Cojones of steel, bowels of water and shredded nerves - David McLay Kidd probably deserves to have them all. But he doesn't look too concerned for a man who has landed one of the most prestigious contracts in golf - to design and build the seventh course at St Andrews. Perhaps he's like a swan paddling on a pond and all the frenetic activity is taking place out of sight
It would be a daunting prospect for anyone because this course will be scrutinised, picked over, studied and commented on to a microscopic degree. For a young (35-years-old) ambitious and enthusiastic golf course architect it could be the make or break commission on which the rest of his career might hang and yet, while admitting to some nerves, he can't wait to get started.
'I am absolutely intimidated by the weight of history and posterity around my shoulders', he says. 'If someone writes something bad about one of your designs, you just have to accept it, and if they write something good then the level of expectation and pressure increases for next time, so you can't win really.
'But if you talk about pressure, I designed Queenwood in Surrey and several of the top-10 players in the European Order of Merit are full fee-paying members, so there was a lot of pressure right there. And the course in Ireland, Powerscourt, was pretty high profile.
'Each project I've done over the last five years has felt like the pinnacle but when I got this job I realised that they were only a warm-up.'
And he got the job by being absolutely determined no-one else would, so hungry was he for the opportunity.
'I wanted the commission so badly that I was willing to fist fight the next guy to make sure I got it,' he says, 'for both professional and personal reasons. I haven't worked in Scotland since I was 18, for example. I have been trying very hard to get a commission in Scotland but couldn't get one. When I heard about this I had a definite feeling that my time would come and we worked for three weeks solid preparing the bid.
'A while ago I lost a commission and afterwards went over and over it in my head and berated myself, analysed and re-analysed why I hadn't been successful. So I decided then that there may be other commissions I failed to get but never again would it because I hadn't prepared or presented properly.
'My father reminded me that "failure to prepare is preparing to fail" so when I had the chance to present to the [St Andrews] Links Trust I was so well prepared it wasn't true. They invited me to present for two hours and three and three-quarter hours later I was still talking.'
David's father is Jimmy Kidd and the son says he was bullied out of the house as a lad to rake bunkers and the like at Glasgow GC and Kilmacolm, where his father worked before settling in his present position as course manager at Gleneagles. Originally David wanted to follow his father's footsteps and went to Writtle College, largely because the head of horticulture, George Shiels, was a man whose reputation preceded him.
'I was told by Martin Stimpson, now head of horticulture at Writtle, that I had to study harder on the gardenesque side of the course because there were wasn't much of a living to be made out of golf,' says David. 'I subsequently pull his leg about that a lot. I'll say things like: 'Can't stop Martin, off to Hawaii tomorrow - got to keep running because you never know, I may not be able to make a living out of this golf business.'
'Then I did an internship with Southern Golf [one of, if not the, biggest golf construction companies in the UK]. I worked on the Johnny Miller designed Collingtree Park and learned a huge amount on that project. It was on that project that I realised that greenkeeping, although enjoyable, wasn't as exciting as building courses.'
David agrees that he's just a big Tonka Toy merchant, like a five-year-old building sand sculptures on the beach, and that childlike enthusiasm animates his conversation - if anyone could be said to love their job, then it's him.
As an illustration he said: 'Last week I was in Hawaii [on a course he's completing called Nanea] working with the lead shaper, he and I were discussing a particular green while the owner was showing some of his friends around. The shaper and I were down in the dirt, making a model of what we were going to build with our hands and one of the visitors said: 'So that's what's involved in building a golf course.'
'At the end of the day you're making shapes in the dirt, trying to build what you see.'
Well, yes. But it also needs to take into account (among other things) access to and around the course, prevailing wind and climate, substructure, horticulture, heavy engineering, environmental issues, planning applications and permission, the wishes of the client, budget, geometry and finally, the course must be not only playable and enjoyable for golfers but to work as a whole - to flow in such a way that each hole seems to lead naturally to the next.
So, ScottishGolf asked, is building a course primarily artistic or engineering?
'Both,' came the immediate reply. 'At the start, it leans much more towards engineering and geometric problem-solving but as the design progresses it becomes more artistic, converting what you see in your mind's eye, and what starts to take shape, into something that's both aesthetically satisfying and functional.
