A Conversation with David McLay Kidd

Second in a Series

David McLay Kidd’s first golf course design project, Bandon Dunes on the Oregon coast, was a spectacular success, launching a career that is, judged by the standard biographical trajectory of most prominent golf course architects, still in its adolescence. An unlikely prodigy in a profession whose leading practitioners emphasize the virtue of experience and the wisdom that comes with maturity, Kidd emerged full-blown, as it were, gifted and composed.

I had the good fortune to meet David on the cusp of his fame, in a soft pre-opening of Bandon Dunes. Mike Keiser, Bandon’s developer, invited a group of friends, mostly from his hometown of Chicago, to play his new course, and through a mutual friend I was asked to join them. There was no clubhouse yet, and the caddies were Coast Guardsman on their day off. I was, nonetheless, dumbfounded by how great the course was, and a little envious of the lucky designer given the chance to create a course on such a matchless site. I had never enjoyed a round of golf more, and I looked forward to meeting the designer.

At dinner that night, after Mike had shared his hope that Bandon would not go down as “Keiser’s Folly,” I met David, who was amiable, engaging and modest in a confident way, or confident in a modest way, I couldn’t decide which. I told him how much I admired what he had done. He was gracious and grateful for his good fortune. Over the next decade and a half David would leverage that opportunity into one of the grandest portfolios any golf designer has ever accumulated. Along the way two books were written with David as a central character: Stephen Goodwin’s Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes, a graceful recreation of Mike Keiser’s quixotic quest; and Scott Gummer’s The Seventh at St Andrews: The Castle Course, a terrific and intimate chronicle of Kidd’s creation of a new course in the home of golf. They are two essential texts for anyone interested in golf course design and designers.

David and I spoke in October, 2009.

The 5th at Bandon Dunes

The 5th at Bandon Dunes

JS: I understand you’re shutting down your office in the UK.

DK: Over the last six or seven years we had an office outside of London and an office here on the west coast and I was frantically jumping between the two on a monthly basis with three design guys in each office, and we were slowly getting busier and busier and busier. In ’07 we were at our absolute peak with 7 projects under construction all at once, and with another –heaven knows—literally dozens of projects on our books that could have started within the next couple of years had the economy stayed going the way it was going. But as you know everything came to a grinding halt and it became pretty obvious that the projects we had on our books were all in trouble—not a single one of them was going to survive under its existing business plan.

I’m 41 so I didn’t think I could pack up and retire just yet. A caddying career probably wouldn’t sustain me. I’d be liable to wrap a wedge around some country-club golfer’s head at Bandon Dunes about my third round, so I doubt caddying would be a long-term solution for me. I had to figure out a way to stay in the golf course design and construction business even if it was like Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

So the best opportunities were going to be entirely new projects or older ones with a completely new master-plan or business plan—new ideas to challenge the new economic landscape we find ourselves in. Just having 500 homes at a million bucks a lot was unlikely to be a sustainable business model – and frankly people who called me then and now with that model raised my eyebrows and made me wonder if they knew what the hell they were talking about. So with all of that in mind I decided that our UK office wasn’t going to be sustainable.

There didn’t seem to be anything left in the United Kingdom. We’d done three projects back-to-back: St Andrews, Machrihanish, and a new project called gWest that was just finished. I don’t seem to be getting very many calls in western Europe. I know (Robert ) Trent Jones, Junior is doing some European work, but we’re really not getting many calls. So I didn’t think the UK office was sustainable—anything that did come our way we could support from the US.

The second reason for closing that office was my desire to be wholly located in the US and not try to operate two different offices. Third of all it seemed easier for me to target an entirely new market in South America and Asia, so I’ve been spending the last year or so doing that and now we’re starting to see that some of the projects we have secured are real and are moving forward. We’re in initial clearing stages on a project in Nicaragua, we’ve just signed a contract in Korea and I’ve just come back from a trip to Cambodia, so we’re pushing ahead with things in South America and Asia. Of course if something pops up elsewhere in the world I’d give it my interest but we’re not targeting other places like the middle east or Europe.

