A Mammoth Stroll w/David McLay Kidd

By Jason Bruno 

David McLay Kidd

Since you’re here, we can safely assume that you have an appreciation for

golf course design. If you’re not aware of the name David McLay-Kidd, then

you have a lot to catch up on, Google him and his course designs. Next, go

book a round on one of his courses. Bandon Dunes, Gamble Sands, or Sand

Valley’s Mammoth Dunes, just get it done – you can thank me later.

Eighth at Mammoth Dunes

The son of Scottish golf course superintendent Jimmy Kidd, David grew up on

some of the finest terra firma that the British Isles have to offer. Now 50, David

McLay-Kidd has become one of the absolute masters of golf course architecture.

His impressive resume of course designs includes the course that may have had

the biggest impact on American golfers in our lifetime – the original course at

Bandon Dunes. Kidd’s catalog of notable designs is vast and includes such names

as Tetherow in Oregon, Queenwood in west London, and most recently Gamble

Sands that overlooks the Columbia River along the high desert of north-central

Washington.

Gamble Sands

We caught up with DMK during our visit to the Badger state earlier this summer

and then for a follow up (via phone 2 months later – Aug.18th, 2017) as he was

driving back towards Wisconsin after a day spent at Chicago Golf Club with Mike

Keiser, Tom Shapland, and Brad Kinsey (President of Chicago Golf Club).

During our visit to Sand Valley, six holes on Kidd’s new Mammoth Dunes course

were open for preview play (just this past week it was announced that 9 holes

were now open) and Kidd took the role as tour guide and caddie as we discussed

his work on what is the second course at Sand Valley, and a bit about many

subjects including Bandon, what he learned from Tom Watson, and an epiphany

that has changed everything for DMK design . . .

LinksNation: Before we really dig into Sand Valley, and since this is our

first meeting in person, I’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the phenomenon

of Bandon and the inspiration it has been to so many, including myself. On

behalf of linksters and course design enthusiasts everywhere – Thank You,

most notably for the 16th hole, which is a magnificent design in the ideal

setting, truly a spiritual experience. So a big tip of the hat for what you were

able to do there.

David McLay-Kidd: It’s cool looking back at it 20 years later, I’m 50 this year.

Mike hired me when I was 26, the course opened when I was 30.

LN: How did that come about?

DMK: He (Mike Keiser) wanted to build a British links course. So after lots

of chatting with lots of American designers he went out and sought a British

designer. He wanted someone that was unaffected by the Americanism of golf,

he wanted someone who was so steeped in the tradition of the game that they

really didn’t have any other knowledge other than that. When Mike looked at

my pedigree, I really didn’t have one. My pedigree was only playing golf in the

UK.

LN: Did he know your Dad (Jimmy Kidd) ?

DMK: Yeah he did, he and my Dad are the same age (within two days of each

other). It handily influenced him, my Dad is a superintendent. My Dad and Mike

would speak plainly and between the two of them Mike saw me as the younger

more bullish version of my father. Somewhere in there he saw potential that

nobody else including I could have seen. And so he hired me and I did what I

only knew. I didn’t know anything else, I didn’t know how to create Tom Fazio

bunkers, I didn’t know how to put Pete Dye artifices in. All I knew was I spent

my whole life playing these old courses in the British isles and so I did what I

knew. When everybody in the U.S Ooo-ed and Ahh-ed about Bandon, to me it

was like every other course I had played like Machrihanish, Carnoustie or bits

of North Berwick or Gullane or any course I played as a kid. Why so much

hoopla? If you took Bandon Dunes and parked it on the west coast of Ireland it

would be another great course on the west coast of Ireland. It wouldn’t be the

only one. On the west coast of the United States, it was the only one. Nothing

else like it, and still nothing even close . . .

LN: Poa has krept into the greens at Bandon now, with an exception of Old

Mac. Is that just the way it’s going to be, and with the green surfaces

here you guys decided on Bentgrass?

DMK: It’s the way it’s gonna be at Bandon, that climate is so temperate, so damp,

there’s no way of avoiding it. It’s about a 10-year window, they were all

mint fescue at one point. We had long conversations about the greens here (at

Sand Valley), I certainly debated it with Mike, I’m not sure that Mike ever really

debated it himself. He just said early on that it was going to be bentgrass.

LN: Tell me about this particular parcel of the property at Sand Valley where

you’re creating Mammoth Dunes. You’re right up front here at the clubhouse

as opposed to Coore Crenshaw’s layout that is a bit more remote here at the 

resort, how did that come to be?

DMK: When I did the original master plan for this (Mammoth Dunes), I

wanted this spot, as a golf aficionado yourself, I would suggest – and these

are my words alone – that Tom Doak and Coore Crenshaw probably want that

remoteness, as where I gravitated towards the mothership. I wanted to get

to open the doors to all the visitors the way that I did at Bandon. I wanted

to do the same thing for Mike (Keiser) here.

The view of the 1st at Mammoth Dunes from the backdoor of the lodge

LN: We are standing here on the first tee at Mammoth Dunes, where did the

name come from?

DMK: It was just announced about a month ago (May), it came from Mike.

Certainly, the scale of what we’re building and the size of the dunes – that

dune on your right is 80 feet tall. So the title Mammoth Dunes came from

the scale of the sand dunes. (He points over to another massive dune in the

distance that is so big that the large piece of land moving equipment looks

like a matchbox car on a mountainside).

LN: What we see out there (the landforms), how much of it existed when

you came out for the first site visit ?

DMK: This golf course we moved almost nothing. That abyss through the

middle here, we took that down a few feet and used the material to build

the clubhouse pad, that’s the only dirt on the whole golf course that we

moved. Every other piece that you’re gonna see on these six holes hasn’t

been moved other than being pushed with a dozier a few yards here and

there, but nothing moved.

From this point on it’s no longer a typical Q & A, it’s David and I walking his

six-hole preview of Mammoth Dunes. He is describing his thoughts during the

design process and how he thinks they should best be played (DMK has taken

on the role of looper) . . .

DMK: Ok, here we are on the first tee. I love to be contrarian. So for every

golfer that stares down the first hole of a golf course, they always want to hit

it down the middle right? Well the one place I don’t want you to hit it here is

down the middle, pick a side I don’t care which one, but pick a side. As long as

you don’t hit it down the middle you’re good here. It might be the only opening

hole in golf where down the middle is the bad place to go. (I of course picked

the right side, and pulled it slightly onto the left part of the fairway, and in

typical DMK fashion he says, “that’ll work.”)

Earlier today we were back there (he points in the distance) working on the

fairway on fourteen, and on the other side of that is the tenth green. About 200

yards on the other side is what we’re working on right now. I’m trying to build a

hole that I’ve never tried to build before – It’s a dogleg left, but on a straight line

it’s a 280-yard par 4, so if you saw that on a scorecard you would assume that

it’s driveable right? I’m going to set it up so it’s pretty much impossible to drive

it.

16th at Bandon Dunes – Photo credit: Bandon Dunes Resort (E.Schiller)

LN: You said 16 at Bandon was never designed to be driveable, and yet most decent players

attempt to drive it, I attempt it every time I’ve played it.

DMK: It never was, the green is totally not set up for that shot.

LN: Can’t argue that, but the solution is to hit it just left of the green pin

high and pitch or chip it on – unless the pin is tucked over that perfectly

placed pot bunker you put there. . .

LN: So when is the target date for the grand opening here on Mammoth Dunes?

DMK: Probably July 1 (2018) as a formal opening, with preview play starting in mid-

May but with restricted numbers. Even now I think they’re only going to allow

50 people a day out here.

LN: How long have these six holes been finished?

DMK: These were all done last year, they were grassed in last September.

This first hole is 375 yards, if you would have gone the other route and

stayed high you would actually have got a little run on the ball and you’d

have a completely open view of the green. You have 153 into the wind, will

play like 165 yards.

LN: I want to talk a bit about your work on Gamble Sands, I was there the

summer of ’15 drove up there the day after working on Josh Lewis’ agronomy

staff at Chambers Bay (U.S Open). It played really firm and fast, and my impression

was that it’s the most playable course I’ve ever experienced, and what I mean by

that is – absolutely any type of player from tour pro to a 30 handicapper can

come go out there and play it and have a great time.

DMK: The takeaway for me is, Casey (Kidd’s design partner at DMK Design)

and I built that in 2012 and we had been experimenting with design ideas for

a few years before that and Gamble was sort of the latest iteration of those

design ideas. Mike Keiser went there and loved it so much that he immediately

hired us to do this.

Mike asked me to speak to one of his groups at Bandon, and I said I’ll happily

come to speak to your group, but only if you play Gamble Sands. So he played it

with Mike Davis (from the USGA) and Tim Boyle (owner of Columbia Sportswear).

He called as soon as he came off 18, and told me, “I’d put Gamble Sands in the

World Top 50″.

LN: I thought the same thing, it was the most fun golf course that I ever played.

(I then two-putted for par at the first on Mammoth Dunes and we moved on to the 2nd).

DMK: The second here is 395 yards. If you can carry the bunker or keep it

right of it, that’s ideal. Keep it to the right here. (After another pulled tee shot)

Ok, you’re down the left again, that’s gonna make it interesting.

I think the premise of golf course architecture is fundamentally wrong. The

teachings of the great architects from 100 years ago were wrong then and

they’re wrong today.

LN: You’re gonna have to give me an example.

DMK: If a shot is not executed, (it has always been thought that) if the ask

of the golf course architect is not met, that shot should be punished. I think

that is a fundamental fallacy, here’s why – the shot in and of itself is the

punishment. Most often if I think up a defense against your best attack, any-

thing less than your best attack is punishment in itself. Let’s take your tee

shot here, you’re now out of position, will you enjoy this hole more or less

if I give you an opportunity for redemption or if I put you in jail?

