DRIGGS, Idaho – Growing up in Scotland, David McLay Kidd said his dream was to be an assistant superintendent or even, with a little luck, a head superintendent like his dad, Jimmy. Then came a fortuitous meeting with Mike Keiser and, eventually, the assignment to build the first course at Bandon Dunes Resort, a job that gave him rock-star status in the world of golf architecture.
Kidd was recalling his whirlwind rise from obscurity recently as he showed me and some other writers around Huntsman Springs, his newest creation and clearly one of his proudest accomplishments. At Huntsman Springs, owned by billionaire executive and philanthropist Jon Huntsman, Kidd moved a tremendous amount of dirt – north of 4 million cubic yards, by some estimates – to add elevation to a flat piece of land and bring nearby wetlands up into the course.
“This was the pinnacle of my career so far. . . ” Kidd said. “We got to showcase our creativity with a client who was pushing us in that direction.”
How did he get here? I asked Kidd how he had secured the plum Bandon assignment at such a young age, with a modest résumé. He recalled that prior to meeting with Keiser, he had seen the list of architects interviewed for that job. It included all of the A-list names. So Kidd figured he had nothing to lose. In his interview, the Scotsman told Keiser that he suspected he was just a rich, clueless American trying to build a faux links. Kidd said Keiser apparently liked his swagger because the owner kept bringing him back to work on the project, finally awarding him the commission.
Kidd acknowledged that he ran the risk of being seen as the one-hit wonder of golf architecture.
“People said, ‘Sure he did a great job. It was a great site. You’ll never hear from him again,’ ” he said.
After Bandon Dunes, Kidd said he wanted to use the decade of his 30s to build a portfolio of courses in a variety of genres – courses built in the mountains and valleys, inland and on the ocean. He wanted to show that he was capable of a repertoire that went well beyond building seaside links. He feels comfortable with the portfolio that he has produced, which includes The Castle Course and Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland, Tetherow in Bend, Ore., Nanea in Hawaii, the Montagu Course in George, South Africa, and TPC Stonebrae near San Francisco.
David Huntsman, who is running his father’s real estate operations, asked me if I thought Kidd’s work was unique from that of other architects. Having recently visited Tetherow and The Castle Course, I told Huntsman that my impression was that Kidd’s designs truly were distinctive – that not everyone will love his work, but that they’ll remember it.
Kidd abhors so many of the modern, cookie-cutter designs.
“I hate these courses that are ‘sublime,’ ” he said. “All of the hazards are up in your face. Everything is simple and boring and sublime. The courses are formulaic. It’s a dogleg left and there’s a bunker on the inside of the dogleg and one on the outside. The greens are shaped like skulls with a bunker on either side.”
Kidd is anything but formulaic. In a recent article, I said that it appeared Kidd’s greatest fear was that golfers might view his work indifferently. He seemed pleased with that assessment. He wants to push golfers’ buttons, to mess with their heads, but ultimately for them to walk off the 18th green thinking they had a good time.
To that end, he acknowledges that he might have lost sight of playability at times over the past decade. For example, the green complexes and fairway mounding at The Castle Course and Tetherow have been softened since their openings.
“I’ve never gone (back to) a golf course and made it harder,” he said. “But I have gone back to courses and tweaked things to make them a little easier.”
At Huntsman Springs, he said he continually reminded senior associate Nick Schaan to keep in mind playability, which he equates to big greens. Though Kidd didn’t want to be defined by his first major triumph, he has embraced the lessons he learned from the Bandon experience.
“Bandon’s so easy and playable, and that’s what gave me these opportunities, so let’s stick to that,” Kidd said.