JS: If you close the UK office, what will your associate, Paul Kimber, do?

DK: By the end of the year Paul will have moved off into his own ventures. He and I may collaborate on things in the future. We’ll see where that goes. But our relationship as employer/employee will have severed by the end of the year. That’s all happened in an amicable way. Paul wants to stay in the UK, but we have no active projects moving forward.

Paul’s been a fantastic collaborator for the last almost ten years. We’ve done some amazing projects together, and it’s come to a kind of natural conclusion. He’s more than smart enough to do his own thing—I hope he has raging success in the years to come and I get to bathe in a little reflected glory having been instrumental in moving him where he is at now and helping him move forward. We’re still great friends. There’s no animosity on either side. He’s been an extremely loyal and extremely profitable employee and I think he’ll do great as he moves forward. I just hope he doesn’t steal any major projects away from me in the next couple years. But I’ll take my chances.

JS: You started with a pretty good project at Bandon, but it’s hard to imagine how you could top the projects in your Scottish portfolio—The Castle Course at St Andrews or Machrihanish. Aren’t you in danger of being an Alexander, with no more worlds to conquer? Are there better projects out there?

17th at The Castle

17th at The Castle

DK: No, there’s almost no way, unless I had been tempted to do the Trump project in Aberdeen, which I was approached about—there wasn’t much left that I could see opportunity for. I was truly blessed to be able to do those three projects. We rolled from one to the next virtually seamlessly for five years. Unheard of, really. And Scotland’s tiny—what would you reckon, one quarter the size of Oregon? To have three major projects back to back, I certainly can’t be unhappy. And from Paul’s point of view, he’s got an unbelievable starting point, similar to the starting point I had with Bandon Dunes—he’s had with those three projects back-to-back. I wish him all the best, and I don’t want him to steal any major projects off me, but if he does he will have done it for all the right reasons.

JS: Speaking of Bandon. It’s obvious in retrospect that it was a great opportunity, but what did you think when you first looked at in, what, 1994?

DK It’s hard for people to appreciate now, fifteen years later, but when I saw Bandon, there was no expectation— there was no “Bandon.” Nobody knew where Bandon-by-the-Sea was. Who the hell would come to coastal southwest Oregon to play golf?

I might be working for a guy called Mike Keiser whom nobody had ever heard of in the golf business—I mean, barely anything heard of him full-stop. Although he had achieved some great things, they weren’t widely known—he wasn’t some massive industrialist. I could see huge potential and see how a guy like me could sort of sneak under the wire in the US because it was a low-profile project by an inexperienced developer. Mike hadn’t developed anything before other than his 9-holer. So I saw a wonderful opportunity but didn’t think I was competing with the “big dogs” to get it, so to speak.

The land back then was so overgrown with pine trees and gorse you couldn’t see the dunescape that you see today. You couldn’t even see it on Pacific Dunes—it was all covered in gorse. But on the Bandon Dunes site we took out $100,000 worth of crappy timber—wood that was all turned to pulp. None of it was turned to logs. There was not a tree out there more than ten inches in diameter. They were sixty-feet tall with a tiny piece of green on top.

JS: What do you think of Steve Goodwin’s book, “Dream Golf,” about the creation of Bandon?

DK: It’s kind of unfortunate that it wasn’t written closer to the time of construction. It gives the facts and it paints the story, but I am not sure it does so from a truly human perspective because so much time has passed and people’s memories fade. That’s why I was so keen that the book that I did with Scott Gummer was done right there at the time, to record exactly what was said at that time—it’s a far better historical record of the people’s story of how The Castle Course was created. But it’s still thrills me to have those two books on my bookshelf detailing two projects that I was I was intimately involved with—I don’t think there are many other golf designer in the world, certainly not top lever players who have a couple of hard-back novels done about them.

JS: Here you are barely 40 and you’ve had two books written about your accomplishments. That usually only happens to sports stars.

DK: Sometimes I pinch myself and think, “that’s pretty cool.” But I don’t float around out there on a day-to-day basis thinking about the books or these amazing projects or all that. Day-to-day I am thinking about which developer I can phone up to see if he’s got any work.

