How does a guy from tiny Wausa, Nebraska (population 634), become one of the premier golf course architects in Brazil? The quick answer is a lot of hard work, a little bit of luck, and being the right guy at the right time. The long answer takes a little more explaining.
Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, Blankenship moved to Wausa at a young age. He was interested in golf and played throughout his youth with his dad at Rolling Hills Country Club near Wausa and Hillcrest Country Club in Yankton, South Dakota.
“When I was in high school my guidance counsellor asked, ‘well, what do you want to do?’ and I said I want to do something to stay in golf,” says Blankenship. “At the time there were no specific majors for agronomy close to me or even golf course architecture, I mean there still isn’t really, so I chose something that I thought would kind of keep me in the field.”
Blankenship attended South Dakota State University where he majored in landscape design and took a handful of agronomy courses. During that time, he was a member of the men’s golf team and during the summer months, worked on the grounds crew at Brookings Country Club. He worked directly under superintendent Tedd Evans, learning the ins and outs of maintaining a golf course.
Following graduation in 1983, Blankenship was still figuring out what he wanted to do with himself. “I was kind of waiting to work and I drove down to Denver to see my aunt and she told me about a Pete Dye-designed golf course being built,” says Blankenship. “So, I just went by their construction trailer and asked for some work. They said that all the big positions were taken but if you just want to come out and be on the crew you are welcome.”
A year later, Blankenship joined another construction crew, for Perry Dye, who was designing and constructing Glenmoor Country Club in Colorado. Blankenship stayed on at Glenmoor, soon becoming the assistant superintendent.
After a few years, the Dyes offered Blankenship a chance to work in Asia. “I went over to Japan in late 1988, when they were having a big golf boom and designing a whole bunch of courses,” says Blankenship. He helped deliver Mariya Country Club in Chiba, Japan, as well as Glenmoor – The Country Club in Narita City. Following a successful international build, the Dye group approached Blankenship about working on a course in Brazil. Blankenship packed his bags and headed down to South America, where golf was a relatively newer sport.
“I worked there for about six months before they had a big economic crisis and stopped everything,” says Blankenship. “So, I went back to Asia and worked in Thailand at Bagna Country Club in Bangkok for a year and then spent two and a half years working in Taiwan as the on-site architect for Wing-On Golf Club in Chiayi.”
Back in the US, the golf boom of the late 80s started to slow and golf course projects became harder to come by. The Dye group cut loose many of its associates, including Blankenship. During that time, Blankenship returned to South Dakota where he helped to shape Broadland Creek Golf Course in Huron.
Now on his own, Blankenship began looking for projects. “A group in Brazil called me asking to come back and finish a project four years later,” says Blankenship. “I went back down, finished the project and from then on kept getting jobs down there and it has been non-stop since.”
In Brazil, there are only 120 golf courses in the entire country and less than 60 eighteen-hole layouts. This means the sport is very elite and played by very few. Blankenship estimates that there are around 30,000 golfers in Brazil. In the US, there are more than 30 million.
“It’s not even a real thing down there,” says Blankenship. “You tell people you’re a golfer and they ask, ‘what are you doing in Brazil?’”
Blankenship is considered the premier golf architect in Brazil, designing most of the modern courses. His company, Gold Tee Golf International, is responsible for 18 courses in the last 25 years – no other architect has built more than three. Before moving back to the US, Blankenship would travel from project to project, living on or near the site.
“I am very entrenched there and every golfer in the country knows who I am,” says Blankenship, who speaks fluent Portuguese and got married in Brazil. “A lot of them are my friends. Clients have tried other architects but it’s always one and done, now they don’t even look anywhere else.”
Blankenship’s favourite design is Terravista Golf Course in Porto Seguro. “Terravista was a special project,” he says. “There are amazing properties in Brazil, and that’s why I wanted to stick around, I just kept getting these beautiful sites to design a course on.”
The course is characterised by a front nine that loops through the Brazilian rainforest before opening up on the back nine to spectacular ocean views. The signature hole, the fourteenth, lies on the edge of a massive cliff overlooking the ocean, and from above, sea turtles can be seen swimming.
In Brazil, almost all courses are designed and developed alongside real estate, which means Blankenship is working hand in hand with a real estate developer on almost every project. “We’ve tried resort golf down there, but it doesn’t work,” says Blankenship. “It’s all gated communities, so we have to work with land planners in the design process. It’s pretty rare these days to take a piece of property and just build a golf course.”
Blankenship, who has been a sub-five handicap his entire adult life, encourages all his team to play golf, citing a need to be passionate about the game in order to deliver a successful course. He says that he tries to put at least one reachable par four on every course, noting the risk-reward factor that makes these types of holes so enjoyable. Other than that, he doesn’t necessarily have any signature features, instead he lets the topography and the site decide what should be added.
“I’m always experimenting,” says Blankenship. “It’s nice being in Brazil without a lot of people critically watching. I’ve had a lot of freedom. I started out down here young, at 33 years old. In the US, I would have never had opportunities like this at such a young age.”
Blankenship, who now lives in Denver but spends two weeks a month in Brazil, relishes the opportunity to some day work in the US. He has a site picked out in western Nebraska, right on the north shore of Lake McConaughy at the edge of the Sand Hills region, where he hopes to one day design and deliver a course. The site is near his favourite course on the planet, Sand Hills Golf Club, where he is a member.
Addison DeHaven is a reporter for South Dakota-based newspaper The Brookings Register