We put out a call for our 100th interview, which was supposed to take place after we re-tweeted the first 99 interviews, at a rate of 1 per day. Unfortunately, we got busy, and fell off the Twitter pace around 34 or so. The official date of the 100th interview is April 10th, and we plan to stick to it. In the interim, we ran across some golf people that we couldn’t resist interviewing, so we continued to run business as usual, and talk golf with them. If you’ve read previous interviews, you know that we have a soft spot for golf course architecture. After all, no two courses are alike, and each one offers a unique playing experience. Richard Mandell is a golf course architect and he has much to contribute on the topic of how to design, build and prepare a golf course for play. This is a profound interview, and it might take two visits to finish, so take your time!

  1. Tell us who you are and how you got involved in golf.

I am Richard Mandell and I have been a golf architect since 1992.  The plan since I was fifteen years old was to become a golf architect so I got a degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Georgia.  After an internship with Dan Maples in Pinehurst, North Carolina, I worked for him after graduation.  I then worked for Denis Griffiths outside Atlanta.

In late 1992, I started a company with three civil engineers from Easton, Maryland called Whole In One Design Group.  The concept was that we were a multi-disciplinary golf course design firm.   We had the capabilities to offer civil engineering, landscape architecture, land planning, and geotechnical work as elements of our golf course design services.  By October 1999, I bought out the last one of my three partners and changed the company to Richard Mandell Golf Architecture.  The following April, I returned to Pinehurst.

  1. Golf course architecture is your profession and your passion. Tell us about your first day on the job, and what you learned about your future career.

I’m not sure I remember my first day on the job with Dan Maples, but I do remember my first few days as a small business owner of Whole In One Design Group.  I left Denis Griffiths & Associates on a Friday and drove from Atlanta to Hot Springs, Arkansas for a golf course renovation seminar the following Monday.

It was there I found my first lead.  A Father and son team named Foushee had a small nine-hole course in Hot Springs that they wanted to expand to eighteen holes.  Later that day, I visited the site and remembered the property bordered a pretty substantial lake.  The existing golf course was not much more than a pitch and putt layout with very small flat greens, not something I would consider a real golf course.  So my worry was that this opportunity wouldn’t result in a real golf course.

At 2:00 pm the next day I drove from Hot Springs, Arkansas to Easton, Maryland for a 10:00 am meeting the next day about a project in Jakarta, Indonesia.  I couldn’t afford to fly to Hot Springs, then to Maryland, and back home to Atlanta yet I had to be in both places.  So I drove.  22 hours straight.

We signed the deal for the Jakarta project and I was scheduled to fly there for a full month that November.  The day before I was to leave, the clients found out a Perry Dye course was being proposed down the street so they decided they needed to hire Jack Nicklaus II and that was that.

Fast-forward three years and I finally got paid to do a routing for the nine-hole course in Hot Springs.  I quit following up on it around 2000.

What I learned about the future of my career is that nothing is guaranteed and no matter how many leads you think you may have, you really have none until the first check clears the bank.  Thus began an endurance race of survival until 2005 when things first got on track for me with projects like Raleigh Country Club, Erie Golf Club, and Army Navy Country Club outside Washington, D.C., which is fifty-four holes on two sites. 

From there, things just got better and better.  I mean, I had projects throughout the nineties, but not many and it was serious hand to mouth kind of stuff.  There was a time in 1994 when I would chase golf course design work in the morning, manage an Italian restaurant from two to ten, and then go back and draw landscape plans until about one in the morning.  The most memorable plan was for Wolfgang’s Auto Supply in Duluth, Georgia, just in time for the rent check.

In 2008, I hit another level and have been moving up ever since.  Richard Mandell Golf Architecture was one golf company that never went backward at the onset of the Great Recession.  The past two years have been our best yet, which is very exciting to know as we may be hitting another building boom.  For the first time in my career, I may be in the midst of a boom with a track-record of experience to go with it.

  1. What have you seen in golf course architecture that you love, and what would you like to see disappear for good?

I would love to see cart paths disappear for good.  They just get in the way.  As early on as the routing stage, if your goal is to not have any cart paths cross fairways, you have to plan that far ahead in the design process to pull it off.  One may have to sacrifice routing decisions to avoid crossings. 

From a more micro-environment standpoint, cart paths have a horrible impact on greens complex design when it comes to access and egress.  If a bunker is on the same side as the cart path, no matter what the details are, golfers will track a path along the edges of that bunker. 

