David McLay Kidd on Making Golf Fun

I designed Bandon Dunes in the late 1990s as a 20-something Scotsman, unsullied by the American fixation with course rankings, real estate values, and critics’ opinions. Raised in Scotland, the son of a greenkeeper, I knew what made golf fun: It was simplicity with a twist, a strategy laid out in front of the golfer that allowed him, or her, to make choices and forge an adventure, hole by hole, through the course. I knew that simplicity in construction meant lower cost, faster completion, and easier maintenance, which led to a course that was uncontrived. With the wonderful site I had at Bandon, success came easily and the course I created is considered great by most if not all.

David McLay Kidd
Bandon Dunes (Photography by L.C. Lambrecht)

However, the traditional definition of golf course greatness relates in large part to older courses that often challenge the best and humiliate the rest. Would Oakmont, this year’s U.S. Open venue, meet the pleasure and fun test? Would Merion? Would Chambers Bay? In fact, would almost any U.S. Open venue of the last 30 years? I think not.

A couple of years ago, I played Royal County Down in Northern Ireland with Mike Keiser, the owner of Bandon Dunes. We were both getting beat up by the course and I asked Mike how he rated it. “Top five,” he responded. “Me too,” I said, “but are you having any fun?”

Following the meteoric success of Bandon Dunes, my phone rang white-hot and every developer wanted me to bring a measure of that success to his project. Thus my seduction began. Media exposure, real estate sales, and, most important, a spot on the Top 100 courses lists hinged, it seemed, on a course’s difficulty—its “resistance to scoring”—and so I began to Tiger-proof courses. It was as if I’d won a major championship with a simple swing but now had been given an arsenal of tools with which to compete and I was determined to use all of them.

I created courses that were “Best New” this, “Development of the Year” that. I was ranked “Architect of the Year” for my efforts, and my clients were thrilled. But in the midst of all this I stopped hearing real golfers say how much fun they were having. And so I re-evaluated. I went back to Bandon Dunes, now with four courses, and asked myself what made these courses great. The answer was still there, as it had been when I created the first course: simplicity.

Gamble Sands (Photography by L.C. Lambrecht)

That was a few years ago, and since then I’ve created a number of courses that focus on what I knew so intuitively as a young man but had lost in a struggle to define myself by others’ measures. Gamble Sands (in Brewster, Wash.) was the first course in the U.S. I created after my epiphany. It signaled a return to my roots, simple, natural design geared to provide the golfer an experience that is, above all, fun.

After Bandon, Mike Keiser hadn’t asked me to do another course. He’d watched as I was seduced, commenting on some of the courses I created that had gained critical acclaim but failed to provide the fun factor he strives for. Not long after playing Gamble Sands, he called me. Now we’re working together again, at Sand Valley, Mike’s latest project in Wisconsin. That tells me I’ve learned my lesson.