The Kingsley Club
These days it is fashionable, almost expected, for architects to sing the praises of the ‘old masters’ (Macdonald/Raynor, Ross, MacKenzie, Thomas, Tillinghast, Maxwell) as they are embarking on a new project, hoping that this expressed fondness will reassure their clients that (1) they will not do anything silly and (2) the course will have the look and feel of an old club. However, how much time do the architects actually spend studying the ‘classic’ courses? One architect who cannot be accused of not appreciating the work of the ‘masters’ is Mike DeVries, for he spent a number of years on the maintenance staff at Crystal Downs. By spending thousands of hours on this Alister MacKenzie/Perry Maxwell gem, the elements that separate Crystal Downs from all but a few courses on this planet became clear. Then, when given his first solo design project in nearby Kingsley, Michigan on land that has some similarities to that at Crystal Downs, DeVries knew what to do. At the Kingsley Club DeVries focused first on the routing, to ensure a natural course where little earth had to be moved (in fact, only 30,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved, including 10,000 yards for the greensmix) that best showed off the property; then he focused on the putting greens, knowing full well they are what ultimately make a course for a private club; then he focused on the details, especially the bunkering, where he created flowing, rough-edged bunkers that would fit in well at the Downs. DeVries also brought good experience, having worked with Tom Doak and Tom Fazio for several years. Before the Kingsley Club, he was given a unique opportunity at Pilgrim’s Run north of Grand Rapids: To design and build the green complexes (including bunkering) for a course whose routing had already been determined.
Architecturally, the most appealing aspect of the Kingsley Club lies in its green sites. A quick run through the course shows the tremendous variety: the 1st in a saddle, the 2nd green along the top of a ridge, the 4th set behind a berm, the punchbowl 5th, the 6th built into the side of a slope, the 7th set into the hillside, the 11th nestled back in the trees, the 12th at the end of a valley, the wild 13th which offers a combination of most of the above(!), the raised 15th, the Redan-esque 16th where the green is just part of a huge expanse of fairway built into the hillside, and the 18th nestled among the dunes. While some actual greens such as the 15th and 16th were manufactured a bit, the other greens are the result of having taken great pains with the routing.
Another highlight of the thoughtful routing is the resulting intimacy. When standing on the 2nd tee, for example, the player is within 150 yards of the 1st green, 5th green, 2nd green, 4th green, and 6th tee. Therefore, when walking from the 1st to 2nd hole, the player may check the punchbowl 5th green to note where the hole is that day; when walking from the 2nd to 3rd hole, the player can see where the hole is on the huge (and from the 4th fairway partially hidden) green. In fact, standing on the 2nd tee, the player almost feels as if he is on one of those private courses where there are a handful of different tees and greens and an almost endless number of combinations of holes to play. This effect increases the player’s awareness that he is playing one course and not just a collection of holes. With the routing DeVries did a most commendable job blending the two nines together, for there was the danger that the two sides could be drastically different, given the different property each occupies. The first nine reminds the player of the first nine at Crystal Downs, a wild, open expanse of rolling, sandy ground, while the second nine, as at Crystal Downs, is routed more through the trees. After the open first nine, where the player can always see another hole, he goes into the trees on the 10th and 11th. ‘Uh oh,’ he thinks, ‘This could be another split personality course.’ Fortunately, that is not the case, as holes 12-18 occupy terrain more similar to the first nine, although with more trees. The player does not lose sight of the rest of the course thereafter, as the 13th hole essentially overlooks the 12th, the 14th and 15th fairways are close to each other, the 15th green, entire 16th hole and 17th tee all seem part of the same feature, ‘melded’ together, and the 18th green brings the player back out from the trees into the dunes, where he started his round just paces from the 18th green. The player thus feels he has made a complete trip, finishing where he started. This effect ties the course together.
The authors have often commented on the desirability of a private course to have some sort of ‘edge’ to it to draw members back for round after round. (After all, who wants a home course that you feel you have ‘conquered after a handful of rounds?) While the greens and bunkering give much of an ‘edge’ to the Kingsley Club, the conditioning also plays a large role. The course was built with the ground game in mind, and superintendent Dan Lucas ensures that the greens and the fescue fairways play firm and fast, requiring more thought from the player
Holes to Note
2nd hole, 150 yards: Perhaps the finest short one-shotter built since World War II, the 2nd runs along the top of a ridge, with each side of the narrow green dropping off precipitously into deep bunkers (if the player is fortunate) or gnarly rough (if he is not). This narrowness highlights what should be the feature of such holes: the ability to play a short-iron (normally downwind, the 2nd often requires only a pitching wedge) to a precise target. For better players, the task of hitting the ball to a long, narrow target is more difficult than to a wide, shallow one, where the emphasis is on distance rather than direction.
5th hole, 220 yards: A wonderful, old-fashioned hole, the 5th with its punchbowl green looks artificial, yet it is entirely natural. Played into the prevailing wind, the task of finding the green appears daunting from the tee, but the bowl in which the green is located effectively increases the size of the green by half. Still, finding the green remains an accomplishment.
