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Kidd Adds another Winner to Impressive Portfolio

By: Tony Dear


David McLay Kidd's client list boasts some serious spending power. Besides a handful of development companies for whom building a golf course must have been a major financial risk, and the St. Andrews Links Trust, a charitable organization that obviously needed to be able to justify the economics of building a seventh course at the "Home of Golf," the Scot has worked for - count them - seven billionaires, none of whom are terribly concerned with filling tee sheets or minimizing costs.

Joel Cadbury, CEO of British company Longshot and heir to the Cadbury confectionary fortune, is the latest mega-wealthy developer to hire Kidd (for a project just south of London called Cherkley Court), but before him came Carlos Pellas Chamorro, a Nicaraguan businessman whose family controls 21 companies involved in just about every major industry you can think of: agriculture, telecommunications, entertainment, healthcare, media, auto, banking, insurance, plus rum, ethanol, citrus, and the commodity that started it all for the Pellas family in the late 19th century - sugar.

You can add tourism to the list now, too, as Pellas recently opened the ultra-luxurious Mukul Resort (part of a $250 million 1,670-acre, low-density private beach community called Guacalito de la Isla) in the rainforest and on the cliffs overlooking Playa Manzanillo about 30 miles north of the Costa Rica border on the Pacific side.

The Stanford-educated Pellas began building Mukul in 2007, shortly after socialist president Daniel Ortega, head of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, was re-elected to power. Ortega had first been president from 1984 to 1990 when, as a Communist sympathizer, he systematically seized control from prominent businessmen and nationalized their corporations, intensifying the bloody civil war against various groups of rebel Contras.

"There was a great uncertainty in the country about what was to come before we started building Mukul," Pellas told Nicaraguan business leaders at an award ceremony in the capital city of Managua in November 2012. "No one knew if there would be a new agreement with the IMF, if we would continue with the current economic model, or go back to the '80s."

Fortunately for Pellas, Ortega's government had become far less radical than it was in the 1980s and it welcomed the concept, not only giving the high-end resort the green light but allowing it to pass quickly through the permitting process - much quicker, in fact, than Pellas's development project across the border at Santa Elena Preserve in Guanacaste.

In Costa Rica, well-known for its strict environmental policies, Pellas had barely been able to lay any foundations, while the golf course at Mukul, named Guacalito de la Isla, was ready for play and the spa set to welcome its first guests.

Pellas was not a golfer and had little knowledge of the game, so it's not entirely clear why he chose Kidd in particular to design his course. Kidd's reputation for building lie-of-the-land courses (Castle Course and Huntsman Springs notwithstanding) and his experience with wealthy businessmen, specifically Charles Schwab (developer of Nanea in Hawaii) who, like Pellas, graduated from Stanford, were most probably factors, however.

Pellas had Kidd earmarked for Santa Elena, but following a site visit there, he asked Kidd to accompany him back to Nicaragua to check out his property on the Emerald Coast. "They really rolled out the red carpet for me," says Kidd. "They put me up in a nice hotel in San Juan Del Sur, then took me in a huge sports-fishing yacht up the coast to Guacalito. There was nothing there apart from the beach and the rainforest. I spent a couple of days assessing the site."

It didn't take long for Kidd to realize that under all the brush was a terrific golf course, and that here was a project that might actually get off the ground, so to speak, unlike so many others nowadays that look great on paper but never actually make it to grass. "I immediately thought it was a great site," Kidd recalls.

"There was no reason why it couldn't become a top-class course. I knew they had managed to get the permits, and that Don Carlos (Pellas is descended from the Italian businessman who established the Pellas family's sugar business, hence 'Don') was able, financially, to pull it off. I knew he had been to Stanford, too, so was obviously well-educated and sophisticated. I really thought it was on the fast track. Plus, there were no environmental restrictions." Except for the trees.

"Don Carlos knows his trees," says Kidd. "When I first met him, all he talked about was trees. He can identify every type in the forest, and he didn't want us to cut down a single one." Kidd and his team would be allowed to clear dense undergrowth obviously, but Pellas made it clear that if they cut down one large tree they'd be fired. "Every time I heard his helicopter approaching I'd start getting nervous," says Kidd. "Even though we never did cut down any trees, I was afraid he'd come to get let us go."

