The Grill Room
A Chat with Gary Kern
by Gordon Wells
Gary Kern is one of the good people. A golf course architect with definite ideas and definite ideals. Kern moved to St. Louis in 1983 and his efforts locally have added greatly to our golf landscape ‑ without moving much earth. He is responsible for Fox Run, Bear Creek, and the recently opened Aberdeen amongst many others. His philosophy is simple: God gave us the earth, and there are plenty of places to hit a golf ball. Finding those places is the key.
Kern was schooled as a land surveyor but fell in love with the game of golf at an early age. Trained by legendary architect Bill Diddel, Kern learned that golf has nothing to do with tricks, just trust. It remains his guiding philosophy.
Q. No offense, but you have been in this business for a while. What kind of trends have you seen, and where do you see it going in terms of golf course architecture?
A. There for a quite a number of years, 'golf deco' as I call it, seemed to be the craze. You know, let's just do something that looks great, and put all kinds of things on the golf course that aren't really part of the game. They're just for visual effect. I really think that everybody is going back to 'let's make a golf course a golf course.' Let's go back and try not to deface the earth as much, and let's worry about playing surfaces and strategy more than we do looks. I really think we're headed back that way, at last.
Q. How has technology affected what you do? Irrigation, turfgrass, and the like.
A. Well, its pretty awesome when managed properly. As long as the irrigation system isn't over‑used. Many courses are over‑watered to the detriment of turf and playing conditions. The development of the new grass strains that we've got out is excellent. And the superintendents have far more of an arsenal of chemicals than anyone would have dreamed of ten or fifteen years ago to help it grow and combat adverse conditions such as disease and weeds. However, the thing I don't like about it is the speed of the greens has gotten to such an expected pace, that we can no longer build the character in the greens like we used to. I grew up and got into this game playing old Bill Diddel golf courses where the greens had a lot of character, personality, slope, rolls. Back when the speeds on the stimpmeter probably would have been maybe 7, 8, or 9, tops. And you could really create some interesting effects. Of course, I still carry this characteristic with me, but I've just got to suppress that want, and flatten the greens out so that they're puttable with the speeds we're attaining now.
Q. Do you think St. Louis is over‑built?
A. No, I don't. I really don't think it is. I think it probably has reached a virtual saturation point on the high‑end courses. But I do think there is still a need for more courses that are affordable to most people. The average "Joe Golfer" can't go out and spend sixty, seventy, eighty dollars every time he wants to play. He's looking for a place he can play for twenty‑five to thirty‑five, and I do think we need more of those courses.
Q. Your reputation as a "minimalist", and just as a St. Louis area architect, has that hurt you at all in your business?
A. Oh, I don't know. I know it has in some cases where people wanted a more flamboyant course than I'm willing to do. But, I've got a mixed reputation ‑ a lot of people think I build expensive courses and they're reluctant to hire me because they think my fee's high. But neither of those perceptions is true. I like to give a client as much course as I can for his dollar, and I think we've pretty well proved that out over the years. But there is some reluctance when people want a higher profile.
Q. What is the one thing you hate most about your trade?
A. 0h, golly! That's as tough as asking me what I love most about it. (laughing) I pretty much love all aspects of it. Umm, I guess the thing I hate worst is not creating a course, but actually putting my ideas on paper in a format that can be built on, and bid on, and so forth, along with all the details that are involved in it. I love the creativity part and seeing the pretty pictures, but, you know, that pushing the pencil on the paper is rather boring to me.
Q. I think its interesting that most of the owners I've spoken to praise you most for your ability with the pencil and paper.
A. Well, that's nice of them to say, but even though I hate to do it, I still do push that pencil around until I can get a lucid set of drawings.
Q. Is there such a thing as a perfect golf course?
A. The perfect golf course? Well, I suspect every person would have his idea of what that would be. Everyone looks at golf courses differently. And I doubt that anyone who has ever designed or built a golf course couldn't come back and do some tweaking on it, and probably never be happy, or fully content. Happy is not really the right word. And, yeah, it's not that you don't get it right, but you always see things that you could do that, in your mind, you could improve upon. Now in other people's mind, that might not be an improvement. So the definition of perfect is quite imperfect.
Q. What was it like for you to have Fox Run on television and hearing the praises from the players on the LPGA?
A. Oh, that was very satisfying. To see that other people did in fact like what I had done there. My son Ron was there, and we have a real good feeling about it and it's good to have that feeling reinforced or validated by people that are at the top of the game.
Q. Is Ron your greatest accomplishment? (His son, now a golf course architect in Indiana)
A. Ron? Well, one of my largest! He's bigger than I am. (laughing) I'm just so proud of that kid. I love to look at his work, and talk to him about it, and what he was thinking about and so forth. He's back to the roots of the game, like we both learned from Bill Diddel. You've got to see his course, Purgatory.
Q. Asking you which golf course you are most proud of is a stupid question, but Ron takes precedent?
A. Yeah, I think that's probably true. Actually, the biggest satisfaction you get probably is what you're doing at the time. You know, trying to do the best you can with any given piece of ground with the money that's available to do it. And that's a terribly inhibiting factor at times, but we still manage, for the most part, to see our way through and turn out a fairly good product in spite of the lack of funds. I guess that's a source of pride. Spending minimum dollars on a golf course and having players rave about it. Such as Bent Creek, Eagle Lake, Eagle Knoll, Bear Creek, that's very rewarding. To know that we built these courses for a fourth of what other people build courses for, or half or a third. And the players just love them.
Q. What do you want to be known for?
A. I guess for laying a golf course on the ground that has superb golf values. You know, finding the right holes on the ground. I think that's my strength, is being able to route a course so we disrupt nature minimally. And that's what we always try to do, and that's kind of what I hang my hat on. That sounds like a stupid answer, I know, but (laughing) that's the way I go about designing them. I just try and use what Mother Nature and The Good Lord have given us out there, and have good golf values in it.
Q. And you're doing what you believe in.
A. You bet. And I'm too damn stubborn and too damn old to change now. (laughs)
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