Keith Rhebb works in golf course building and design from his home base in Winter Park, Florida. He knows the business from the ground up, having worked with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on some of their finest designs and restorations. His chosen course below is my personal favorite, but we’ll leave that story for another time. We hope that you enjoy his answers to our questions, along with the question that he poses for himself, at the end.
Tell us who you are, where you come from, and how you got into golf in the first place.
My grandfather introduced me to the game as a kid. When I’d go to visit him in Faulkton, South Dakota, he had me drive the cart while he played a round with his buddies. The farmers there got together and built themselves a 9-hole course that was the epitome of community golf. They even paid for a local resident to study agronomy and agriculture at a state college so that he could maintain the course properly. I didn’t play much, but that was my first introduction to the game and its impact on community.
How long have you been in the design and build facet of the industry, and what brought you to it?
I’ve been in the greater industry for over 16 years now, and my path in was a bit different from others. I started working for Landscapes Unlimited, not necessarily thinking that it was going to be a long-term career path. They assigned me to the Sutton Bay project in South Dakota and I developed a passion for golf design and construction from the first moment onsite. I raked, shoveled, picked up rocks, and operated small equipment, and found every aspect of that “grunt work” invaluable to my future in the field.
I eventually landed on a Coore & Crenshaw project (Colorado Golf Club). The design/build approach made a lot more sense to me. After a couple of other projects with them, they eventually brought me on as a design associate. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on fantastic sites around the world with them, and somehow that has led to my own design/build work.
Discuss your epiphany, your a-ha! moment, when you began to understand what really matters in the construction of a golf course.
When I met Bill and Ben at Colorado Golf Club, their advice to me as a young shaper was, “Have fun!” Although I really liked golf design and construction, I wasn’t having fun and didn’t even know if I wanted to continue in the industry. Something about their advice was a game changer; it freed me to fully engage in shaping without fear of failure. Over the years, I’ve noticed a difference in courses built by teams that find the right balance between working hard and having fun. The sentiment somehow weaves itself into the fabric of a course when all is said and done.
Following that, what do golfers NOT familiar with construction and upkeep miss most often about a golf course?
Many golfers don’t realize the sacrifices made by the onsite people designing and building a course, and by extension, our families. Most of us work on sites hundreds or thousands of miles from home for long-periods of time. We miss out on many of the big moments like birthdays, weddings, and funerals and the small but meaningful minutia of everyday life with family and friends. Sometimes it’s hard to be away from all of that and remain fully motivated and focused on our work.
It’s similar on the maintenance side of things. Superintendents and maintenance crew members invest and dedicate an enormous amount of time and effort to make sure a course is ready for play each day – sometimes doing so short-staffed. They are at work between 4:00 am and 5:00 am to mow, monitor irrigation, keep up bunkers, and all the other tasks that go into getting a course ready for play. They go home at the end of the day and fall asleep early, missing out on time with family/friends only to get up and do it again the next morning.
Which have been your favorite projects to work on, and why?
Winter Park was a favorite on many levels. Outside of it being my first independent design/build project (with Riley Johns) apart from Coore & Crenshaw, I enjoyed its unique relational aspects. We got to know and interact with many of the residents in the community, and we worked together with the City government. Every part of it was fun, and I think it showed in the final product.
Lost Farm (Bridport, Tasmania, AUS) is another favorite. How can you argue with a site with so much raw beauty and potential? Dave Axland and I worked together to implement Bill’s design and taught some of the locals to assist with the construction. Richard Sattler (owner) was a pleasure to work for; he never tried to micromanage our work as happens on some projects. On a larger level, it was neat to see the impact of golf tourism on an entire region. Barnbougle and Lost Farm helped inspire regional golf tourism that has generated millions of dollars of revenue in Tasmania’s economy. Consumer spending for travel, accommodations, food, attractions, souvenirs, etc. has helped revive communities and businesses.
If you had an opportunity to go back in time and work on the development of a specific golf course, which one would it be and why?
Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Perry Maxwell is one of my favorite architects and I worked on the Coore & Crenshaw restoration there back in 2012-2013. When it was built in 1939, the Reynolds family gave Perry Maxwell his choice of land for the course out of nearly 1000 acres on their personal property. I would’ve loved to have walked the land with him and gotten to know his thoughts and overall approach to choosing the site and routing it. It would be interesting to see how courses were actually built with the construction processes and equipment used back then. They didn’t have equipment like we have today, so much of it would have been done by hand. How did they troubleshoot problems with drainage or running into rock? I like seeing things like that first hand, so to go back in time to witness it would be pretty cool.
Do you play golf? If so, what part of your profession has helped you the most with the game?
I’m one of those industry outliers who doesn’t play a lot of golf. Spending so much of my time working on courses, I like to do something different with my time off. I enjoy playing a fun round or two with friends when I get the chance though.
What do you have in the pipeline for 2018, 2019 and beyond?
Riley Johns and I were recently appointed to restore William Flynn’s Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, PA. We are currently deep into the research/master plan development phase, which we will present to the membership this fall. If the Club approves it, we will likely begin work in the fall of 2019. I also have an international collaborative project currently in the works, with a start date dependent upon infrastructure negotiations.
In the meantime, I’m shaping on Mike Nuzzo’s Nine Grand project in Cleveland, Texas. In September, I will help out on the Sheep Ranch project (Coore & Crenshaw) in Bandon, Oregon.
What question has not been asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, please.
Question: What type of project would you choose if you had your choice in the near future (e.g. public, private, destination golf, etc.)?
Answer: I’d love to replicate the Winter Park model on another struggling municipal golf course. Golf course design and construction doesn’t have to be out of reach for public courses. It is possible and extremely enjoyable to take a course that lacks creativity, strategy, and beauty and bring it back to life – to make it interesting, strategic, and fun to play while providing a space for the public to grow and connect.
For me, I enjoy seeing courses like these both grow the game and impact the community and its sense of connectedness. At Winter Park, we built relationships with residents and engaged them in the design/build process. It was exciting to see them feel a sense of pride and ownership in the course because of their involvement. That sentiment continued to spread throughout the community after construction and brought new players to the course to learn and play. And because we preserved Winter Park’s purpose as both a park and a golf course, there is something for those who have no desire to play. Drive on the streets around the course any day of the week and you see whole families engaging together and having fun – regardless of whether or not all family members swing a club. It’s exciting to see, and this engagement and connectedness are arguably qualities we need more of in this world today.