Construction on the course got underway at the end of 2010 and, despite the trepidation he had felt at first not knowing how, or even if, the civil war had been resolved, Kidd says the experience of working in Nicaragua was entirely positive. "I admit I was a little anxious at first," he says. "But I think, like most Brits, I'm used to different cultures, languages, customs and all that, so it wasn't long before I felt totally comfortable. The people were very friendly. There were no guerillas in the trees with automatic weapons, or anything like that. No civil unrest. That was all in the past."

Kidd's senior associate Casey Krahenbuhl felt similarly at peace. "I'm too young to remember anything about Nicaragua's civil war to be honest," Krahenbuhl says. "I think I was more excited about the prospect of working in Costa Rica, but it couldn't have turned out better. Guacalito is an awesome place, and I loved every second."

Krahenbuhl lived in Nicaragua with wife Lacy and daughter Ava, and became a father for the second time towards the end of his two-year stay there when son Joaquin was born at the Vivian Pellas Hospital (named for Don Carlos's wife) in Managua. "That was obviously the highlight of it all," says Krahenbuhl. "But really the whole stay was great. I loved the early days, especially when David and I would walk through the jungle with some of the local guys clearing brush and discussing the routing."

Afternoons at the beach with heavily pregnant Lacy were also pretty special. "About eight months after construction started, we had the first three holes grassed and everything was falling into place," says Krahenbuhl. "Up to then it had been six 12-hour days a week. But it suddenly occurred to me I could afford to take some time off. So I would either go fishing with some of the locals, or to the beach with Lacy. I learned how to surf too. Got pretty good at it."

Krahenbuhl's output decreased to roughly 50 hours a week, which sounds a lot to most people, but is really part-time to a guy that, over the last 15 years, has gotten used to rising at the crack of dawn to go and grade a fairway, shape a bunker, or lay some sod. "By this time I felt more comfortable leaving the local workers to get on with it themselves for a while," he says. "I spent a lot of time with Mexican work crews in previous jobs and the Nicaraguans' work ethic was very similar. There wasn't anything they weren't willing to do for you."

They were well-skilled too, adds Krahenbuhl. There were stone masons, carpenters, guys that were adept with a chainsaw, and even those who could build bridges. "The whole process of training them to do the things that need to be done when building a golf course was really pretty simple and actually great fun," says Krahenbuhl. "We had virtually no problems."

Kidd, meanwhile, would visit every five weeks or so and stay a week, ensuring work was going according to plan, and that none of the trees were coming down.

Not long after construction began, Kidd had hired a company from Texas to move an especially big tree from one of the fairways on the front nine. "It cost something like $300,000," says Kidd. "But Casey and I watched how they did it and then moved the rest of them - about 200 - ourselves for about $20,000. That was one way we were able to remain about $1 million under budget."

The front nine, Kidd says, was by far the easier of the two nines to route. "We struggled to find a good path for the back nine through the undergrowth and around the dry river bed that cut through the area," he says. "We'd drive to the top of ridges and look out trying to figure out where we were going."

Kidd eventually decided on a sequence of holes that finished with a stunning par-3 right on the beach. For Kidd, finishing the round there was a no-brainer, a spectacular and memorable end to a beautiful round of golf. The previous par-3, the 15th, caused some consternation, however. "It was just a flat, uninspiring patch of ground," says Kidd. "There were no great trees or arroyos. We had to get pretty creative there and really earn our money."

Together, Kidd and Krahenbuhl decided a Redan-style green angled from short-right to long-left, with a bunker cut into the left side of the green, would be a good solution. Krahenbuhl then suggested they make it Biarritz-style, too, with deep a deep swale cutting through the middle. The result is a one-of-a-kind green that has become the most talked-about part of the course.

Well, second actually.

The 18th, all 156 yards of it, is already one of the most unforgettable holes in the game. You hit nothing more than an 8-iron from the trees to a huge green that juts out onto the beach. After holing out, you gratefully accept a cool, scented towel from a staff member at the side of the green, then drop your bag and head out onto the bright golden sand.

Platinum Paspalum was Kidd's choice of turf for the entire course at Guacalito de la Isla, partly because it holds up so well in salt water. Even so, with potentially strong waves coming ashore at the 18th, Kidd wonders if he might not have to rebuild the green every now and again.

"I warned Don Carlos that after a particularly heavy storm, there might not be much of that green left," he says. "But I told him not to worry. With a hole like that, it's totally worth it."

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.