6th hole, 395 yards: The 6th offers a type of combination the authors love: an intimidating drive (that needs to have some length) followed by just a tight pitch. The view from the back tee is the most fearsome on the course, as precious little of the fairway is visible, and what is visible is an abrupt knob that seems none too friendly. The hole offers much more than just a fear-inducing tee shot, though, as the approach is first-rate. The green is visible between two hills but is far from receptive, as it easily shrugs ball off its left side and, thanks to the closely mown area surrounding the green, some distance away. A player’s pitch that lands on the left edge could well finish 15 yards from the green.
9th hole, 135/160 yards: The most controversial hole at the Kingsley Club, the 9th offers two directions of play a full 90 degrees apart. When played from the western (and shorter) tee, finding the kidney-shaped green with even a wedge is a demanding task, as the right side of the green is quite shallow, with deep bunkers in front and a sharp drop-off behind. The best play from this tee is to play to the left side of the green, using the significant slope on that side to stop the ball. This corner of the green is sloped sufficiently so as to allow a player to putt from either end of the green to the other. From the southern (and longer) tee the shot is more straightforward, as the task is more one of accuracy over distance control. The authors prefer the southern tee, although not because it is more ‘fair’ (whatever that means!). Rather, they prefer it as it makes the hole play at a different angle (for the wind) than the 2nd and also ensures that a different club will be used than at the 2nd. Should, then, the western tee be abandoned? No, because remember that the Kingsley Club is a private club, built for its members’ play. Few people ever complain about having too much variety at their own club! Plus, the 9th hole, set in front of the clubhouse, offers a good stage for play-offs, etc.
13th hole, 285 yards: Just when the authors think the field of golf course architecture is running out of original holes/ideas, they come across the 13th at the Kingsley Club. The hole is labeled a two-shotter, although it is possible to play a 3-wood hole-high to the left of a front hole location. From the tee, the player faces the following prospect: a tall drop to the right (to the 12th fairway), a greenside bunker guarding the right side of the green, a greenside bunker guarding the left front of the green (and only some 15 yards between the two bunkers), and lots of fairway to the left. What the player can’t see from the tee is perhaps the wildest green with which the authors are familiar. Before the 58 yard deep green narrows to its neck at the rear, the green abruptly drops several feet in a bowl that comprises the center-right portion of the green. The drop off to the left of the green and the bunker on the left two-thirds back assures that any ‘safe’ drive left of the green leaves the player with a most nervy chip up the bank to the green. A player who is on the front of the green in one but has the hole in the extreme back could walk away with a 6 on his card without really playing a poor shot. Believe it or not, the green was not manufactured much; the front-right hole location had to be created a bit, but the rest of the green is essentially as DeVries found it.
15th hole, 455 yards: A wonderful example of a ‘half-par’ hole and at just the right stage of the round, the 15th never lets the player become comfortable. First, the tee shot is an awkward one for most players, as the hole bends to the left but the fairway slopes to the right, almost requiring a draw off the tee. The tee shot will often hit into the slope of the fairway, reducing any roll and leaving the player with a long-iron or fairway wood to the smallest green on the course, raised several feet and blended into the hillside to the right. Some people have criticized the hole as being too difficult, but it is one of the authors’ favorites on the course. As there is no great danger to get into from the tee and miles of fairway left of the green, it is difficult to score worse than a 5. Likewise, the player who gives the hole some thought and is able to executive a good chip has a good chance to make his 4. A player who misses the green short or to the left will face a recovery shot somewhat similar to that on the 14th at Royal Dornoch; no one ever complains that Foxy is ‘unfair’! The one legitimate claim some have about the green is that it was built up and created, while all the other green sites were essentially ‘found.’ Still, full marks to the hole.
16th hole, 215 yards: A friendly version of the Redan hole, the 16th green occupies part of a moderate hillside that is just level enough to stop golf balls. While many Redans have a drop-off to the right of the green, this version offers more than 30 yards of fairway to the right, tumbling down the hill essentially into the green. A player can therefore play a hook that lands a full 20 yards right of the green and then have the satisfaction of watching his ball chase down the hill and onto the green. The length of the hole encourages players to use that tact, as the hole would be less interesting with, say, a 7-iron in hand rather than a 3-iron. Also, while standing on the tee, the player plays directly across the bunkers well left of the 15th green. The bunkers ‘look’ as though they belong on each hole, testimony to the thought that went into the design and shaping.
A common question in interviews on this web site is ‘How do you think this period of architecture will be viewed in 50 years?’ With courses like the Kingsley Club, Friar’s Head, Inniscrone, and Pacific Dunes being built in just the last couple of years, the authors are confident the answer is ‘Very well.’ So many of today’s architects started out together (e.g., Mike DeVries, Tom Doak, and Gil Hanse have worked together, in addition to people such as Bill Coore, Doak, John Harbottle, Jim Urbina, and Rod Whitman who have worked with Pete Dye), that they share similar visions of what golf ought to be, but, thankfully, their approaches are all a bit different.