JS: It is an extraordinary thing you accomplished, David. I loved playing Bandon Dunes the first time I played it and I’ve loved playing it every time since. We go every year at least once or twice for Bandon outings and Bandon Dunes is still my favorite course to play.

DK: It’s wonderful to receive such praise that is so almost undeserved. Bandon was so easy, in terms that it was almost there already. Sure, there are some parts that are frankly created and there are a few ridges that got pushed over so I could see through, but the vast majority of that landscape is as I found it. I probably wasn’t smart enough to dream up better ideas than what was already in front of me—and I had been raised on a diet of very unconventional golf, at least from an American perspective.

It seemed entirely OK to me to have fairways that were pitching and rolling and things that weren’t entirely obvious and greens that flowed off and pot bunkers halfway down fairways– none of that seemed alien to me. I wasn’t pushing any boundaries in my own head, although I seemed to be pushing what the sensibility was by American golf design standard but I didn’t really know it.

David Kidd's Debut: The 15th at Bandon Dunes

David Kidd’s Debut: The 15th at Bandon Dunes

There wasn’t whole lot in Coos Bay I could go compare it to. In my head I was playing ‘round Machrihanish or the Ailsa Course at Turnberry or Carnoustie or the Old Course—those were the models in my head that I was playing greens. It always gives me more pleasure when I hear people “ooh” and “aah” about other things that I know I had to work harder to create.

Tetherow is getting lots of attention and cost half what Pronghorn did. Sure it’s caused some controversy but that controversy runs both ways. Lots of people think it’s absolutely amazing but I know that site was weak—we had to create what you see. Professionally I am almost prouder of the projects that were harder to do. And I could not have done Tetherow in my twenties the way I did Bandon. And The Castle is an entirely fictitious course, like Kingsbarn.

JS: I am not a subscriber to that “God (or Nature) created this course and I just had to find it” mantra. Every course is an artifice, something made by man at some level. Golf isn’t “natural”—you never find any creature other than man cavorting about with balls and sticks. But that aside, how did you actually go about routing Bandon Dunes on a “natural” site? Steve Goodwin writes in Dream Golf said you didn’t really have good base maps to work from.

DK: I did the routing for Bandon exactly the way I have done the routings for quite a few golf courses since: I laid it out entirely in the field. I walked that land over a two year period on my own, with Mike, with my father, and learned that chunk of land much the same way a child would learn the surroundings to his house. I knew intimately where the highs and lows were, where the great views were, where the humps and hollows were, and in my head I didn’t so much consider the routing as 18 golf holes—I know it’s another one of those passé lines but there genuinely were a million different ways that great golf holes could have been laid out at Bandon. I looked at it as an exploration of that landscape: how could the golf course explore the land.

It’s no coincidence that the third tee is the highest point on the golf course. It’s no coincidence that the 16th green ended up way out on the point. I know that that is not great novel writing, but it’s solid novel writing, if you take my point. I gave a very good overview of the “book,” so to speak, on the 3th tee, because you see everything. I satisfied the initial lust to see the ocean on the 4th green. And then again on the 6th green. And then I built the thing up to a crescendo, finishing with 15, 16 and 17. Brad Klein talked about the fact that it was all building up in match play terms –that I obviously had it in my head when I was designing it that I was thinking about match play, and that’s probably true. Although I don’t remember consciously thinking it, but as a Scotsman only ever playing match play, that would certainly be part of my subconscious.

JS: How did you hold this sense of the place in your head? And did you start with green sites?

DK: We went through a year or more laying out a course within a 160 acre parcel whose northern boundary was basically where the 11th green is. If you drew a line parallel to the beach from say, 4 through 11 green and roughly back to the second, that was the original property line. And the whole 18 holes always sat in that parcel. Mike was always happy with the back 9. 10 through 18 as you see it today were laid out early and always stayed like that. But 1 through 9, he was never happy with. The 6th and 11th greens were a shared double green and he was never happy with it.

