Legendary golf-course architect Donald Ross migrated from Scotland, settled in the Sandhills of North Carolina and designed – among many other world-class golf courses – famed Pinehurst No. 2. Over the course of his career, however, it was the “Deuce” that came to be known as his namesake design. He lived near it. He doted over it. He staked much of his claim to fame off it.
Or, perhaps it was the other way around.
“Pinehurst No. 2 was always there for him,” says Lester George, architect of Kinloch Golf Club located on the west side of Richmond, Virginia. “And he was always there for it.”
Something similar can be said of George, who as a native Richmonder has established a special kinship with Kinloch. And why not? It is considered a modern classic and the finest golf course in the state of Virginia.
George’s home is a mere minutes from the entrance to the private facility that has been selected to host next year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship in September. That makes his bond to the place even more meaningful, though several of his other projects (the restorations of the Old White Course at The Greenbrier in West Virginia and Cavalier Golf and Yacht Club in Virginia Beach, his design at Ballyhack Golf Club in Roanoke and others in the Middle Atlantic) are extraordinary in their own right.
“Yes, Kinloch is the one I’ve had the closest association with,” says George, who completed the initial concept for his circa 2001 masterpiece back in 1995. “It wasn’t my first golf course project but it was my very first real experience with the heights of what golf course design – and the game of golf – really could be. I’ve been blessed. We have a tight relationship.”
And the attachment Kinloch has passed onto George seems to grow stronger each step the layout takes. In fact, just this past summer the course was closed for a facelift, which was implemented as “step four of a 10-year plan.”
“There’s always something going on there,” adds the University of Richmond alum. “Living so close to Kinloch, it’s always been easy for me to get there first thing in the morning or the last thing at night. I’m on call all the time. And it’s never, ever been a burden. It’s been more a labor of love. I’d be there at midnight if they needed me. Kinloch is my Pinehurst No. 2. It’s my baby. It’s the experience that has been the constant in my life and I can’t imagine not having that.”
Still, George readily admits that the amount of pleasure he derives from the project is easily matched within the talented body of famed amateur golfer Vinny Giles. As a founding member and the player consultant on the project, Giles (winner of the 2009 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship) also played a huge part in the birth and evolution of Kinloch. In fact, it was Giles who brought George on board to design the golf course.
“It’s his baby as much as it is mine,” George says.
If it weren’t for Giles’ stringent demands for the layout, Kinloch probably wouldn’t have matured into what it is today.
“Vinny’s requirements were to have a core golf course with no competing residential housing and no adjacent fairways,” says George, whose collaboration with Giles began with a rather substantial gift canvass of 250 acres of dense woods along with a 70-acre lake. “We just routed what we thought would be the 18 best holes keeping some waterfront for homes and the rest for the course. Once we divided it up, it all started to fit. It almost jumped off the page due to how soft and sweet the land was. It all fell together, just like dominoes.”
And that domino effect left a routing that continues to impress with perfect “rhythm, sequence and balance” – setting the stage for Giles’ magical touch.
“Because of my relationship with amateur championship golf, our design efforts from the beginning have been to create a golf course that would demonstrate and require excellence in both medal and match-play competitions,” says Giles. “My work with Lester at Kinloch was named one of the best collaborations of all time by Links Magazine and I believe the course will continue to be a great test for players.”
According to George, the current master plan was created to improve strategy, length, bunker modifications and all the fine details synonymous with Kinloch.
“As happens with every golf course after nearly 20 years of play, new maintenance technologies, advancements in sustainability and changes in the game bring about the need to fortify the structural elements of the course and give it a facelift,” he says. “Kinloch is one of the best courses we have ever designed and we are thrilled to be a continuing part of the club’s legacy as we ensure the course keeps up with modern standards of architecture and sustainability.”
Among its ongoing accolades, Kinloch Golf Club was named Golf Digest’s Best New Course when it opened in 2001. Kinloch has been among GolfWeek’s Top 100 Modern Courses since 2003, Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses in America since 2005, as well as twice appearing on Golf Magazine’s Top 100 list. The practice facility at Kinloch was featured in Golf Range Times and has been hailed as the gold standard for practice at modern clubs.
“The length people are hitting the ball now has rendered some of the original bunkers less strategic, so Lester and I added several bunkers and removed others to modify and enhance the strategy of certain holes,” added Giles of the summer project. “The greens are better than ever right now and remained untouched during the renovation. This phase was part of the master plan all along, but it’s great that it happened to coincide with the 2020 USGA Mid-Amateur Championship.”
Because Kinloch is an ultra-private club with invitation-only membership, a peek behind its gates can be quite elusive for non-members. Getting the opportunity to see the stunning course up close is only possible during tournament events. That was the case during the 2011 U.S. Senior Amateur held there. The tournament partnership with the USGA was such a great success that the governing body has accepted the club’s invitation to return for another tournament in 2020.
The U.S. Mid-Amateur gives scratch-level golfers who play at an immensely competitive level a chance to compete with golfers with matching skills. The tournament is for amateur golfers 25 and older with a 3.4 or lower handicap. The players will play 18 holes of stroke play at Kinloch and 18 at Independence Golf Club (which was totally renovated by George in 2015). Following those two rounds, the final 64 players will be selected for match play, which will be entirely at Kinloch.
“Kinloch is the most interesting golf course I have ever played,” says Independence Golf Club owner (and former Kinloch chairman of the board) Giff Breed. “The strategy from hole No. 1 to No. 18 is well-thought out and challenges every aspect of a player’s skills. Lester’s ability to gain insight into the varying skill levels of golfers of every type and design a course that is challenging and fun across the board is uncanny. He knows how to update a course to modernize it without blowing up all the original design concepts. Independence is honored to be included the 2020 Mid-Am.”
Over his design career, George has leaned on his military background and the training he gained there on how to read terrain variances. It has helped him route golf courses across a variety of land types.
“I identify with the guy who looks at the terrain and makes things fit,” he says. “I then adapt to what I am given.”
This was particularly true at Kinloch, which he says he “literally laid out from 10,000 feet” through the use of topography maps.
“I try to do something from scratch every time,” he adds. “The land should dictate what we are doing. All the great golf courses are the ones that intrigue and engage the imagination in both strategy and beauty. Those are the ones that people go back to over and over. Kinloch is just a perfect piece of land. I can’t imagine it being any other way.”
In the end, the George/Giles collaboration came up with nine holes on one side of Kinloch’s lake and nines hole on the other – the two circuits being separated by a dam.
“We used the dam as a break between the nines with the back nine’s biggest feature being the water and the front nine’s being a long bluff running through it,” he concludes. “As a bonus, we wanted to build a 19th hole (par 3) in the space that brings you back to the clubhouse as a settle-the-bet or bye hole. Our collaborations likened us to the duo of Alister MacKenzie (militaty background) and Bobby Jones (greatest amateur of his generation). We thought it would be a great throwback idea to pay homage to MacKenzie’s design of a 19th hole at Augusta National that was drawn but never built. I must say, no golfer has ever walked past that hole without pulling out a club and playing it. It is one of the most fun holes in golf.” [END]