By Tom Dunne
Kyle Phillips, the 57-year-old, California-based architect, qualifies as a household name among golf aficionados on the strength of a single course—Scotland’s Kingsbarns, near St. Andrews. But since hanging out his shingle in 1997, he has steadily pieced together a resume that only a handful of his peers can match. Phillips is one of the major golf architects of his generation, but his work is seldom discussed as a whole. Why?
In a word: Location. Even in this globetrotting era, no one (with the exception of Jack Nicklaus) has been quite as multinational in outlook as Phillips. He’s created significant designs in places like Morocco and Abu Dhabi, Sicily and South Korea, but never built an original course east of the Rockies. Phillips has said that many people who meet him for the first time assume, based on his work output, that he is British.
He began his career in 1981 with Robert Trent Jones II, and oversaw more than two dozen jobs mostly in Continental Europe, the Caribbean, and the Western U.S. These included a number of mid-budget projects that made a virtue of necessity. “It’s funny,” he says in an interview. “The things that are in vogue today—low fertility programs, using less water, a more rustic look—these were things we were doing in Europe 30 years ago.”
While better known for his original work, Kyle Phillips has had success with renovations, too. He brought his technical abilities and artistry to a hybrid renovation-restoration of the California Golf Club of San Francisco, moving the driving range, putting a fine polish on the A.V. Macan/Alister MacKenzie foundation, and re-routing the front nine to add a handful of terrific original holes. The work has propelled a club that was once a Bay Area afterthought squarely into the world top-100 conversation.
Kyle Phillips believes that golfers judge courses based on what they are now, not what they started as. He is an avid chaser of spectacular sites very different than what today’s top “minimalist” architects tend to work with: slightly more severe or somehow problematic, but not to the extent that the finished product can’t yield a smoothly flowing, walkable routing. His courses feature plenty of visual appeal, but sound strategy—derived from multiple paths off the tee and tight mows around the greens—always proves more important than eye-candy hazards. He has used a range of bunker styles, but his go-to look involves free-form shapes, flashed sand, and clean top edges. Green contouring is typically moderate; the bold, compartmentalized, “green-within-a-green” concept seen at Kingsbarns is not his usual method.
Kingsbarns remains the king. The land was closer to a potato field than pure linksland before Kyle Phillips applied his engineering ingenuity. Its combination of overwhelming beauty, challenge, and variety makes Kingsbarns one of the most broadly appealing links in the world.
South Cape Owners Club, on an island off the southern coast of Korea, boasts a smashing oceanfront headland setting—think Old Head, but subtropical and more vegetated. Nevertheless, the site required serious engineering to “turn the volume down” enough to make it both playable and walkable. It features moments of well-calibrated quirk—the saddle-shaped 3rd green is defended front and center by a clever little kicker mound—but it’s more a place of heroic shotmaking amidst outrageous natural beauty and visual drama. Morocco’s Tazegzout is similarly bold in both design and setting, though (for both better and worse) not nearly as lavishly maintained.
Yas Links in the United Arab Emirates is considered the best course in the Middle East by a comfortable margin, though as a golf destination that region is inherently a sleeper. The Grove, a stylish resort just north of London, has hosted too many pro events to be a true hidden gem—Tiger Woods won a WGC event here in ’06, and this summer the British Masters is coming—but it is largely overlooked by golf travelers; Phillips’s course is an homage to early 20th-century design, with squared-off greens and double tees. In the Swedish golf hotbed of Scania—home to Falsterbo and Barseback, among others—Phillips built two courses for the PGA of Sweden National Resort. The Links is interesting in that it shows the architect’s response to a somewhat plain-Jane site. On this parcel of farmland, Phillips uses a long central ridge and a forking creek system to continually hold the player’s attention.
Most Famous Holes
The 12th and 15th at Kingsbarns—the former a grand par five describing a long arc along the edge of the sea, the latter a cove-crossing par three—are unforgettable. One suspects South Cape’s epic par-five 5th and the short 16th, which calls to mind no less than the 16th at Cypress Point, will gain notoriety with increased exposure. The Cape 7th at the Cal Club, a boomerang of a hole where long hitters can get a kick toward the green by successfully challenging a central nest of bunkers, should also merit consideration.