Over six months we walked it at least three times. Mike always came back to not being happy with the front 9. And I kept trying to make the case that I firmly believed that the golf course I had laid out was the very best golf course I could lay out within the parcel. And one day he just said, “so the only solution is more land?” And I said, “well, yeah, but we both know that land is owned by an ambulance-chasing lawyer, and he has no intentions of selling it.” So that’s just not an option I had ever considered.

And then right at the 11th hour, the guy went bankrupt, and Mike was able to secure the land from a bankruptcy sale. Even then he was already talking to Tom about doing the second course, but Mike said to me, “just take whatever land you want for this next 9.” And I tried to explain to Mike that given that his new land holding was large—it ran all the way up to Whiskey Run Beach, where Old MacDonald’s being built; I said—this changes the playing field entirely—you have to go back to first principles, to everything we’ve ever considered: the access road, the clubhouse position, everything is now up for grabs.

6th at The Castle

The “heart” of the project is not in the same spot anymore, I told him, because we’ve moved the body. We have to reconsider the core of this development. You’re going to build numerous golf courses, it makes all kinds of sense to do that from a single core, as Gullane does, as St. Andrews links do, as Gleneagles does, which I obviously know extremely well. Let’s go back and take another few weeks or few months and reconsider the core of this development. And guess what? Mike said, “no. All I want you to change is the front nine.”

I couldn’t believe it. I tried my best to push and shove at him, but as the Scots would say, “he’s thrawn. ” Once Mike makes up his mind, that’s it. His genius appears like an Achilles heel to those who don’t know him and don’t appreciate where his true talent is. He was fine with where things were and didn’t see the need to change it all and was more than willing to allow this development to grow organically and to evolve, and he wasn’t willing to master plan it to the n’th degree, as some 4000 acre development. “OK, we’ve got 9/10th of it right, let’s just tweak the last little bit and we’ll let the dice fall as they fall.”

And that’s what then happened: I changed the front nine—that’s why the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth holes stretch out as they do. If you look at it on a plan the whole routing is very cohesive until you get to four green, and then it stretches up the beach for two holes and then cuts back on itself—and that was the change brought about by the landholding. Then when Pacific and Trails came along they had to be entirely remote from the original golf course. There was no way to get to them from the original clubhouse.
Mike likes the quirkiness. It’s part of the mystique of Bandon. He likes the fact it’s not planned out like a Mercedes—it’s like a kick-car. He likes the organic growth. If it were a Palm Desert master-planned resort community it would have completely missed what Mike was trying to achieve—which is to make it look like it had just developed over hundreds of years. He short-circuited that hundreds of years by making a good decision and sticking with it and then making another good decision, but the two decisions didn’t necessarily overlap well.

JS: Was there some tension about that revision? Did it affect your relationship?

DK: No, not at all. Mike and my father are exactly the same age. I always treated Mike with the same deference and respect as I would have treated my own father. So it was easy for me to accept his instructions. If he said, “OK, David, I listened to all the arguments but it’s still going to be black,” I would have said, “OK.” The great thing about Mike is he is consistent. I never experienced Mike to say one thing in the morning and then change his mind in the afternoon. He pretty much stayed consistent. Sometimes that is wonderfully liberating, because you give him an idea and he says, “OK, go ahead and do it,” and other times it’s infuriating, because he’ll say, “no, I don’t want you to do that, I want you to do this.” But he stays consistent.

JS: Once he’s made up his mind then you can’t persuade him?

DK: It seems like that to me. You had your chance to change his mind, but once he went firm on it—once he gives the “final answer,” like on the TV show—you pretty much know that’s it. I’ve chatted to Tom Doak about this and he agrees—once you’ve got Mike’s final answer, you could rely that’s he not going to dither, but it just might not be the answer you really wanted.

JS: You had training and preparation in golf course design, of course, but were you expecting or were you prepared for the fame and acclaim that came with the success of Bandon Dunes?

DK: I wasn’t expecting it all. I was hoping a golf magazine might put mention of it in a sidebar. The first little mentions I treasured and stuck them in a scrapbook and wrote next to them the date. They’re little clippings—maybe a quarter of a page from a golf magazine. I had no idea what was going to happen. I was thrilled that anybody was paying attention.

