Kidd’s play: From bullets to birdies in Nicaragua

The waves lap at the back of the 18th green at Guacalito de la Isla.

The waves lap at the back of the 18th green at Guacalito de la Isla.

Five years ago, architect David McLay Kidd was on his way to inspect the site for a potential course in Costa Rica when his client redirected him to Nicaragua. Big difference. Costa Rica is a relatively stable democracy and popular destination for golfers and other tourists. Nicaragua is an undeveloped socialist state just two decades removed from a civil war and with no history in golf.

“Like every other westerner, I’m thinking there are going to be contras hiding in the trees with AK-47s getting ready to shoot me,” Kidd recalled, amused by the memory.

Kidd began to warm to the idea of working in Nicaragua after visiting the artsy coastal town of San Juan del Sur, then touring the project site on Guacalito Bay, on the Pacific Coast just north of the Costa Rican border. And his client, Nicaraguan mogul Carlos Pellas, proved to be persuasive.

photo

David McLay Kidd (left) and Casey Krahenbuhl.

In February, Kidd and Pellas will open the course at Guacalito de la Isla, a $250 million resort project along a part of the coast best known for its world-class surfing. Kidd now is so enamored with the region that he has begun construction on a vacation home near Guacalito’s third green, reasoning it is far less expensive to build there than down the coast in Costa Rica.

“In the five years I’ve been going down there, I haven’t seen anything that would remind you of the revolution,” Kidd said. “I realized this was an amazing site. The only resistance anyone might have is the word Nicaragua and what it says to you. If you took that word out of it, well, here I am on this beautiful, sandy beach and Hawaii-like weather. If my peers weren’t comfortable being in Nicaragua, well, I was already there. This seemed like a great client with a big idea on a wonderful site. The ingredients are already there.”

Kidd, 44, is what you might call a boutique architect. Even in the boom years of the early 2000s, he never landed as much business as Jack Nicklaus or Tom Fazio. But few people can match his client roster.

Kidd introduced himself to the golf world by building the first course at Bandon Dunes Resort for Mike Keiser. He designed Nanea at Charles Schwab’s hideaway in Hawaii. He scored the coveted contracts to build the Castle Course at St. Andrews and the Dunes Course at Machrihanish, and also built Queenwood, billed as the most expensive private club in Great Britain. He carved a course out of a Fijian jungle on a private island owned by Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz. And he turned a dead-flat Idaho pasture into a creative synthesis of wetlands and rolling hills for billionaire entrepreneur Jon Huntsman.

Along the way, Kidd’s design work has stirred up a fair amount of passionate commentary, both pro and con. I’ve always appreciated his willingness to take risks, even if I didn’t always love everything about his designs. A few years ago, I wrote that Kidd’s greatest fear was that golfers might view his work with indifference. He seemed pleased by that assessment.

The course at Guacalito de la Isla might be his most unusual project, owing largely to its location in a country where golf is almost nonexistent. The construction job also presented unique challenges.

At the outset, Kidd made a decision that it would be too difficult to bring in an American construction firm to do the work. So Kidd and senior design associate Casey Krahenbuhl hired local workers. Many were subsistence farmers; some didn’t even know how to drive.

“These people had never operated anything other than a shovel and a rake,” Kidd said.

Krahenbuhl, 33, trained local workers to do specific jobs – for example, building a bridge or reinstating an arroyo – while he and Kidd kept track of the bigger picture. With only one excavator and two trucks at their disposal, they chose land that would require the least earth moving.

Kidd’s work in another rainforest, Fiji’s Laucala Island, proved useful in Nicaragua’s similar environment.

“One of the things I learned is drainage in a rainforest is worthless,” he said. “The water, when it comes, is a deluge. There’s no pipe big enough, there’s no swale big enough. So you have to be incredibly respectful of all of the natural waterways that are there. You have to design around them.”

For that reason, there are 22 bridge crossings on the course at Guacalito, including a suspension bridge across a river on No. 8.

Topographic maps were imprecise, so Kidd sometimes would send out workers with machetes to clear paths for potential fairways. He and Krahenbuhl weren’t wedded to their initial layout; well into the construction process, they made a major change on the routing of holes 14 to 16.

“You’re kind of designing and building at the same time,” Kidd said. “This goes back to an argument I make all the time: The architects who think they can design on paper are fooling themselves. You’re making these design decisions minute by hour by day by week.”

One of the advantages of building in an undeveloped country is that environmental oversight, while present on the site, was more lax than what is found in most countries.

The 18th green sits on the beach, near the high-water mark. The platinum paspalum turf can withstand the salt water, but at some point, the surf inevitably will suck the green out to sea. Kidd said he already has told Pellas that they’ll have to rebuild that green repeatedly.

“But it’s still worth doing because it’s just such a cool thing to be putting out right on the beach,” Kidd said.

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