. We can get ’em to 14 [on the stimpmeter], and we have.”

Giles drops me at the club’s Golf Training Center, where the aforementioned Paul Denby, coordinator of member services, greets me with an effusive “Happy Thursday!” and a hug, then apologizes for having missed me the previous day, when he attended a relative’s funeral. This enviable practice facility features 60,000 square feet of bentgrass hitting ground; I’m striking iron shots off turf that’s tighter than the greens at my local course. Because the hitting area is so large and the membership so small—fewer than 350, including 100 or so nonresident national members—each section of teeing turf is used just twice a year.

There are two putting greens and three pitching/chipping/bunker areas, all maintained to the course’s rigorous standard, and a target green with markers at 10-yard increments for wedge practice. There are also three indoor hitting bays, open to the range but heated in winter, with mirrors and video equipment to provide the most up-to-date swing analysis; club-fitting is available as well. Members can watch a football game or a golf tournament in the center’s comfortable lounge in the winter, then go hit balls during halftime or commercials.

I could happily spend all day making my way around the long- and short-game areas, but the course itself awaits. After a gentle opening hole (we’re playing from the 6,689-yard blues rather than the 7,168-yard tips), the 375-yard second presents the theme that dominates the front nine: divided fairways and choices galore. Giles, hitting the ball longer than ever at age 61 (“Thank you, titanium,” he says with a laugh), easily manages the 240-yard carry over the middle of three cross-bunkers to reach the slender left fairway, giving him the perfect angle to approach the green. I take the safer right-side route and face an uphill second shot over a deep bunker that will swallow any imperfect strike. Fortunately, my uphill 6-iron finds the putting surface; unfortunately, I’m above the hole, and my quick 30-footer, lightly stroked, sails well past the cup to trigger a three-putt bogey.

No. 4 offers more risk-reward options: Giles again takes the dicier route on the drivable, 319-yard downhill par-4 and is rewarded with an easy 30-yard run-up for his second, while I content myself with a positional iron and a full wedge over bunkers to a green that’s very shallow from this angle. The front nine concludes with a bewildering and
beguiling par-5 that presents options everywhere: The fairway resembles the Greek letter pi, with a creek dividing the legs, a gap of scrub between the legs and the crown, and a green atop the center of the crown. My caddie advises me to hit to the left fairway off the tee, then lay up into the right fairway on my second shot, leaving a short-iron carry to the green. I wish I could tell you how Giles played it, but he wound up a good 70-plus lateral yards away from me. He estimates that it takes 10 trips around before you begin to understand how to approach this 540-yard summation of the front side.   

The back nine is more straightforward, but also more challenging. It includes three consecutive par-four-and-a-half holes: the downhill 498-yard 11th, reachable in two even by mortals like myself; the uphill 432-yard 12th to the course’s only bunkerless green; and the steeply downhill 540-yard 13th, which provides the first glimpse of a lake that presides over Kinloch’s home holes. It runs alongside the short 14th, and is the main hazard for the heroic 16th, a man-sized, dogleg-left par-4 where the safe line can leave you hitting a fairway metal into the green, while your partner who risked the 267-yard carry over a sliver of the lake (236 from the blues) will be hitting a mid- to short iron. (I learned, alas, that my natural carry distance is 235.) The prettiest par-3, 164 yards across the water to a green set beside the clubhouse, is the picturesque 19th, a vehicle for playing off tied bets or taking one last swing as a coda to a satisfying round.

Throughout, the course tumbles and slopes, rises and falls, yet it’s a comfortable walk, aided by the excellent caddie program. (In the fall and spring, nine players out of every 10 choose to walk the course; some weeks the pro shop doesn’t send out a single golf cart.) Most holes are framed by tall pines, oaks and assorted hardwoods; each Giles-George hole is different, and each looks as though it has been there forever.

Kinloch has already hosted a Virginia State Amateur and the annual Virginia-Carolinas matches. Giles would love to see a Walker Cup or a USGA Senior Amateur there some day, but he knows it doesn’t need any such endorsements for the place to be a success. “Our goal is to have a membership that’s diverse, and one that’s appreciative of what we have here,” says Giles. The members speak of Kinloch as “we,” not as “the club.” That’s accolade enough for this graceful, gracious refuge.

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