LN: Certainly more if you give me a chance, of course. No doubt about that.

DMK: But, that opportunity for redemption requires an even better shot than

if you had executed well the first time. On this hole you’re now coming into a

shallow green with a front pin downwind, so for you to get this close for a

birdie putt would require one of the best shots of the day. When you stood on

the tee and pulled it left, you had a feeling of dread, like I pulled it into this waste

bunker and I’m not going to enjoy this hole now. You come up and over the hill

and see that you’re not in the waste bunker, you’re staring right at the flag.

You’ll be looking at your 3 buddies thinking “my money is not in their pocket

yet”. 122 yards left, aim half a stick right of that pin (I hit gap wedge just below

the flag about 15 feet away). Let’s walk over here to the right and let me show

you where you would’ve been had you bloody well done what you were told.

(laughter ensues).

LN: I agree, that tee shot was total rubbish.

DMK: If you had hit a good shot over here I’m gonna give you some run out

and a better position to the green.

LN: So you finish Gamble Sands back in 2012/2013, did you immediately know

that you hit a home run when you finished?

DMK: Casey and I were down in Nicaragua back in 2010, and we built a

course called Guacalito De La Isla, and everyone that came and played

that – loved it. We had this whole epiphany about golf course design.

Instead of just pissing people off, what happens if we just try and help

them and get them to enjoy the game more. So we did a bunch of

stuff down there and it worked great, so we went to Gamble and then

to London and were doing the same stuff. So did we know? We thought

so, but didn’t know for sure until people played it.

(Questions from our Aug.18th, 2017 follow up)

LN: So, You have nine holes Open now on (Mammoth Dunes) ?

DMK: Nine holes are open and holes six, seven, eight, nine, ten and fourteen

are all grassed, so there are only another three holes left and they’ll actually

grass one of those tomorrow morning, so we’re really close. By the end of the

month we should have the whole golf course grassed, then we have another

six weeks or so of final adjustments of little tweaks and nips and tucks and then

we’ll batter down for winter and we hope this winter is kind. Next Spring we’ll

add a few more holes to the preview round and the formal opening will likely

be July 1 of next year.

LN: So, eleven, twelve and thirteen are the last three (holes) that you’re

working on?

DMK: Yep, that’s it. A short par 5, a medium length par 4 and a par 3. The

par 3 thirteenth might be the most visually stunning of all of the holes out

there. Which I know you know is hard to believe, but I really think it might

be.

Par 3 sixteenth on Mammoth Dunes

LN: More so than sixteen?

DMK: More than sixteen. I think that believe it or not I don’t think that

sixteen wouldn’t even make the top 2 of the par 3’s. I think eight and

thirteen outdo it considerably.

LN: When we walked the course, you spoke about designing a short par 4 that

would be “un-drivable”, the tenth, and were you able to create what you set

out to design there?

DMK: Yes. It’s about 300 yards from the tips, it’s a hard dog-leg left. It may be

possible to drive it, but there are some big trees and the green is not designed

to accept a drive – just too much risk. It’s really a layup, but you have to decide

what to lay up with, are you going to lay up with a 7 iron and hit your approach

with a 9 iron, or are you going to hit 3 wood and have a half wedge? The green is

the only one on the golf course with a serious false front, so there’s a little bit of

a knee knocker wedge onto the green.

LN: That leads me to our prior discussion about your time collaborating with Tom

Watson at Beaverbrook Golf Club (outside of London), and what you learned

about course management and how to apply it to your design work. I found it

fascinating, please explain . . .

DMK: It was all about his course management, he explained it in terms of threat

and opportunity. He would counter the threat versus the opportunity, if the threat

was even marginally high, he would almost always discount the opportunity. So for

a golf course designer, we often design holes where there is risk and reward but

we don’t view it in the eyes of someone like Tom Watson. The risk might be where

maybe he’s going to make double bogey and the minute he sees that risk he just

won’t take it, he just sees it as too big a risk – and that was the lesson I learned.

The threat versus the opportunity, the threat has to be relatively low. It just can’t be

double bogey, because he just won’t go for it. The threat has to be a stroke at the

very most, he’s not going to take on a bunker that costs him an entire stroke with

no chance for reprieve. I realized that I had to be measured about how much threat

I put out there versus the opportunity, and that’s what Gamble Sands does. There

is lots and lots of opportunity and the threats are relatively low. The punishment

will match the crime, if you don’t pull it off I’m going to give you a slightly more

difficult lie or a little less view of the pin, or a little bit harder angle but I’m not

going to put you in a 8 ft deep bunker, knee-high grass or make you hunt for the

ball. I’m gonna give you a play, you’re never out of it – there’s always a chance

for redemption.

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