Once the double paged spreads started coming out and the covers of golf magazines you’d have to pinch yourself. And while I was hugely flattered by all the attention and the wonderful things people were saying, we Scots are known for having a big chip on our shoulder. We spent a thousand years or more getting beat up by the Romans and then the English, so we’ve got this general chip on our shoulder that tells us that we never quite achieved our greatness. That mindset always told me that Bandon was likely to be a one-hit wonder, that I would never achieve it again, that somehow I had got lucky and better revel in it. So that made me focus far harder on what came next. I wanted to try to use the incredible good fortune I had been given to try to make a career.

JS: Let me ask you about Fancourt, David. I played it a couple of years ago and when someone told me on about the 6th hole that it was “designed by David Kidd” I said, “no way.”

DK: Montagu at Fancourt was a remodel of a Gary Player rip-off of the style of Augusta. Would I build that now as an original work? No chance. Was it fun to dabble with something so gardenesque? Yeah, it was fun to think about flower beds and fountains and lakes and at least try out that genre.
It was a heavy-handed remodel rather than an original work. The impetus for it was a drop in the rankings. The condition of the poa greens was a factor. And then Ernie Els missed a putt on 18 for 59 on the day after the President’s Cup in 2003 from the tips. That really bruised the ego of Dr. Plattner , so he wanted the course rejuvenated and toughened up a bit. So we spent a fair a chunk of money redoing it and on opening day Reteif Goosen shot a 66, so we improved it, but only by six strokes.
I don’t feel that I am snobbishly attached to being “minimalist” and “naturalist” at every turn. If it called for it, and I was intrigued to do it, having had the experience of Fancourt, I have some inkling of how it can be done. I am glad it was in South Africa, though, and not in California.

JS: Your Irish course, Powerscourt, is in more as a parkland style.

DK: Powerscourt was my attempt to be minimalist in terms of both design and maintenance. The owners there, the Slazinger family, had told me – “we don’t ever want more than eight full-time greenkeepers, including the superintendent, and that’s our budget.” And that number could drop to four in the wintertime. So what could we do to achieve that? By comparison, The Castle Course has almost thirty staff in the summer. The brief you give the architect can make a massive difference. Powerscourt is reasonably high-end by Irish standards, but not by American standards, so the maintenance budget needed to be modest.

JS: What was your solution?

DK: You needed to use entirely sustainable grasses—no drug addicts. The whole golf course, barring the greens, were a combination of fescue, bent and predominantly turf-type ryegrass. The greens were creeping bent. So the grassing was extremely easy to maintain apart from the putting surfaces. And then another thing was we made the whole golf course ride-on. The few bunkers that are out there are all soft-edge, so you use a TORO sidewinder and get to every bit of them. You compare that to Tetherow or to The Castle, and they’re weed-wacking all those hillocks and ridges we

The Castle Course at St Andrews, Number 3

The Castle Course at St Andrews, Number 3

created—there’s a vast amount of maintenance to maintain that look.

JS: Who do you see are your rivals in design these days?

DK: I feel fortunate to say that I believe my rivals are Bill Coore and Tom Doak and Gil Hanse and Kyle Phillips—a pretty great bunch of designers. I feel I really have to be on my absolute “A game” to beat anyone of them in a bid situation. They all have great resumes. I continue to feel like the underdog whether it’s true or not because it serves me very well.

JS: Do you find yourself competing against the same group of rivals for jobs?

DK: Virtually every project we’re being interviewed for or bidding on includes Bill Coore and Tom Doak.

JS: It’s not the Nicklauses and the Palmers and Trent Jones?

DK: Not usually. And if it is, I’m always kind of concerned that the developer doesn’t really know what he’s after. If you’re interviewing me and Jack Nicklaus it’s like you don’t know whether you want a sports car or a motorbike.

But if I know Bill Coore was there last week and Tom’s there next week, they’re much more focused on what they’re after. Perhaps what the developers underestimate or don’t realize if that while the business is very competitive, we do talk. I am more than capable of phoning Bill up and saying, “hey, I know you went there last week. Is the guy decent, is he a good human being, is the site any good?” And I know that Bill will tell me straight. We would rather win a project from one another fairly than any cloak-and-dagger way. And again, I am somewhat the underdog so I have to fight a little harder.

