As golf course architects, we learn early on to trick the golfer, and to put fear into a golfer. My name is David McLay Kidd, and I am a golf course designer. Today, we are at one of my, maybe my favorite spots on Earth, Bandon Dunes. When I built this, I didn't ask a question, "Is harder better? Is there a need to have resistance to scoring? What are the shot values?" I built a golf course that fell across nature and was an adventure, and allowed people to have fun. I think that the question of challenge, difficulty, playability, are the greatest questions for our game. When I came here as a twenty-something, I was completely steeped in golf from the United Kingdom, especially from Scotland, where I'm from. And there, golf is as much about the weather as it is about the terrain you play across. And the weather offers a fair amount of the difficulty, the challenge that's involved. In the U.S., I started to be indoctrinated into this ethos of resistance to scoring and shot values and this whole "harder is better" ethos, and then Tiger Woods turned up, and everyone said, you know, "Golf's too easy."
I and many other golf course designers sort of bought into that. For quite a while, golf courses got really, really hard for the average player. It's very easy for a golf course designer to think that they're working for the person that writes the cheque. It's very easy to forget that in the end, they're working for a golfer. Golf course architects learn early in their profession that there are these tricks they can play to deceive the golfer, to make him misjudge distance, misjudge angles, to put fear in their hearts by showing them disaster at every turn. And golf course architects see it as a badge of honor to create those things, and I did, too. I've gone back and reevaluated that. At Mammoth, I went the opposite way. I wanted to sort of reset my architectural ethos. I started to wonder, when you play a golf course that you know and love, there are certain holes on that golf course that you enjoy more than others. There are certain holes that you can be more aggressive on than others.
The simple analogy I used was green light/red light. When I play my home club, I know that there are 6, at most, holes on the golf course that I would consider green-light holes. I feel confident, I can go for it, I can make birdie reasonably easily—those are the fun holes. I wonder to myself, "What would happen if I try to build 18 holes which were green-light holes?" If I tried to build your confidence and get you to play aggressively, it doesn't mean I'm going to make them easy—it just means I'm not going to make them overly hard. Making birdie is still going to be a challenge, but I don't want you to wreck your card, I don't want you to lose the ball. I go back and reimagine the courses that I've done in my career on a pretty regular basis. This plan I'm looking at now is an up-to-date aerial photograph of Bandon Dunes. Here on the 14th hole, this is a relatively short par 4. I want to take this bunker out completely, it really doesn't serve much purpose.
Look at that. What's interesting is my peer group, some of them have pushed back on that, trying to find negatives in it. "It takes too much grass to do it, there's not enough challenge in it." And yet, if I stand on the 18th green of the courses I have created that follow that mold, I don't hear any golfers saying "It was too easy, I had too much fun." What is entertaining about golf—it's scoring. It's about continually hitting the ball. It's about having some degree of success. And so if I can build a golf course that allows scoring and allows recovery, that makes for a lot more fun. I will never be an apologist for being an entertainer on a golf course. It's not that hard today in the social media-connected world we live in to build a golf course and have it lauded for a year or two, or maybe even three, but it's hard to do it for 5, or 10, or 20. Maybe that's where the old dead guys win over the young live guys like me, is the courses that are truly great have to stand the test of time.
20 years ago this place opened, and in 2020, it'll host the U.S. Amateur, probably the most elite amateur event in the world. That makes me feel like I had a successful career. That doesn't look bad does it? It's a pretty good view.
Designed to inspire.
How David Kidd is changing golfers' experiences.
David McLay Kidd was only 26 years old when he designed the first course at Bandon Dunes, and soon after it opened in 1999, the links-style layout on the southern Oregon coast came to be regarded as one of the best in the United States. As quickly as its standing grew, so did that of the redheaded Scot who had fashioned the track. And soon after, he was swamped with offers for other projects. Among those he agreed to undertake were courses at TPC San Francisco Bay in the town of Stonebrae and Tetherow in Bend, Oregon, a stunningly beautiful mountain town where Kidd had set up his design firm headquarters. It was a dazzling start to a career in course architecture, and his future seemed limitless when the Link Trust of St. Andrews then asked him to construct a public access track on land overlooking the North Sea on the outskirts of the hallowed home of golf.
"It was going to be the first golf course built in St. Andrews in 100 years," says Kidd, who had been raised in Bridge of Weir, a village just west of Glasgow on the western side of Scotland—and whose father Jimmy was the longtime course superintendent at that country's fabled Gleneagles resort. "And I was very pumped up by the opportunity to be working in that town, and in my home country."
The new layout was called the Castle Course, and it opened for play in 2008. The reviews, however, were quite mixed, and while people seemed generally pleased with Kidd's routing, they heaped criticism on his green complexes for being too penal and too hard. Those complaints did not go away even after Kidd and his crew softened some elements of the course in later years, and what should have been a triumph for the young architect were instead something of a setback. In fact, many in the greater golf world began questioning whether the wunderkind was really so wonderful after all.
No one was more taken aback by the path Kidd had taken post-Bandon Dunes than Mike Keiser, the greeting card magnate man who had created that resort—and who had taken a flyer on the young and largely untested young architect a decade before. "I had heard some people say that David had gone off the deep end," says Keiser. "They told me about the crazy greens he had built at Tetherow and said he had done the same things at St. Andrews. Then, I played the Castle Course and saw for myself. The greens were indeed crazy, and I remember thinking that if those were the types of courses David was building these days, then I did not see how I could use him again."
Not surprisingly, Kidd was stung by the poor reviews the Castle Course received, and also those of a modern links he had built the following year on the west coast of Scotland called Machrihanish Dunes. But rather than wallow in the misery those harsh words so understandably produced, the architect chose to question the recent work he had produced.
"Mike thought I had gone rogue with the Castle Course, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was a little bit right," says Kidd. "I realized I had been chasing something of an illusion of what was right for golf. I had gotten caught up with the developers who were worried about Tiger-proofing their courses even though Tiger was never going to play them, and who thought the best way to get media coverage was to make their places really difficult. I had also paid too much attention to some of the folks who ran the top 100 lists and believed that 'resistance to par' was an important rating criterion."
"I had won all sorts of awards after Bandon for 'best new course' and 'best new development,'" recalls Kidd. "But most people did not like playing the courses I did after that, mostly because they felt they were too hard. So, I started to rethink things and eventually determined that I needed to get back to making my courses fun again. I needed to get back to doing what I had done at Bandon."
Having questioned the status quo, it was now time for Kidd to engage. And that he did, producing over the next several years a series of unmitigated successes. First, there was Laucala Island, a tropical paradise in the South Pacific land of Fiji, and then Huntsman Springs in the shadows of the Teton Mountains outside Driggs, Idaho. After that, he built a track at the Guacalito resort on the Emerald Coast of Nicaragua. None of those were big or brawny enough to host a PGA Tour event. But they were interesting and charming courses in spectacularly beautiful locales, and they were great pleasures to play.
Then came Gamble Sands, in 2014, a lovely layout by the Columbia River in the fruit orchard country of eastern Washington. News of how playable these new tracks were spread through the golf grapevine, and it wasn't long before the chatter reached Keiser. Intrigued, he made a pilgrimage to Gamble Sand and was duly impressed by what he found there.
"When I heard about Gamble Sands, it sounded like the old David Kidd," he says. "And after I played a couple of rounds there, I realized it was. So, I called him and asked, 'Is this you?' And he said it was. He said he had seen the light and had gone back to doing the things that made had Bandon Dunes successful, which was creating something that was very, very playable."
That talk came about the time Keiser was developing a new golf resort on a vast piece of sand-based property in central Wisconsin. He engaged Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to design the first course there, dubbed Sand Valley. Then Keiser accepted a proposal from Kidd to create a second layout. Other architects, notably Tom Doak and the team of Rod Whitman and Dave Axland, submitted plans of their own for the project. But in the end, it was Kidd who received the nod, which meant that the duo that had created the original Bandon Dunes course and, in many ways, set off the movement of building traditional yet modern links-style courses was working together once again.
David McLay Kidd was back. And the course that he constructed at Sand Valley for Keiser is a beauty. Named Mammoth Dunes, it is routed in and around a pair of massive sand ridges and boasts huge landing areas on the par-4s and 5s, with the one on No. 7 as wide as 175 yards in some places. The ground is full of character, rising and falling throughout the property like grassy waves. Rugged, blowout bunkers abound, and they work with the vast stretches of sandy waste areas to give the place an Old World feel. Greens are cut on top of dunes or tucked into natural bowls, and while they feature lots of undulations, there are also big and quite receptive to approaches. Holes run both long and short, and players will likely use every club in their bag during a round there. At least once. They will also employ lots of bump-and-runs, and other shots that evoke golf as it is played in its ancestral home.
Kidd was understandably thrilled to have the chance to work with Keiser again. And the architect is delighted with the way that second collaboration turned out. In fact, he told a few dozen friends who had gathered at Mammoth Dunes for a sort of preview party before the official opening of that course in the spring of 2018 that it was the best work he had ever done.
Those were strong words. Honest ones, too, as the consensus among the group who played Mammoth Dunes the following days was that the layout deserved such praise. And Kidd's comments spoke to the out-and-out success of a journey he embarked on nearly a decade ago—and a career in golf course design that is now very much back on track.