An in-depth look at Mike DeVries’s brilliant design at Kingsley Club
Our conversation was supposed to be focused on Mike’s thoughts about Kingsley as it approaches its 20th birthday. Before I knew what had happened, he had flipped the spotlight on to me and how my experience of the course has evolved over the years of playing it regularly. We did eventually get to his perspective, and in the process, I gained further insight into what makes Mike DeVries a great architect. Like all good designers, he studies the land and draws from a mental database of feature and hole ideas to lay out a course. There is an extra dimension that makes Mike special though. He is genuinely interested in how players experience a course. Not only those who play like he does and not only good players—he thinks about ALL players and he strives to create courses that engage them, regardless of how they play the game.
Taking into account that range of factors—the land, routing, strategy, aesthetic beauty, interesting features, drainage, agronomy, maintenance functionality, and the potential shots that any golfer of any skill level might hit—is a tall order. In fact, it is beyond the capability of a person with average mental computing power to handle. Mike DeVries is a world-class architect because he has that power and he cares to use it in pursuit of creating golf courses that will hold their interest over time and repeat play. That is what he accomplished at Kingsley Club, and that is fundamentally why I love it now more than ever.
Great or Not at All
Spend any time with Ed Walker, and it quickly becomes clear that sitting still is not his thing. His gears turn and he stays in motion, so it comes as no surprise that when faced with the choice between the waiting list at Crystal Downs and building his own course, he opted for the latter. That decision was by no means a repudiation of Dr. MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell’s northern Michigan masterwork. Quite the contrary. Walker and his partner Art Preston sought counsel from Fred Muller, long-time Crystal Downs professional, who suggested Mike DeVries. “I spent thousands of days at The Downs, playing with family and working on the grounds crew,” recalled DeVries. “Every day I was there, I learned something about architecture.”
The group of men began to explore a piece of land that Walker and Preston had access to in the fall of 1998, with DeVries working on various routings. “Art and Ed just wanted a great golf course, and I wanted to create an experience like The Downs,” DeVries recounted. “We agreed that if we couldn’t meet that standard with that land, we wouldn’t build it at all. We’d go find a parcel where we could.” With an adventurous and walking-focused routing finally determined, construction began. The front nine was completed in 2000 and the back nine in 2001.
DeVries drew upon his home course for inspiration at Kingsley, and he also looked to the Home of Golf. “The Old Course is a riddle that players have to unlock,” said DeVries. “My goal was for Kingsley to have that same quality. It is very playable, but not simple.” The kind of design that he delivered only reaches its full potential if the right agronomic and conditioning choices are made though. “Fortunately, the ownership and membership care more about how the turf plays than how it looks,” explained DeVries. “When it comes to growing fast and firm fescue, (Superintendent) Dan Lucas is a genius.”
The course was more than a decade old when I first experienced it in 2013. After a full season of play, it inspired me to share a novice perspective on what captured my attention and heart—the interest, variety and beauty. Looking back on those early impressions, they were on point for me at the time. But the question remained, after several more years during which I would see many of America’s greatest courses, would Kingsley’s stature endure? Would it continue to hold my interest when compared to the best among its contemporaries, as well as the works of the Golden Age masters?
Exploring the Depths
Mike DeVries has gone on to design and build other outstanding courses including Greywalls at Marquette Golf Club and Cape Wickham, in addition to his noteworthy retrovation work at classics like Meadow Club. His experience in his craft has broadened and deepened. With that perspective, how does he feel about Kingsley today? “I’m still super excited about it,” he responded without hesitation. He continues to enjoy watching players pick their lines and navigate the slopes of the greens and surrounds. What thrills him most is encapsulated in an early encounter. “Dan Lucas and I were out in a cart checking grass lines and discussing work to be done,” he recalled. “We came upon two members, one of whom played a lot of golf at a course that was more about execution than strategic thought. He stopped us to excitedly share how Kingsley changed his perspective, with all the shots to try and figure out.” DeVries chuckled as he told the story, satisfied in the surety that these and so many subsequent golf souls have been brought to the light.
As Mike talked, he illuminated how my own paradigm has shifted over the years and numerous loops around the course. After my initial introduction to Kingsley, I knew it was a riddle, but I still believed that it could be solved. I now see that the right answer to the question, “What’s the best way to play this hole?” is always, “It depends.” It depends on the day’s pin position, the weather, the wind, the time of day, and the stiffness and fatigue of my muscles. Add to those variables a brilliant design and the rub of the green delivered by the ball bouncing over firm turf, and there is truly no bottom to the well of Kingsley’s variety. The happiness of playing the course does not come from solving the riddle, but rather from the experience of trying.
