Kerning the Course

From the U. S. Women's Mid-Amateur Championship program,
2001 at Fox Run Golf Club

For more than a dozen years, Saint Louis area golfers have been treated to the works of artist in residence, Gary Kern.  The Indiana native had his first major showing back in the mid '80's and he has been reshaping the golfing landscape here ever since.  From Wentzville to Farmington, from Eureka to Edwardsville, private or public, near 350 holes of golfing excellence carry the signature, Gary Kern.

In a business where marquee names are marketable, where tournament titles somehow translate into design talent, where national design teams vie for the developer's dollars, Gary Kern is a throwback to the days of his idols in architecture, Tillinghast, Mackenzie, and Ross.  Operating as a one-man operation out of his home, he is comfortable with his work being his sales pitch.  "I never beat the bushes for business.  I always let the business just come in," he says.  It has been coming in since he stumbled into the design business back in Indiana in the late 60s.

Growing up in Indiana, just north of Ft. Wayne, Kern didn't even play golf as a youngster.  He took up the game as a freshman civil engineering student at Texas A&M.  Marriage, fatherhood and a transfer to Purdue University for a couple of years set Kern's career path literally down the road.  For two years he worked as a land surveyor for the Indiana State Highway Department before picking up a partner in a surveying/engineering business of his own.

That work found him routing subdivision streets for housing developments and brought him into contact with venerable course designer Bill Diddel.  Approaching 80 years of age at the time, Diddel was doing the design work on Brookshire Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana, a real estate-based golf course.  Kern's business was also involved in the project.

With his natural and professional interest in land utilization, Kern understudied Diddel as he created the new course.  When the project was finished, Diddel, the founder of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, gave Kern the push he needed.  He told him, "Gary, why don't you do this."  When Kern responded he didn't know how to get into the business, Diddel countered, "Just hang up your shingle."

Not only did Diddel give Kern the push to get started, he gave him his first referral.  To the next person that asked him to do a golf course, Diddel said, "Why don't you have this man (Kern) do it?"  That course was Tomahawk Hills, a 9‑hole course in Jamestown, Indiana.

There was more to this design thing than hanging up a shingle.  "I quickly found out that I didn't know as much about it as I thought I did," he admits.  "Things weren't as easy in the field as I thought.  I kept asking Bill, 'What do I do now?' and Bill was always there to help me out."

Within a few years he sold his interest in his engineering business and was solely working in golf.  "I have always been kind of a loner.  It was scary at first, being totally responsible to people for the golf course and not being supremely confident. That confidence," he adds, "came very quickly."

What Kern didn't learn by trial and error he learned by studying.  "I read all the books on golf course architecture that I could get my hands on.  I devoted a lot of study to it."  Tops on his list of design tomes is The Links by Robert Hunter.  Hunter was an associate of Augusta National architect, Alistair Mackenzie.  "He was just so right-on in what he was talking about.  Hunter's book will always stick in my mind because it was kind of a guide post."  Originally reading the book on loan from the Purdue library, Kern now counts his own rare edition of the text among his collection of works.

By the early 1980's, Kern moved his business to St. Louis.  "The work in Indiana kind of dried up.  I was recently a single person and had no ties so I thought it would be good to get a fresh start.  I knew St. Louis had a starved golf market.  Quality public courses in this area in the 70's and early 80's were few and far between.  It was a very under-served market, and I felt there was a niche.

Already familiar with the area from his redesign work at Cardinal Creek on Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, Kern's first major commission was to turn a quirky 9‑hole public layout at Lake St. Louis into an 18‑hole private club.  This meant more than creating a second nine for the prospective members.  It meant reconfiguring the land.  "We tried to integrate the new and the old so that it wouldn't have the appearance of being two different golf courses.  Fortunately the ground laid in such a way as to make that relatively easy to do without any confusing traffic patterns.    The result was a sensational new challenge for the area's best players, Lake Forest Country Club.  It was at Lake Forest that the golf community discovered Kern's philosophy of 'tough from the tips but friendly from the front.'  "I like to do golf courses that pose a back tee problem for good players," he explains.  "I think they need that in order to be perceived by the public as a top golf course.  They also need that to be a potential venue for a top tournament."

"At the same time, I try to design the regular tees and forward tees at such a location and relationship to the hazards and the angles of the shots so that these folks can make it around without an undo amount of difficulty.  These people are the ones the game is dependent upon, rather than the pros and the scratch players."

The user friendly approach to golf for the masses was the product of Kern's analysis of some of his early work in design.  "My biggest weakness early was not being able to recognize how ugly some golfer's shots are.  I spent one summer just walking around public golf courses watching people play and thought, 'Oh My God.  We've got to do things a little differently or these folks can never make it around the golf course.'  That changed my philosophy a lot."

Students of the game will know that architects are classified as penal, strategic, or heroic (a combination of both) in their design philosophy.  Kern classifies himself as heroic with distinct leaning toward the strategic school of design.  "I like to leave at least half of the green open for a running shot so that the less skilled players still have a chance to play the golf course and still play the game."

"To me the important thing is that golf should be fun.  The average guy walking off the eighteenth green is going to think of one of two things; either, 'Gee I can't wait to play this golf course again,' or, 'I am glad it's over.'  I want them to walk off my golf course and say, 'I can't wait to get back here to play again.'  That means it was enjoyable.  Golf should always be a challenge but it should be an achievable challenge for the player, and something that he is able to do.  If you can do that, mix it in with some good challenge and some aesthetic beauty, that's what it's all about."

Above all else, though, it is nature that remains at the heart of a Kern design.  Enormous sums of money can be expended moving even larger quantities of soil to give new courses a "natural look."  Kern believes his talent may be the ability to achieve that same result with a different approach.  "My strength is my imagination and ability to route a golf course integrating it into the land.  I like for my courses to have a very beautiful look to them but be very playable.  We're all different.  I just try to go to that natural look with a lot of aesthetic value."

Ask Kern to single out his favorites from the long list of golf holes he has designed in the area, and he will respond like a parent.  He is proud of all of his children and, like a dad, will offers photos of his "kids" to anyone who wants to look!

 

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