There is just too much focus on conditioning that directly influences the push for wall to wall cart paths.  That comes with drainage.  In cases where drainage is an issue, I understand the need for cart paths.  But superintendents seem to rely too much on keeping carts on the paths, which simply makes their job that much easier.  That, of course, goes back to the golfer’s demands on conditioning being perfect.  Rather than maintaining, we need to just manage and if golfers could limit their desire for perfection, golf course design would be better as well. No paths!

We have made some progress in making paths go away recently.  At Keller Golf Course outside St. Paul, Minnesota we only did green to next tee cart paths.  The challenge was to avoid loss of turf at the exit and entry points of the partial paths.  So what we did was something I learned from a mid-eighties National Golf Foundation pamphlet on golf design, which recommended curving the end of the path into the rough or woods at an angle away from the fairway.  That way, golfers can choose one of many entry/exit points along the beginning (or end) of the path, thereby spreading out wear.

We have also been able to convince clients to adopt that approach on a hole by hole basis where there was just no good solution to preventing cart path from crossing a fairway.  Most recently we did this at Myers Park Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina and at my new project called Braemar Golf Course in Edina, Minnesota.  In each of those cases, the freedom not to have wall to wall paths led to create strategic golf holes, all of which resulted in split-fairways and/or central hazards.

Which returns me to the first part of your question.  What I love most in golf architecture is the use of central hazards.  They are the epitome of strategy, allowing a golfer to make numerous choices.  A hazard is to challenge, not penalize, and a central hazard does exactly that.

One small feature of golf architecture that I love is a simple green approach that has just enough contour to create some interest for balls rolling along the ground.  Canting an approach from one side of the green to the other can make a huge difference in interest.  Or a single mound in the approach.  I also love the pre-golden-age look of a flat fairway that rolls directly into the front of a green with zero elevation change.  Each of these ideas is so subtle and simple, but it really shows great design intent as well as the effect of subtlety in design.  In other words, not over-designing.

  1. What courses are you currently working on, and what do you hope to do with them?

We are fortunate to have a good number of projects underway which are all in various phases.  We are able to handle such a workload because some are in master planning, some in a project design phase, and some are under construction.  Here is a breakdown:

  1. Keowee Key Golf & Country Club in Salem, South Carolina (tee and fairway renovation) – under construction
  2. Braemar Golf Course, in Edina, Minnesota (new golf course) – under construction.
  3. Tanglewood Park Championship Course in Clemmons, North Carolina (RTJ bunker restoration) – begins construction in May.
  4. Lake Forest Country Club in Hudson, Ohio (three phase renovation; bunkers, front tees, and fairway expansion is phase 1) – Phase 1 construction begins this fall (Tom Bendelow).
  5. Beechmont Country Club in Beachwood, Ohio – wrapping up the Renovation Business Plan process and developing plans for a tee/bunker restoration to begin in Fall 2019 (Stanley Thompson).
  6. Methodist University Golf Course in Fayetteville, North Carolina – Wrapping up the Renovation Business Plan process and developing plans for a major renovation to be completed in the next few years.
  7. Bobby Jones Golf Club in Sarasota, Florida – Wrapping up the Renovation Business Plan process and developing plans for a phased major renovation to be completed in the next few years (Donald Ross).
  8. Isla Del Sol Yacht and Country Club in St. Petersburg, Florida – Working on Renovation Business Plan with plans for a major renovation to be completed in the next few years.
  9. Tanglewood Park Reynolds Course – Beginning the Renovation Business Plan process this spring.

Here is more detail about each project:

Braemar Golf Course in Edina, Minnesota:

Currently under construction, the municipally-owned brand new Braemar Golf Course (City of Edina, Minnesota) demonstrates our ability to utilize every natural feature of a site that was previously occupied by a failing 27-hole golf course.   Our design and environmental successes here impact the golf industry by showing what can be accomplished by bringing out the inherent character in a site where many would find little interest as there are no sandy dunes, cliffside oceanfront holes, or any other memorable features that the name golf architects are handed on an annual basis.

The new Braemar routing is a clear example of how natural topography should determine the strategy of each golf hole, an approach that provides a variety of options for all golfer types.  As always, I move away from “narrow is good”, providing ample fairways of forty to fifty yards wide that require the golfer to find the best route, few of which require forced carries.  Many holes possess double fairways with central hazards that are playable by all golfers.  The set of par-fives stand out in demonstrating how to maximize the natural topography of a property for strategic challenge.

