Landmand: An epic build

  • Landmand Golf King-Collins
    Vaughn Halyard

    The Landmand course, designed and built by King-Collins, in eastern Nebraska required an epic build

  • Landmand Golf King-Collins
    Vaughn Halyard

    Aside from installing irrigation, everything was built by King-Collins or farmworkers employed by the Andersen family

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Golf course design and construction are two disciplines that, while obviously closely connected, have different challenges and priorities.

When doing their initial designs, architects obviously have construction in mind: to lay out a hole that is going to take masses of work to put in the ground means signing your client up for a big construction bill. It might be worth it, if the hole is good enough, but, as ever with design, it is a question of balancing the reward and the price. The architect’s basic task is to lay out the best course that the site is capable of giving, but they have to take into account how hard it will be to make good on their plans. Construction, by contrast, is mostly a question of delivering the architect’s vision as quickly, efficiently – and cheaply – as is practical.

Landmand, however, built on an enormous 580-acre property in the Loess Hills of eastern Nebraska, was a rather different job. Will Andersen, a member of the farming family that developed and owns the course, says: “I spoke to other golf architects before I eventually hired King-Collins to build the course, and one in particular gave me a detailed routing and an explanation of how long he felt the build would take and what sort of work it would entail. So, I was aware that the property, though beautiful, was quite an extreme site for golf, and that it would take a fair amount of work to turn it into a playable course. But that was only a vague understanding: I didn’t really know the details of the site, and I didn’t really realise the scale of what we would have to do.”

Rob Collins and Tad King first visited the Andersens in May 2019, initially to discuss a potential renovation of the Old Dane course just outside Sioux City, which the family had built in 2012, and to look at another site, on the banks of the Missouri River. Collins says: “The site by the river was OK and, as a matter of fact, it was where we found the sand that we eventually used to build the greens at Landmand. But Will kept talking about a site he called ‘up top’, and eventually I said, ‘I want to go up top’.”

Andersen took Collins and King ‘up top’, to view a tract of land atop the Loess Hills. The Hills are a formation of wind-deposited loess soil (loess is sediment formed by wind-borne dust) that run for some 200 miles in a north-south direction along the Missouri River. They rise up to 200 feet above the flat prairie, and are mostly located east of the river, though the site that Andersen showed King and Collins lies to its west. Because loess soil is susceptible to erosion, and when it is eroded, can stand in almost vertical columns, the Hills are characterised by ‘peak and saddle’ topography, with narrow ridges, often less than ten feet wide, that fall off at near ninety-degree angles on either side for sixty feet or more. They are beautiful, but they are a long way from being immediately useable for either golf or agriculture. The Andersens had acquired this particular piece of the Hills around 30 years before, but, finding it unsuitable for farming, had let it lie fallow.

“All the time we were on the prairie, you could see the hills in the distance,” says King. “As soon as we got to the top, both Rob and I immediately knew that this was the site, but I also knew that it would take a huge amount of softening to make it playable for golf. There were massive landforms, moving in all directions. It was jaw-dropping, but a long way from being a site where you would find golf holes just lying in the ground.”

The architects came back to Nebraska in late June 2019 to route the golf course. “We set aside five days to do the routing, but did it in a morning,” says Collins. “It took longer to stake the course than it did to route it. The start and finish site was immediately obvious, partly for ease of access from the road, but also because the views of the property were so fantastic. Will told us straight up, ‘You don’t need to talk me into it, I’m sold, but you have to convince my dad’.”

King-Collins is a design/build practice. King built his reputation as a project manager on some of the largest golf course builds anywhere, and the firm differentiates itself from some of its rivals in the golf design business by taking responsibility for the construction of its own projects. This is, in part, an approach that has become extremely popular in the last two decades: firms like Coore & Crenshaw and Renaissance Golf Design have pioneered the ‘design and shape’ construction model, where the design firm takes responsibility for the shaping of the golf course, the construction of greens, bunkers and, where needed, fairway contours, using its own staff to run the equipment that does the fine work of finalising the contours of the course. And this is a model that has resulted in the construction of some of the world’s finest courses. But the devil is in the detail. ‘Where needed’ conceals a lot: most of the projects taken on by the design and shape teams have been on sites that were essentially sandy, and where construction meant, broadly, shaping. Sites that are essentially sand dunes rarely require large-scale movement of dirt. Where significant bulk earthmoving is needed, the design and shape firms have mostly washed their hands of it, with clients engaging specialist contractors to handle the work.

Even at this stage, though, the Andersens had not yet realised the scale of what was to come. “The first day Tad was on site, he said, ‘We’ll massage the land’,” says Will Andersen. “I thought he meant we’d push a little bit of dirt. But after the two of them had routed the course, we drove round it in pickup trucks. As we drove over a hilltop, and I came to understand that a fairway was going to go there, and it had to come down by 30 or 40 feet, I realised it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought!”

Will’s father, Bryce Andersen, was also among the group who made that first drive. “We were at the spot where the fifteenth tee would go, and Bryce asked, ‘How are you going to make this work?’” says King. “He was looking at these enormous landforms with one in three slopes on them, and that’s when the lightbulb lit up for him. But the Andersens are farming folk, and they are used to finding ways to make things happen. Later, we were sitting down, and I gave them a list of the equipment we would need, and Bryce said, ‘Well, we’ll probably just buy them’.”

This is what makes Landmand different. At the Nebraska course, all the work – to the tune of an estimated two million cubic yards of earthmoving – was handled by King-Collins, working hand in hand with staff from the Andersens’ farming operation. “From the start, it was always understood that King-Collins would bring in the crew that was needed to build the course, apart from the installation of irrigation,” says Will Andersen. “I figured if Rob and Tad were coming to the table with a proposal like that, they had the experience to handle it. I had no idea how many people that was going to be, but it turned out to be three or four shapers, three or four bulk earthmoving guys and a couple doing drainage. The guys that work on the farm filled in when they needed help.”

Bryce Andersen’s comment ‘we’ll probably just buy them’ turned out to mean the Andersens acquiring a range of equipment that included two large D8 bulldozers. When the Landmand job was done, the family came to an agreement to rent the dozers to King-Collins, for use on other projects. The first of these was to be the new Red Feather course in Lubbock, Texas, but all did not go as planned. “The morning the D8s left, the driver picked them up at 5.30 in the morning,” says Will Andersen. “He had only driven five miles when he got stuck at a railroad track crossing, and his truck was hit by a train! It was sent 200 feet by the impact. But the other is still in King-Collins’s possession and being used on their projects.”

The original intention was that the farmworkers would install the irrigation system, but that did not happen. “The pipes started being delivered in March 2020, just as the impact of the Covid pandemic started to be felt,” says Andersen. “When I saw that 14-inch pipe, I looked at the guys on the farm and thought, ‘We’re not going to be able to put this in the ground’. So, I called Tad and he found us a company to help.” The irrigation installation was the only part of the golf course build that required an external contractor.

Now, Landmand is open, and has been acclaimed as one of the finest courses built in recent years – it was voted Best New Public course of 2022 by Golf Digest, and debuted at number 26 on Golfweek’s list of America’s best modern courses. But it is the way it was carved out of the Loess Hills that makes the course truly remarkable.