Some courses are born great, like Kingsbarns, Kyle Phillips's modern links masterpiece near St. Andrews, which slipped into fame as easily as Tiger Woods did into his first green jacket. A recent preview visit to Phillips's Scottish sequel, Southern Gailes Golf Links, showed it to be another classic-in-waiting. Unlike Kingsbarns, however, Southern Gailes may have to labor to achieve greatness when it formally opens this spring.
Phillips, a forty-five-year-old American who apprenticed with Robert Trent Jones Jr. for sixteen years before setting out on his own in 1997, told T&L Golf he understood the site's possibilities at first glance. Only such a creationist architect would have. While the classic moonscape links of Western Gailes and the lesser-known treat Kilmarnock are its immediate neighbors, this level parcel (not dissimilar to the rough grazing land for cattle and sheep that became Kingsbarns) had produced only the mediocre, long-dormant Dundonald. With what's becoming his signature bravado, Phillips opted to incorporate some of Dundonald's design elements into his plan but enhanced it with vast amounts of both earthmoving and imagination.
The result is a links of remarkable majesty. From a flat, sandy landscape, the construction team has created mountainous dunes covered in fescue and gorse. Dangerous, cavernous bunkers protect beautifully sculptured greens or traverse rolling, wavelike fairways. Streams and burns lined with old railway sleepers crisscross the course. Phillips, in the guise of traditionalists like Colt and MacKenzie, thinks "there is something magical about links golf." And he appears to have done what he set out to do: create a grand-scale layout "in keeping with the great courses that surround Southern Gailes."
But will his new baby prove a difficult child?The omens have not been good. Advertised and heavily marketed opening dates came and went last year: Southern Gailes was nowhere near finished. The first management team was replaced last autumn after the project appeared to be foundering. The course, purportedly "completed" before our November preview, still had much ripening to do. Many of the fairways were patchy in the extreme. Maturation seems unlikely to have happened in the interim given the limited turf growth in Scotland's rainy and cold winters and early springs. Severe drainage problems caused by heavy seasonal rains also were evident throughout the course even as Western Gailes remained bone-dry.
Southern Gailes could join the legends, but if it does it may be in spite of its guardians. The whole project seems not quite fully thought through. A five-star hotel, for example, is planned—beside the vast paper mill that borders the course. At press time, sources close to the situation indicated that a sale of Southern Gailes to the Arizona-based developer Lyle Anderson was imminent. This could be exactly what is needed; Anderson helped to turn around a similarly troubled Scottish venture at Loch Lomond.
Southern Gailes is unquestionably a great design, but it will have to work hard to avoid accusations that it is a great walk spoiled.
Greens Fees: $61-$104. Tee Times: 011-44-1294-311-799 or visit southerngailes.com.