Further, I understand Mike’s enjoyment of watching others play. It is my great pleasure to host fellow geeks at Kingsley. There is joy in watching these newbies take on the challenges of the course, with a mixed bag of victories and defeats a veritable certainty. I used to act as tour guide, explaining what I thought my comrades should do on each hole. These days, I try to keep my mouth shut, preferring to observe their voyage of discovery. Perhaps it’s mischievous to watch ping pong between the bunkers on the 2nd or a putt seemingly breaking uphill on the 12th without offering guidance. Kingsley is full of mischief, so I offer my apologies (and condolences) for hosting in a similar vein. To date, it has proven far better for each visitor to take their own dive into Kingsley’s depths.
Kingsley was initially intended to be walking only. It has evolved to allow for cart traffic, as well as other minor changes. Astute observers will note some of the differences between the original course map and the course today.
What remains the same are the wild movement of the land and the bold green complexes that give the course its character.
The seasons in northern Michigan are distinct and the weather is highly variable. Kingsley draws a moody personality from its setting. In the photo tour that follows, I am assisted by Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) and Noah Jurik (@Noah_Jurik) in bringing you those moods.
Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions
As players stand on the elevated 1st tee with a giant center bunker staring them in the face, they often voice a question that is a theme. “Where am I supposed to hit it?” The par-5 plays over that hill down into a valley, and then back up to a two-tiered green in a partial bowl. The 2nd is a short par-3 that runs along one of the several dune ridges of an area known as the “south forty”. First-timers have the easiest time with this tee ball, as they don’t yet carry the scar tissue associated with missing the tiny green.
The next two four-pars run back and forth over undulating ground. The 3rd swings gently right to an angled green that plays like an inverted biarritz. The 4th is straightaway over a heaving fairway to an enormous putting surface in a bowl. Players don’t know if they have found the same section as the hole until they crest the fronting ripple. Quite the thrill ride!
The par-3 5th has some pins that are easy to access, and others that are nearly impossible. Regardless, it is always fun to throw a ball onto the left hillside and watch it scoot across the green. After conquering yet another sloped dune on the par-4 6th, players face what appears to be a benign approach. Arriving at the greensite, however, they find that shots left or long fall far away down steep slopes.
The stretch of the 7th through the 9th hugs a ridge created by two tall dunes on the west side of the property. On both the par-5 7th and par-4 8th, DeVries used the topography to create partial blindness and awkward angles. The one-shot 9th has a green that looks like a spaceship landed below the clubhouse when viewed from the hilltop tee boxes. Holes in one are a regular occurrence—almost as regular as double-pars.
After making the turn, players begin a journey into a new section of the site on the 10th. This two-shotter lays out simply and works its way up to a green at grade. Subtle internal contours often lead to head scratching on the putting surface. The par-3 11th has a canted green with easy hole locations front left and crazy tough ones back right. Many a pin seeking tee ball ends up tumbling off the right slope.
The lay-of-the-land 12th tumbles downhill with nary a bunker in sight. The thrill of hoisting a shot up against the blue sky from the elevated tee and then watching it float down to the fairway below is one of the most exhilarating on the course. The drivable par-4 13th offers players options off the tee and one of the boldest greens they’ll ever see, featuring high front and rear plateaus with a low bowl in the middle.
The tee shot on the par-5 14th is semi-blind to a fairway that turns right and then heads downhill. The tiered green is set in a nook between bunkers and a stone wall. The 15th turns back to climb uphill, providing Kingsley’s stoutest challenge. Hitting the angled and elevated green with one’s second shot demands precision on both the line and distance. The wooded stretch concludes with Kingsley’s redan-esque 16th, taking the player back up to a high point.
The rollercoaster par-5 17th begins the closing stretch. Tee shots that carry the hill run down far enough to leave a short second into the green, making birdie or better a real possibility. DeVries tests players with one final strategic par-4 on the home hole. Ideal position off the tee is dictated by the pin which can be in the open left, or tucked right side of the green. Until the very end, the mind and swing are fully engaged.
Back when I penned my first impression of Kingsley Club, I was eager to get to know the course much better. At the same time, there was a tinge of concern that someday I would arrive in the parking lot and not feel the same excited anticipation for the adventure ahead. Today, that fear is gone. The infinite interest of the course, painstakingly built by Mike DeVries and expertly presented by Dan Lucas’s team, is sure to engage me and other lucky visitors for decades to come.
Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf