Appeared in 2010 LINKS Premier Clubs
Marvin “Vinny” Giles will be 68 years old when he tees it up at the 2011 U.S. Senior Amateur. If he wins, he will be the second-oldest Senior Amateur champion. But even if he doesn’t win his fourth national championship (after the 1972 U.S. Amateur, 1975 British Amateur and 2009 U.S. Senior Amateur), even if he doesn’t make it to match play, it will be a special week for Giles.
That’s because the site of next year’s U.S. Senior Amateur is Kinloch Golf Club, which Giles helped to develop and design. So he will be one of a select few in golf who have ever had an opportunity to play a championship on a course he has built, joining the likes of Bobby Jones (Augusta National Golf Club) and Jack Nicklaus (Valhalla Golf Club).
Like Jones and Nicklaus, who never won majors on their creations, Giles doesn’t expect to enjoy much of a home-course advantage. “My expectations aren’t very high,” says Giles. “It would be more pressure. I’m a realist.”
Actually, it would be fitting to say that Giles already has won at Kinloch. Since its 2001 opening, the club located west of Richmond, Virginia, has become a modern classic, a private golf retreat that offers the rare combination of a world-class course, top facilities and an informally collegial atmosphere that makes each visit a memorable experience.
“Kinloch turned out better than any of us had envisioned,” says Charlie Staples, one of the three founders along with Giles and C.B. Robertson III. “We set the bar for a lot of things.”
One huge success is the golf course, which is ranked among the best in the country—a rocket-like ascension into the pantheon of American golf. Designed by Lester George with assistance from Giles, the 7,203-yard layout occupies a site that used to be a heavily wooded tract, including a 70-acre lake, owned by Robertson and his family.
In the mid 1990s, Robertson wanted to build a golf course on his land, and approached Giles about designing the layout. Giles, in turn, tapped Richmond-based George, who had worked on many Mid-Atlantic layouts but was still looking for his breakthrough project.
“The first time I visited,” says George, “I knew that this piece of land was good enough to yield a top-100 course. What we needed to do was not overcook it.”
Although Giles had only previously dabbled in golf course architecture, he received a much deeper understanding of the design and construction process at Kinloch. Since he and George lived in the Richmond area, they made frequent visits to the site.
“We both have pretty strong personalities, but we complemented each other very well,” says George. “He brought the shotmaker’s perspective, an understanding of how a world-class player would approach certain shots.”
Their collaboration resulted in a rollicking journey up, down and across the wide, rolling landscape. There isn’t a flat hole on the course, and for the first-time player, walking up to every tee box presents a challenge—some obvious, others subtle.
Whereas some golfers prefer holes that are “right there in front of you,” that type of straightforward golf tends to get dull. True students of course design want to play courses on which they can stand on the tee, study the hole a bit and ask: “Well, what do we have here?”
That’s golf at Kinloch.
The adventure starts at the 447-yard 1st hole, which features a deceptively wide fairway that snakes toward a fairly benign green. The split-fairway 407-yard 2nd offers the first major decision of the round. The safe drive is to the right of the three fairway bunkers. But trying to make a longer carry to the left side will yield an open look at the green, which is angled from left to right.
But no hole fires the neurons as much as the 586-yard 9th, one of the most distinctive par 5s in the world. Occupying a hole corridor that is 150 yards across at its widest point, the hole is bisected first by a stream then a 20-foot-high palisade that also guards the elevated greensite.
With multiple landing areas for the drive and second shot, there are numerous permutations for playing the hole, which makes it great for match play. But those choices also can confound first-time visitors—a good thing, then, that Kinloch has such a great caddie program.Playing on foot makes it easier to appreciate the course’s beauty, from the wooded front nine to the lake that is the focal point of the back nine. From the stout 450-yard 10th, a series of strong long holes builds to a crescendo at the 579-yard 13th, where players crest the landing area and look down toward a large green backdropped by the lake.
The water comes into play on four of the next six holes (for those questioning the math, just read on), including at the 422-yard 18th, where the green sits on a partial peninsula. Whether or not matches are still up for grabs, every player should play the 184-yard 19th hole, where the tee shot over water can play many different ways depending on the hole location and the angle of the multiple tee boxes arrayed across the lake.
As much as the layout itself, what makes the golf experience at Kinloch stand out is the conditioning. Bentgrass is notoriously difficult to grow south of Washington, D.C., but Course Superintendent Peter Wendt has been able to groom a course that is as immaculate as any in the country.
After the round, players can relax in the Tudor-style clubhouse, whose social hub is the informal club room, where members and guests can feel as at home as if they were in their own dens. Just as comfortable are the two cottages sitting along the 1st fairway that national members can use to host multiple guests.
The cottages are ideally located for an early start on a 38-hole day or for access to the practice facilities that are next to the opening tee. Guests can steal out for early-evening putting matches on the large practice greens, or work on their games at the range, where players can simulate on-course situations to target fairways and greens.
Boasting a large tee and an indoor facility with three covered bays, the practice range was designed by George after receiving input from Giles, who wanted to top the best rehearsal grounds that he has seen during his decades in the game.
While the facilities are a large part of the Kinloch experience, what truly makes the club such a welcome gathering place for like-minded golfers is the fraternal atmosphere engendered by the employees.
“[Director of Operations] Phil Owenby has done a remarkable job with the staff,” says Staples. “You get consistently personal treatment, from the parking lot to the clubhouse to the practice facility to the 1st tee.”
Considering that Kinloch stands as an epitome of a private golf retreat, it is surprising to learn that Robertson’s original plan for the property was a high-end public course. It was Staples, a veteran of the course development and operation industry, who convinced his partners to build a top-tier golf-only club.
“With Vinny’s involvement and the topography,” Staples says, “Kinloch reminded me of Bobby Jones and Augusta National. I knew that any club with Vinny’s full support would be very successful. C.B. was a bit concerned about the limited market for a private club in Richmond, and with good reason. But I felt that we could make it work.”
Next year, the collective accomplishment of three visionaries—Giles, Robertson and Staples—will be on display when Kinloch hosts its first national championship. Given the club’s status in the game, its superb test of golf and the support of one of the game’s great amateurs, don’t be surprised if the U.S. Golf Association makes a return visit.
Due to the lack of a second course in the area, a U.S. Amateur might be far-fetched, but the Walker Cup would be a perfect celebration of Kinloch’s ideals. No matter what happens, the club has become an important addition to American golf, and the reserved Robertson couldn’t have asked for more.
“Everybody has done a great job in building the course and the club,” says Robertson. “All we did was give them a piece of dirt.”