JS: Do the clients contact you? How do you learn about projects?

DK: They’re coming to us. As a general rule I never try to cold-call. They’re coming to me. I work existing networks to penetrate new markets.

JS: Hills/Forrest recently announced an alliance with Arjun Atwal for golf design in India? Would you ever work with a player consultant?

DK: I might have considered it more in my early career. There was a time when Faldo’s management was trying to hook me up with Nick Faldo, and the initial conversation was for some kind of joint-billing, more like the Coore-Crenshaw path rather than with me as a complete subordinate. It was after Bandon and I am glad I didn’t go down that road—I prefer being my own person. I collaborate every day, but I do it with the design guys in my own firm. We have nothing else to do but design golf courses—that is our whole mission. We have no vineyards, no apparel…

JS: What! No David Kidd pinot noir?

DK: I don’t even drink anymore—the books are completely out of date. I haven’t had a drink in two years. I am not going to try to get a client drunk to get his business. Well, that’s not true—I just won’t be getting drunk with him.

In my head aligning with a golf professional bridges the gap between commercialism and trying to stay faithful to true golf design. I don’t want to do a deal with the latest Indian golfer and have him have any input to what I am creating at all—that’s commercially motivated, and I don’t want to be motivated that way. That’s fine for you if want to do it, but I don’t want to go down that road.

JS: But it’s a conundrum—even at Bandon, Mike wants to make money. Munis are different, of course, so I don’t know if the Links Trust expects to make money on The Castle Course, but there’s a commercial aspect to nearly every golf project.

DK: And we’ve been lucky enough that virtually every project we’ve done has been commercially successful. The Castle Course is the busiest course in Scotland, apart from the Old Course. It also has the highest green fee at £135. That course has no “branding” on it—I hadn’t done anything in Scotland. Nobody in the UK has heard of me, there’s no Bandon Dunes there. Queenwood that I did is so private nobody’s heard of that other than an elite few, so the reason for the Castle’s success is the golfing adventure offered, even if that is somewhat controversial. People still want to see it. They want to play it, to see for themselves.

Had I collaborated with a well-known Scottish pro, say, what would have happened? Would the golf design still be as bold, or would it start to be watered down to try and not offend anyone, or try to be the common denominator between two or three or four people with different design ideas? I think that’s exactly where it would have gone. Is my opinion driven by egotistical, artistic desires, or is there some kind of commercial, long-term sense to it? Would Bandon have been a commercial success if there had been a collaboration with a Tour pro? I genuinely think not.

Tell me one yet that’s a huge raging success. When Hills-Forrest and your Indian pro do something unbelievable, call me because I would love to come and see it.
JS: Believe me, I am hoping we can find a site that will let us do that. But with the economy being in the shape it’s in, what do you do?

DK: I think we’re in for three to five years of virtually nothing here in the US, and probably clean around the world. We don’t need much work, especially now that we’re much smaller than we were. We operate as design and construction service providers. We’re not involved in a single project where we’re just providing raw design—we’re always involved in construction, all the way through to general contractor, which is what we’ve been doing in Scotland these last five years.

JS: Is that more daunting, more risky?

DK: Our clients are getting great projects at great value—especially now in these hard economic times. We
can squeeze suppliers in local markets. We have the experience to do that. Bandon was built with no general contractor—that was me out there with the local guys.

JS: What about Asia, where you have no ties?

DK: I don’t exactly know yet—we’re just at the starting gates. We did the same thing in South Africa. We have a way of maintaining control during construction and increasing our share of the value of that project.

JS: Good luck with that, David, and with your move into Asia generally. I hope our paths will cross there and not just in Oregon or at the odd trade show. I really appreciate your candor in our conversation

DK: Thanks for asking me.

All pictures courtesy of DMK reprinted with permission.  David Kidd’s website is: http://www.dmkgolfdesign.com/

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