Braemar Golf Course: Breathing space

  • Breathing space

    Looking back on the split fairway par-five fourth hole

  • Breathing space

    The par-three thirteenth, which plays from hilltop tees. In the background is the fourth green and the par-four fourteenth hole

  • Breathing space

    The par-four opening hole

  • Breathing space

    The project has seen 27 tightly-packed holes transformed into an open and fun 18-hole layout

Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.

For golfers with the ability to miss a target by a massive distance – thanks to suspect swing planes, an absence of clubface control and modern technology that means we can hit further off line than ever – the prospect of a courseful of claustrophobically narrow fairways can be pretty miserable. At most clubs, and certainly at public courses, the majority of golfers are not highly skilled. If you keep making us miserable, we will return less often, or not at all.

Officials at the city of Edina, near Minneapolis, Minnesota, realised this. They also questioned whether cramming as many holes as they could into a golf facility necessarily equates to more revenue, and the impact it had on the environment.

By the early part of this decade, conditioning at the city’s 27-hole municipal facility, Braemar Golf Course, had deteriorated to such an extent that golf was becoming unsustainable. Some holes were routed in boggy soils and the course frequently flooded, closing for days at a time. One loop was so bad that golfers would cancel their round if that nine was allocated when booking. Difficult forced carries and narrow fairways led golfers to choose other courses.

The city needed a radical plan, and in 2014 turned to Richard Mandell – who had recently completed a highly-regarded renovation at nearby Keller Golf Course, also a municipal – to provide it. “The problem was how to revitalise an under-performing and outdated 27-hole course on an environmentally-sensitive property dismissed by golfers, and seen by citizens as draining tax dollars,” he says.

Mandell’s solution was to replace the existing 27 holes with a brand new 18-hole course. It was a big ask for the city – removing a third of its holes would potentially remove a third of its revenue. The golf course would have to be very good for it to pay off.

Five years on, the new Braemar course has opened and is more than very good – it is an absolute joy to play.

The layout is extremely forgiving from the tee; even the most erratic golfer will have a chance of completing a round without losing a ball. That’s not to say the course is easy. With width comes options, and good choices and accuracy are rewarded.

On the first, playing left will open the best angle to the green. On hole two, hug the creek that bisects the fairway for a shorter approach. The pattern continues, with each hole presenting options that allow golfers to capitalise on precision play, without necessarily crashing out of the hole if that big miss rears its head.

With fewer holes to accommodate on the site, Mandell could eliminate areas with poorer soil and use the topography of the property to its best. In doing so, he has let the land dictate the routing. Any preconceived notions about pacing of holes were thrown out, instead he embraces the quirky results, notably a six-hole stretch from the third that alternates between par threes and par fives.

The course is all the better for it and passes the test of greatness: every hole is memorable, even after a single play. Some are particularly so. The par-three thirteenth, a mid-iron from the top of a hill in the centre of the property, is exhilarating. On the par-five fourth, players are compelled to choose one of two very different routes to the hole separated by three bunkers cut into a hillside. I took the high route and didn’t quite hit the distance required for the second shot to kick all the way to the green, but was left with a delightful bump-and-run shot down the hill to a plateaued green.

That fourth hole is the first of a remarkable set of par fives. The first three are reachable in two if you’ve chosen the correct tees from the set of six on each hole. But the undulating fairway of the sixth means you’ll need to catch a decent lie, and an innocuous-looking bunker in the middle of the eighth fairway, about eighty yards short of the green, will curse you with indecision.

The par fives on the back nine will see fewer eagle putts. Elevated tees cut into the hillside invite you to grip-and-rip from the eleventh tee, to the most undulating fairway on the course. The second half of the hole rises sharply uphill to a perched green protected by two deep bunkers.

The sixteenth is heroic. The tee shot plays over a large lake to a wide fairway (progressively less carry is required as you move up the tees, with the first two avoiding the carry altogether). If your drive comes to rest far up the left side of the fairway, you’ll be tempted to take on a second water carry, to a narrow green over another section of the lake. You’ll need everything in your favour to pull both of those shots off, but they will be forever etched into your golfing memory bank if you do.

Mandell’s new layout, coupled with the massive driving range, short game area and putting green, plus an academy course designed a few years ago by Kevin Norby, are enough to make you jealous of the residents of Edina. Even at the full weekend rate, they will get change from fifty bucks.

A fantastic public golf course isn’t the only payoff though – the redesign has also preserved floodplain, increased wetlands and restored oak savanna.

Mandell took an environment-first view of the project. “Richard’s approach was to engage the regulatory agencies early and often,” says Ann Kattreh, who was director of parks and recreation for the city at the time of the renovation. “He learned and understood the rules and regulations and worked clearly within them. He didn’t push the rules, but instead worked well within the limits, much to the delight of our regulatory agencies. Richard’s approach quickly earned the respect of all agencies and made the approval process relatively quick and easy.”

The results are impressive: nearly five acres of created, restored or enhanced wetland; over 30 acres of wetland buffer (only 20 acres were required for regulatory compliance); nearly 10 acres of former golf course set aside for a multi-use area; and almost 35 acres of oak savanna restoration.

“The environmental aspects of the project are a great example of how golf and the environment can successfully co-exist,” says Mandell. “The fact that I first sought to understand what my environmental limitations were, and then designed the course around them, is critical to the course’s success.”

What is so gratifying about the new course at Braemar – particularly for those interested and involved in golf course architecture – is that the thrill of the round is a direct result of an imaginative and intelligent golf course design. The site is perfectly pleasant, but it is no Banff Springs or Pebble Beach. There are no mountain backdrops or crashing waves to awaken the senses. But each hole is an invitation to enjoy the game. If Braemar returns from the brink, and I am confident it will, it’s thanks to a great golf design.