Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Getting to Know: Keith Rhebb, Golf Course Architect

Hole No. 5 at Winter Park Golf Course
American Golfer: When did you start playing golf?
Keith Rhebb: My grandfather introduced me to the game as a kid.  He had me drive the cart while he played with his farming buddies in South Dakota. They built themselves a 9-hole course that was the epitome of community golf. He set a good example because when I was 11, some of us neighborhood kids mowed out greens with our dads’ mowers in a large field behind my house in Nebraska. We named it Leaf Ridge and had a lot of fun playing around on it.

I started playing more frequently with Trev Dormer and Riley Johns when working on Cabot Cliffs. They kept it lighthearted and enjoyable, and it was a great way to unwind from the daily stresses of shaping and managing the project. For me, golf hasn’t been as much about the game as it’s been about the friendships that develop and evolve over our shared interest in its design.

AG: Why did you choose a career in golf course design?
Keith Rhebb
KR: It was less of a deliberate choice and more of a progression of opportunities. I’ve always loved to create and build things, so it wasn’t hard to develop a love for the industry in my initial golf course construction job with Landscapes Unlimited. At first, I was drawn more to the construction side of the field, but soon developed an interest, knowledge and passion for design. I enjoy bringing the two together in the design/build model. While I didn’t set out to become a designer, the doors progressively opened up to where I’m fortunate enough to do some design/build projects outside of my work with Coore & Crenshaw. It’s turned into a fulfilling career, but one that requires a lot of hard work and personal sacrifices.

AG: Assuming equipment remains the same, what can a golf course architect do to protect today’s courses or design future courses without approaching 8,000 yards?
KR: I think architects need to introduce more strategic options from tee to pin. Make players stop and think at each hole: Is it beneficial to drive the ball as far as possible from the tee? What side of the fairway do I want to be on? Where is the pin located today? I’m also a proponent of width, when done correctly. Wider fairways can take the golfer out of autopilot and make them question their strategy. But make the fairway too wide and you take the strategy completely out of it. It’s about finding the right balance, and also utilizing aspects of the land and nature as strategic components when possible.

While not a realistic or long-term solution for all courses, a fun alternative is something we’ve been encouraging Winter Park Golf Course to do for its patrons: offer hickory club rentals for the day. It would be cool to see this offered at more courses (although, probably best suited for more classic, traditional course designs).

AG: In your opinion, have any design trends hurt the game?
KR: I love trees and support the conservation efforts that have been in place in our country for years. In an effort to show that they too care about the environment, many golf courses started planting scores of trees without any thought to their placement and future growth. Fast forward to today, and a lot of these courses have overgrown trees all over the place. Aside from roots growing into greens and shade contributing to poor ground conditions, many of the trees choke off fairways. Players, especially beginners, hit shots into the trees and struggle to make their way out. It makes for very frustrating play. I’m all for trees, but let’s put some strategy into placement. More isn’t necessarily better on the golf course.

AG: How can we grow the game of golf?
KR: Invest in our munis. Most people, with the exception of a select population, get their introduction to the game on a municipal or public course. We need to make our muni courses fun, strategic, affordable and inclusive for everyone – a place where people can fall in love with the game. Let new players build their foundations on these types of courses and, I believe, it will boost private club membership down the road.

AG: Do you have a specific design philosophy?
KR: I tend to operate from more of a traditionalist, minimalist, collaborative, site-specific philosophy using the design/build model. Transcending philosophy, it’s most important to have fun. This spirit weaves itself into the fabric of the golf course when all is said and done.
AG: Of all the holes you have designed, do you have a favorite (why)?
KR: I don’t necessarily have a favorite, but I like designing and building holes that utilize natural elements as strategic components. Take No. 5 at Winter Park Golf Course, for example. The strategy of the hole depends on the old oak tree to the right of the green. If you play safe to the right to avoid the bunkers on the left (assuming right side pin placement), you’ll end up having to bump and run your shot onto the green. I also like the deceptive illusion that the No. 2 bunker gives to the bunkerless No. 5 green.

AG: What is your “dream foursome” (living, dead, golfer, non-golfer)?
KR: Larry David, Perry Maxwell, and William Flynn.

AG: Is there a “bucket list” location in/on which to design?
KR: Anywhere in Japan. I fell in love with the country and its people when I was working on a project in Yokohama. I’d be there in a heartbeat if the opportunity arose.

AG: What is the future of golf course design?
KR: Using technology to assist with certain phases of the design and construction process – from using drones to survey sites and plan construction phases/budgets, to incorporating virtual reality to present design concepts and master plans. This technology won’t affect the need for talented and creative designers and builders, but it will enhance the process for designers, contractors and clients/club membership.

For example, we are using LIDAR at Rolling Green Golf Club to give us the most accurate representation of what is currently on the ground (including the curvature of the earth). We can combine this real-time data with our design to develop a 3D master plan to present to the membership, giving them a powerful visual representation of our proposed changes. Again, this doesn’t take out the artistic and craftsmanship to golf course design and construction but enhances parts of the conceptual and planning phases.

Learn more about Keith at

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