More than anything, our work at Braemar demonstrates how one can carefully place a golf course on an environmentally-sensitive site while expanding the site’s environmental footprint in the process. The project was approved by the local authorities as well as the Army Corps of Engineers in near-record time.  Swift approvals were achieved because we fit the golf course around the constraints of the site rather than fit the site to match any pre-conceived design notions.  Here is what we achieved at Braemar beyond the golf:

  • Reduction in overall golf course footprint of 22.40 acres. Original 27 holes encompassed 195.20 acres. The new 18-hole golf course will encompass 172.80 acres.
  • 4.37 acres of created/restored wetlands on the property which will be part of a 7.50-acre area set aside for an Environmental Education Area.
  • Creation of 32.11 acres of wetland buffer. Only 20.11 acres were required by the Nine-Mile Creek Watershed District.
  • An additional 9.54 acres of former golf course are set aside for a Multi-Use Area in the northeast corner of the site.
  • An addition of 33.85 acres of Oak Savanna Restoration Area to include Bur Oak, Red Oak, and Northern Pin Oak. Total tree canopy of the Savanna will be 11.25 acres. In 1947, 60.65 acres of 445 acre total site (13.6%) was wooded. Upon completion of the project, 155.73 acres of 445 acre total site (35%) will be wooded yet the course is not over-grown.
  • 5.10 miles of cross-country ski trails added to the golf course.
  • Multi-use artificial turf field added for non-golf events such as bocce or to hold weddings.

Myers Park Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina:

After five years as architect of record for this private, Donald Ross-designed country club, I led the club in a complete sand bunker restoration of the course last fall.  The project also included two new green complexes and a new practice facility.  The work we completed showed the members that correctly-placed hazards (such as sand bunkers) can promote aggressive play in the name of fun and enjoyment rather than placing the focus on difficulty. 

Going into the member-guest tournament a month after the completed work, members were concerned the course would be too easy.  Their fears were unfounded and the restoration work gained rave reviews from both members and guests.  No course records were harmed in the process.  We are now adding some native areas and removing some additional trees to supplement the design work we completed last fall.

Bobby Jones Golf Club in Sarasota, Florida:

Last year I completed a Renovation Business Plan for the 45-hole Bobby Jones Golf Club owned by the City of Sarasota.  The plan includes restoration of the original eighteen Donald Ross holes and renovation of the other eighteen holes to create four interchangeable nines.  Club management will now be able to offer different eighteen-hole combinations throughout the year. As a result, the traditional eighteens preferred by the locals can be played some days while for the first time in fifty years the original Ross routing can be played on other days.

In addition, we have designed a practice facility that will include a new driving range, short game area with two chipping greens between a fairway, and a 20,000 square-foot putting green. The centerpiece of the practice facility will be an adjustable nine-hole par-three course which will allow management to set up the golf course to play in a variety of ways.  The adjustable course has no formal tee boxes.  Instead, there will be a variety of flat areas throughout the course that allows for different holes.  In addition, the adjustable course will be offered to golfers on an hourly-rate basis as a large short-game practice facility on certain days. 

Similar to our work at Braemar, the plan for Bobby Jones will make an environmental statement that offers up benefits to golfers and non-golfers alike, once again making an environmental impact on the golf industry by clearly demonstrating how golf and the environment can be symbiotic in nature and benefit all:

  • Incorporate functional native plantings throughout the property that can provide appropriate food and habitat for fish and birds.
  • De-channelize the canals running throughout the property. Work in conjunction with the Sarasota County Public Utilities Stormwater officials and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) to expand canals (from 7.98 acres to 15.21 acres for a net increase of 7.23 acres) for flood control and water quality improvements.
  • Work in conjunction with the Sarasota County Public Utilities Stormwater officials and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) to develop 1.08 acres of wetlands along the northern entry points of Phillippi Creek Main B and Canal 3, 4-41. The wetlands will trap sediments and nutrients coming onto the property from adjacent properties to the north.
  • Work in conjunction with Sarasota County Public Utilities Stormwater officials to develop fish ladder opportunities within the waterbodies of the golf course.
  • Work within the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program’s Five-Year Habitat Revitalization Plan to develop 2.35 acres of Littoral Shelves along Phillippi Creek – Main B.
  • Increase floodplain capacity for runoff entering the site from the north:
    • Net Increase of Proposed Pond Storage: 0.95 acres
    • Net Increase of Proposed Canals: 7.23 acres.
    • Net Increase of Dry Hollow Storage: 11.50 acres
    • Total Net Increase in Floodplain Capacity: 19.68 acres
  • Plant 17.79 acres of Native Pond Buffer Grasses and other plants around all water bodies to help improve water quality of the runoff within the site as well as runoff entering the site from the north.
  • Develop 18.30 acres of Native Grass Areas throughout the property to reduce manicured turf.
  • Remove top 3” of organic layer and replace with well-drained sand mixture to increase infiltration.
  • Develop expanded drainage system to improve drainage on the golf course.
  • Install new irrigation system for the entire facility that maximizes efficiencies and minimizes water usage.
  • Provide for 10 wellhead locations on the golf course for future emergency drinking water access.
  • Add a trail along Phillippi Creek-Main B and incorporate into the potential revitalization of 1.70 acres of Habitat Revitalization planned as part of the City’s Five-Year Plan.
  • Plan for a future Multi-Use Area of 3.1 acres along the western side of Circus Boulevard. The land could be used as a passive park or as an active golf park where locals can experience Foot Golf, Fling Golf, or Disc Golf. This wedge of ground is a good opportunity for the City to include the non-golfing population in the revitalization of Bobby Jones Golf Club.
  • Another opportunity to include non-golfers is the development of a Pocket Park of 1.1 acres (with walking trail) along the eastern side of Circus Boulevard. The park can double as an environmental education center with the incorporation of a boardwalk over littoral shelves along Phillippi Creek – Main B.

Our plan was approved by the City Commissioners in October and we are currently working with the commissioners to finalize the phasing and funding of the project (some of it to be through grants) which could break ground as soon as 2019.

Tanglewood Golf Park Championship Course in Clemmons, North Carolina:

We are currently working for Forsyth County, North Carolina on a bunker restoration of a Robert Trent Jones golf course that hosted the 1974 PGA Championship and the Senior Vantage Championship.  In collaboration with the office of RTJ II, the project will break ground on May 14th. 

My approach to this restoration was to utilize a 1974 aerial for guidance rather than an aerial from 1958 which we also had. The notoriety of the Championship Course at Tanglewood comes directly from the 1974 PGA.  RTJ drastically changed his original design from 1958 in order to challenge the best golfers in the world just like he did at so many other venues over the years.  That version of Tanglewood is what golfers seek out and what they find when they arrive. 

The design challenge was balancing the work of Mr. Jones for the pros with everyday play.  The one feature where these two golfer types clash at Tanglewood is in the shallow depth of many of the greens, with bunkers in front and behind.  A pro can get the necessary trajectory for a target like that but the average, daily-fee golfer cannot.  We balanced both sides of the equation by preserving some bunkers and eliminating others.  Bruce Charlton of the office of RTJ II was wide open to my thought process and has been great to work with. 

Keowee Key Golf & Country Club in Salem, South Carolina:

Richard Mandell Golf Architecture continues a fourteen-year relationship at the POA-owned Keowee Key Golf & Country Club (originally designed by George Cobb) with a tee and drainage project that broke ground the first week of January. We worked closely with members and staff to develop a comprehensive game plan that works for a senior-dominated membership (average age is approximately 67) by utilizing my Tee Shot Distance Equity process. I previously re-designed the greens complexes at Keowee Key in 2006 and completed a Tree Management Plan and Renovation Business Plan in 2015.

Methodist University Golf Course in Fayetteville, North Carolina:

We recently completed a Renovation Business Plan for the privately-endowed Methodist University’s golf course that must accommodate men’s and women’s golf teams (who own 36 national collegiate golf championships between them in Division II and III), as well as the University’s PGM program and alumni.   University officials are currently working to finalize a renovation project slated to break ground in the next two years.

Lake Forest Country Club in Hudson, Ohio:

Working with this private country club since 2013, we completed a Tree Management Plan that resulted in the removal of almost 1,000 trees as well as a Renovation Business Plan in recent years which will culminate in a three-phase restoration of a Tom Bendelow golf course starting in the fall of 2018.

Beechmont Country Club in Cleveland, Ohio:

As Architect of Record since 2011, we went through a comprehensive tree removal effort (also close to 1,000 trees) through a Tree Management Plan.  In 2017, we completed a Renovation Business Plan for the Stanley Thompson golf course which will culminate in a tee and bunker project projected for the fall of 2019.

Isla del Sol Yacht & Country Club in St. Petersburg, Florida

We were hired in October 2017 over eleven other candidates by this private membership to undergo a Renovation Business Plan process with plans for a renovation project planned for the Summer of 2019.