'There's a huge degree of problem solving at the start. I might be thinking: "We need to create all the access roads and sub-structure in a way that works but doesn't compromise the design, the first hole can't be straight into the sun, or the prevailing wind, the 18th can't play into the setting sun, the slopes have to be traversed without becoming a slog, and on and on."'
It differs just a little, then, from the casual golfer seeing a piece of land from the train or car window and imagining building a few golf holes there?
'Oh yes, David says. 'You always see four or five great holes on any piece of land you're working with but if you just go ahead and build them, the rest suffers because of it. What the amateur looking from the train window might not take into account is that all 18 holes have to work. There has to be a flow and rhythm and logic so that it all works, not just one bit of it.'
Does this mean you occasionally have to kill your favourite child - the 'great' hole you first pictured - for the wider benefit of the whole family?
'The ideal is that you would have both situations, that the course fit the landscape and had a rhythm but yes, sometimes you have to kill your favourite for the sake of the whole,' David said. 'And sometimes, of course, you can't build your great hole anyway because it just doesn't work, in practice. It's mentally challenging, without a doubt, it becomes like an intellectual problem you're trying to solve. And achieving all of your goals is utterly, utterly impossible.'
'I would consider myself a professional journeyman designer as opposed to an endorsed "name". One of my criticisms of the sorts of courses a name can produce is exactly what we've been talking about - they will have several great holes but not 18 holes that flow together.'
It must be irksome, for someone who has studied course architecture to such a degree, and have literal hands-on experience building courses that have quickly built up a deserved reputation, such as Bandon Dunes in Oregon (15th, pictured above), to see these "name" architects - usually former or current players - take much of the kudos. Yet David is too tactful to take the bait when asked. He is, however, unsparing in his praise for other architects and the work they do.
When asked whose work he admires he says: 'There are the obvious figures from history like Alister MacKenzie [Augusta, Cyprus Point, Ganton, Royal Melbourne], James Braid [Carnoustie, Turnberry, Royal Troon] and Harry Colt, who in my view is a great architect and not talked about often enough [Muirfield, Wentworth, Royal County Down].
'But there's also a tendency among contemporary architects not to acknowledge their modern counterparts and I think that's wrong because there are a lot of good people at work today. Kyle Phillips did the most unbelievable job at Kingsbarns, for example. And Tom Doak does great work [Pacific Dunes, Charlotte Golf Links, The Village Club, NY]. They're the young Turks at the moment.
'But it was Pete Dye who probably carved a path that we might have subsequently altered or adjusted but have followed [Sawgrass, Crooked Stick, Kiawah Island]. He probably took design to a whole new place. Golf courses were becoming very similar and, while he sometimes went over the top, he cut a path that was so diverse that he allowed us to do different things. He demonstrated that courses do not have to be designed to a formula.'
David's admiration and enthusiasm are very evident and when asked which courses he most wished he'd designed, his answer was instantaneous. 'Kingsbarns, that's certainly one I wish was on my CV,' he said. 'I saw it first 18 months before it opened and I just looked and said "Wow".
'Cyprus Point [California] is also a superb course. I played it a while ago and it blew me away; it's unbelievable. Sandhills in Nebraska (Coore Crenshaw design), which is in the middle of nowhere is also great.'
So back to St Andrews, where David and his design associate, Paul Kimber, have just had their first site meeting. As a consequence they throw every possible idea into the pot and probably have, at the moment, about 24 different routing possibilities for the 18 holes that will eventually emerge.
So what's the likely timetable? Peter Mason of St Andrews Links Trust told us: 'You can't give a specific completion date because of the planning process. There are so many unquantifiable elements that you don't know how long they will take until you've undertaken them.
'Ideally we would have liked it to be playable by the time the '05 Open came to St Andrews but we won't achieve that now. The planning process takes so long and the Scottish climate brings its own problems insofar that growth cannot be hurried. Our best guess now is that the new course could be open for play by '06.'
Which means that David McLay Kidd probably has three years in which to create what will no doubt become one of the best-know courses in the world, and which might well establish his reputation, for good or bad, around the world to a wider public than any of his previous work.
Piece of cake then.
|| 18 - FEBRUARY 2003