No place like home

Show Me State showcases courses by architect Kern
by Gordon Wells (October 15, 1999)

In the continuing quest to build top-100 golf courses, architect Gary Kern is an anomaly.  Golfweek's "America's Best" list of top-100 modern courses contains the names of only 48 architects.  Kern isn't among them.  He thinks he knows why, but much to his credit, he is unwilling to change his frugal philosophy or minimalist style just to make a list.

"I am a dinosaur," said Kern.  "Ten years ago I said that golf was going more towards the love of the dollar than the love of the game."

It's hard to argue his point.

Kern was a land surveyor in Carmel, IN, in the late 1960s when he worked with architect Bill Diddel, a charter member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.  They collaborated in designing Brookshire Golf Course, a private club surrounded by a subdivision in Carmel.  The two hit it off.  At the time, Kern was a single digit handicapper and a voracious reader of golf design books.  At Diddel's prompting, Kern decided in 1969 to "hang up a shingle" and go out on his own designing courses.  The classical training and philosophies that Diddel ingrained in Kern's mind are still there today.  Let nature decide the topography the real challenge in designing a course is finding the tees and greens.

Kern moved to St. Louis in 1983.  St. Louis was woefully short on affordable public courses, and Kern saw an opportunity.  He has been there ever since.

Kern has designed 38 courses and remodeled 27, most within a three to four hour drive of St. Lotus. He doesn't like to travel.

"I'd rather stay close to home and be happy with myself," he said.

In an age when spending $1 million a hole in course construction 'is not uncommon, the most money ever spent on a course Kern has designed is $2.75 million.  That was the construction tab in 1992 for Fox Run Golf Club in Eureka, MO, widely regarded as one of the best new courses in the state when it opened.

As for the most earth he has moved, that is happening now with Aberdeen Golf Club, a new public course in Eureka, built on a flood plain.  It will require movement of no more than 350,000 cubic yards of earth to build.  Compare that with the roughly 3 million cubic yards of earth moved to build the Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta, CA, and you can understand Kern's ideals.

"I don't like to change the face of the earth that much," said Kern.  "I've always been a minimalist."

Kern prefers to keep the site as natural as possible, and has been known to walk away from projects that would require extensive man-made "accoutrements."

"I like the essentials of golf, you know, I like a tee, a landing area, a green, and hazards," Kern said.  "I think everything should have a purpose and not just be there to be aesthetically good‑looking and try to get you in the top 10 or top 100 or whatever."

Kern's design philosophy makes all of his courses look on the day they open like they've been there forever, and he's proud of it.

"I see these new courses that are opening up and, my God, they're full blown golf deco.  I ask myself 'Why is all of this necessary?'"

Kern is very adept at using the natural hazards already on site, with minor modifications and subtle grading to challenge the player.

"Golf is hard enough already," he said, describing the inherent lack of penal features on his courses.  "I try to fit the course to the ground, find the holes nature has given us and adapt them so we can play golf on them," he said.

Kern, who served on the board of governors for the ASGCA for three years in the 1980s, is more curious about than envious of his peers.  Not for their ability, but for how they handle their workloads.  He is in no hurry to build more courses.

"I like doing what I'm doing," he said.  "Just doing a few courses now and then to keep the wolf away from the door, and being very happy with the work that results."

As for the trend toward celebrity architects, he is straightforward.

"I think some of them, and I won't name any names, are really into it heart and soul and doing a very good job," said Kern.  "And there are some who simply put their name on the course, collect their half-million-dollar fee, and go on down the road."

It's hard to pin down a Kern design feature.  No railroad ties or island greens, unless they already were there.  There are some similarities in his flashed bunker design, but beyond that, the topography is the giveaway.  Nothing has changed.  He has been known to build greens on site, without plans, to save the owner money.

He credits architects such as Robert Trent Jones, C. B. Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross for his inspiration.  All are architects who worked in an era with little or no mechanical means of earthmoving.

"Even if somebody without a name would have designed Pinehurst No. 2, it would still be one of my favorite courses," said Kern.  "I admire the subtleties, the natural setting and there are no secrets.  The strategy is well defined from the tee."

Ask Kern why his courses haven't cracked the top 100 and he is pragmatic.  He recognizes that his design philosophy and style aren't cutting edge but that his designs allow more people to afford and play the game.  But that doesn't mean he isn't proud of his work.

"They're like kids in a certain respect," he said.  "How do you like one kid better than another?  Some of them turned out exceptionally well.  There isn't one, though, that I wouldn't enjoy playing again."

What's more important to Kern is his legacy.  Few in the game can claim an impact as large as a course architect.  But if you ask him, Kern feels his greatest accomplishment is his son, Ron, now designing courses from his office in Carmel, IN.  That is a dream any father would relish, and far more important to Kern than making the top 100.

Clients' praise of Kern is universal.

"He has a passion to do the work," said Mark Demien, managing partner in Bear Creek Golf Club, a public facility in Wentzville, MO, that opened in 1998.  "He has a great eye.  He's very creative and easy to work with."

Demien had interviewed several more well-known architects for his course but selected Kern because "good golfers in St. Louis know Gary Kern," he said.

David Ault, owner of Fox Run said, "He is very good.  We had an excellent rapport.  When he puts it down on paper, it's beautiful.  He's a fabulous engineer."

From the standpoint of his peers, Kern has no reason to worry

"He's a true class gentleman and designer," said Michael Hurdzan, Ph.D., a nationally known architect.  "He builds courses people will enjoy and can afford.  There are more high-profile designers in the business, but, frankly, few who can produce better work."

Gordon Wells, a free lance writer based in St. Louis, is a member of Golfweek's "America's Best" course rating team.

 

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