  1. Tell us your favorite architecture commission, and why it was such a special experience.

I would have to defer to the Braemar project, the new course I am currently working on in Edina, Minnesota.  For someone like me, who has not had many opportunities to do new projects, and with the future prospect of doing new courses not very fruitful, building a new golf course is going to be more special for me than most other projects.  In addition, such a high-profile location as a municipal venue in Edina, where the passion for golf is extremely high, makes it all the more special.

Now, addressing the site itself, whereas there are no huge, dramatic sand dunes or ocean to play off, the site did have some very interesting landforms hidden away from the old fairways and covered by trees.  There were also very challenging environmental restrictions, at least if you wanted to expedite the permit process.  That said those great hidden landforms afforded me the opportunity to develop central hazards, create split-fairways, and reveal great variety in the routing, resulting in a great rhythm of holes. 

My primary goal was to find the best holes on the site first, regardless of pre-conceived notions.  The front nine is a great example of this as there is a stretch that goes 3-5-3-5-3-5.  The five par fives on the eighteen I would put up against any set of par-fives anywhere (of course, I am supposed to say that, right?).  Two of the five (four and eleven) have central hazards and split-fairways and are mirror-images of each other, strategically.  One (number eight) has a great low-country feeling as it runs between beautiful Bur Oaks on both sides of the fairway.  That green has no bunkers and a ridge that bisects the second landing area and bleeds out into the green. 

The sixth hole has a classic parkland feel to it playing downhill off the tee and winding below a ridge.  The sixteenth is almost links-like, with a principal’s nose feature (without the sand) in the first landing area and a pair of bunkers splitting the second landing area.  On top of that, the hole is from the heroic school as the entire left side borders a pond.  The pond then narrows down to a creek that cuts in front of the green. We wrap up the last six holes this Spring.

  1. Shifting gears to writing, you published a seminal work on golf in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Tell us about that experience.

Yes, in 2007 I wrote Pinehurst ~ Home of American Golf: The Evolution of a Legend.  And yes, you can write a book one hour at a time.  It was a great experience as it really delved into the architecture of all the golf courses of the Sandhills, not just the Pinehurst Resort.  The book is a complete golf architecture history of the area literally starting with the Ice Age but please don’t call it a “coffee-table book”.

I spent a few years researching every single manila folder in the Tufts Archives and learned a lot, particularly as it related to Donald Ross.  I found much of his thoughts in letter-form which really puts a spotlight on his design philosophy and approach to construction that you can’t get by just studying his courses or even his drawings.  He was a very pragmatic designer.

I completely updated it in anticipation of the 2014 Opens in Pinehurst by re-designing the book layout, changing out about one-third of the photographs, and updating the book with what happened in those last seven years, which included the restoration work at No.2, the work at Mid Pines, and Dormie Club.  I also added more information about other courses that I uncovered as well.  In some places I added a sentence, in others a paragraph, and in others multiple pages.

As proud as I am of the writing, I am equally proud of the publishing effort as well.  We did that in the office as T. Eliot Press, named after my older son, Thomas Eliot.  The publishing experience was a lot of fun.  Frankly, it was simply a design job in another discipline, that’s all.  Design is solving problems, whether it is how to place a golf course on a piece of land or how to take a book from a word document to a finished product.

  1. If you have the opportunity to write another book, what might be the direction of that volume?

Actually, I have been working on a new book for a few years now.  But luckily for me, my primary vocation of golf architecture has been so involved that I haven’t been able to dedicate much time to it.  The working title is “Golf Course Design Theory” and it focuses on the elements and principles of the design process as they relate to the specific discipline of golf architecture.

The book will be different from past golf course design books yet it will also cover the basics of design (like strategy) in a way that hasn’t been presented before.  “Golf Course Design Theory” will give fans of the subject a completely different way to look at golf course design.  Each January I shoot for a December release, but by February, I have no time to spend on it.  This year is going the same way so if someone were to ask when it would be released, I would tentatively say Christmas of 2019. Or 2020. Maybe 2021.

  1. What’s the state of your golf game these days? How does being an architect help you to play the game better?

It is non-existent.  I have spent more time writing that book than playing golf.  I literally have played five rounds in the past fifteen months.  Being an architect doesn’t particularly help my game other than I am much more accepting of Rub of the Green.  I don’t subscribe to the principle of “Unfair”.  Being an architect sometimes distracts me from the game as I find myself looking at strategy and features and preferring to just take pictures than to finish a round.

  1. What question haven’t we asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, please.

I’m sure I’ve said plenty at this point. I am excited about the future, though.