David McLay Kidd was at the pinnacle of the golf course architecture world a decade ago when he realized that his work was winning more awards than fans. He grew weary of hearing bruised golfers say they wouldn’t hasten back.
“Owners want me to build these things but when I consider my end user — the average golfer is my retail client, no matter who gets in the middle — he’s not having that much fun,” Kidd says. “That’s a recipe for failure. I had to figure out where I came off the path and my way back to it.”
That path had once seemed charmed. Kidd was the 26-year-old son of a Scottish greenskeeper when developer Mike Keiser hired him to design a course on the Oregon coast. Bandon Dunes was the first course at the famed resort and the first on Kidd’s résumé. His opening pitch was a home run, but Kidd admits he’s struck out a few times on the way to Mammoth Dunes, his newest creation which opens this week at Sand Valley Resort in central Wisconsin.
“I knew the same things doing Bandon as I know now doing Mammoth,” Kidd says. “The difference is I knew them instinctively then. Now I can understand it better. The problem was the bit in between.”
During that “bit in between” Kidd designed more penal courses, feeling he had to counter modern equipment, challenge elite players and appeal to course ranking nerds. “Every message I got was that golf had to be an adversarial game between the course and the golfer,” he says. Reviews of his work then — the Castle Course in St. Andrews, Tetherow in Oregon, TPC Stonebrae in California — were often harsh, and not undeserved. “I wish I’d have done them differently,” he says. “There’s a hint of regret.”
Regret should be deemed a strength in a course architect, one who goes back to see how things actually play and make adjustments. Only lousy designers make the same mistakes everywhere they’re handed a shovel.
“You’re going to get kicked,” Kidd says. “Figure out which criticism is meaningful.”
In 2014, Tom Doak rated Kidd’s Castle Course a zero in his Confidential Guide. They made peace when Kidd summoned his rival to the bar at a Florida resort.
“I knew he was there. At about the second or third beer, I put my arm around his neck and said, ‘What the hell’s the point of the zero, Tom?’” Kidd remembers with a laugh. “That water is well under the bridge. Tom and I have a fairly healthy relationship. A competitive one. He does awesome work.”
So too again does Kidd. Mammoth Dunes boasts enormous contours and very charitable fairways.
“Golf course architects from the beginning of time have been trying to frustrate golfers,” Kidd says. “What happens when you show mercy?”
He knows critics who equate quality with difficulty will dismiss Mammoth as too easy, but his new philosophy is to balance making skilled golfers work for a score without eviscerating the rest of us. The width that keeps higher handicaps in play at Mammoth is barely relevant to better players, Kidd insists.
“If you think of the Old Course in St. Andrews, the whole thing is a fairway. There is very little rough, yet the best players tell you they come at it with a rifle scope. They’re trying to hit particular places in order to set up the next shot. And if they’re a few yards off that shot becomes exponentially harder. But harder against what?”
He pauses to consider the very dilemma that derailed then resurrected his career.
“They are playing attacking, aggressive golf. The rest of us aren’t,” he says.
“We’re just trying to use the same ball to get back to the clubhouse.”
Golfweek, May 30, 2018.