One day, ESPN executive Ron Semiao said he wanted to televise skateboarders and snowboarders on TV as if they were real athletes. He was told it was a crazy idea that went against classic sports programming principles. Luckily, the powers at ESPN also figured it was an outstanding idea. A new school of sports was born.
Stress and tension manifest physiologically. You can smell your own stress, and sense that of others. The agitation was palpable during our filming of Landmand’s first cut. This was going to be a big scrape. Soil samples, seed test plots, topo maps and drainage profiles are useful. The colourful and artful master plan delivered by Rob Collins was illustrative and informative. All of the aforementioned only go so far. None of them matter until a determination can be made, if the dirt beneath the bulldozer can be scraped and shaped into fairway, bunkers, and greens that holds their collective form.
We are in Homer, Nebraska, because this is where King-Collins were selected to build the new Landmand Golf Course. We won’t dwell on the history that Tad King and Rob Collins built at Sweetens Cove. If their story is new to you, without judgement, we ask you to take a moment to look them up on your digital device of choice. It quickly became clear this place was going to cause a ruckus as soon as our ugly yet surprisingly nimble rental SUV finished slogging the construction road to the top of the ridge. The plan covers hundreds of acres with thousands of acres left over.
In the US we have a collection of roads defined as the Interstate Highway System. Legal speeds are in the 70mph (120kph) range. Those that have driven across the US via Interstate 80 may have noted some impressive hills that appear after extended flat views of crops near the Iowa and Nebraska borders. “Wow, those look like big hills”. That thought quickly recedes into the rear-view mirror at 70mph in search of coffee and clean restrooms.
Landmand is being constructed atop some of those landforms, the Loess Hills. The Loess were pushed into place by the glacial migration and melt that created Lake Superior and Lake Michigan’s shorelines. This same glacial mass delivered the terrain for Kingsley, Crystal Downs, Northland, Whistling Straits and Shoreacres. The remnants of prehistoric lakes and dunes extend inland to Beverly, Flossmoor, Olympia Fields and other notable places near thousands of golfers. In person, the Loess are even bigger. Everything around them is flat, for hundreds of miles. They offer 50-mile views on a clear day. But they are not sand, they are glacial till. Landmand will be the first major golf destination constructed on Loess’ glacial till.
This first cut will break the seal on this big bang new golf course architecture investment. This is not a restoration, it is a dice-roll of virgin golf construction on land previously untested by premier golf construction. King-Collins is laser focused on the delivery of a big bang. In partnership with an owner committed to the golf-architecture-forward development and delivery of spectacular and publicly accessible great golf, Landmand is a recipe for ruckus that many support. We are predisposed with the hope that it doesn’t suck.
A new school success, the first X Games welcomed over 198,000 spectators. Within four years, the ratings for the upstart X Games began to eclipse those of a number of flagship sports programming. ESPN tripled down year over year investment and began to expand programming to multiple seasons. The Winter X Games became a media darling that not only expanded advertiser revenue, it increased traffic to previously suffering ski areas married to stagnant snowboarder-banning business models. It also increased sales of equipment and forced ski manufacturers to alter their design and engineering to deliver a more ‘snowboard like’ experience. Old School adapts to New School.
A new new school of golf design
Since the days of Old Tom Morris, arguably all subsequent golf architecture is more modern than Old Tom’s. But in golf, we argue about everything. Minimalist, classic, modern, MOI, coefficients of this and that, left hand low (right hand low if you are a lefty), Stimp, and of course, ‘The Ball’. We love it all. Minimalism stands out as it likely saved the modern golf industry from itself. It placed investment in golf architecture in the driver seat. Meticulous architectural restoration has blossomed in the wake of minimalism. A classic that has been corrupted, neglected, overgrown or abandoned does not necessarily retain the right to be known as a classic. One universal trait across places like Bandon, Ballyneal, St Andrews, Ballybunion, Royal St George’s, Sand Hills, Old Town Club, they are all about golf first. That is not to devalue resultant lodging and membership benefits, but the main attraction, the raison d’être is the quality and unwavering commitment to lead with the golf architecture. The golfers will follow.
Like the X Games, Sweetens is a descendant of previous forms of sport. It is most definitely a beneficiary of minimalism’s renewed focus on golf architecture. It’s just louder.
The excellence of the remote golf business in Nebraska is legendary. From the cloistered Sand Hills, to the popular and public Wild Horse, Nebraska has an organic golf trail. In an odd way, golf in Nebraska mirrors the Colorado ski industry. Aspen, Vail and Telluride were remote before somebody said: “Hey, this could be a recreational business destination.” Telluride the town was a quiet remote abandoned mining locale. Telluride the ski town is now a remote billionaire playground grown from an obscure steep powder skiing paradise populated mostly by hippies. Aspen, another classic, has morphed into a concentration of $2,000 per night rooms and $15,000 per night mansions. They were rough, sparsely populated landforms sculpted into recreational destinations of excellence. This mirrors successful golf investments. Lead with the activity, the accoutrements will follow.
A Landmand ruckus was not necessarily the original intent of Landmand’s owner and founder, Will Andersen. Will, a single digit player, sought to build a golf course for he and the folks around his hometown. He is a joy to play golf with who relishes dew sweeping with friends as the wind blows and the sun rises. He reconstructed a nine-hole oasis in his hometown named Old Dane. Will’s pal CJ dared him to think big. Will called the bet and long story short, he invited bids to rebuild Old Dane. This led to a cold-call-email to King-Collins. They responded and the Landmand project is the result of that email chain.
The Landmand first cut
The Laurentide ice sheet and glaciers have been good for US golf. Its retreat, melt and debris carved the ground for Greywalls, left the sand piles of Sand Valley and Forest Dunes, the rolling moraines of Lawsonia, and the alleged 150,000 or so lakes and swales marketed by Minnesota, home of White Bear Yacht Club. The glacier also forged what is now the Missouri River Valley. The Loess Hills were formed at the end of the glacier’s path much like snowbanks at the edge of a snow plough. These banks of glacial debris are now hills of sedimentary glacial till. Glacial till is like the food left on the edge of a dinner plate. They could be nasty parts of gristle and chewy artichoke leaf remnants. They could also surprise with a sliver of butter cream frosting hidden beneath a tasty, not-quite-melted dollop of ice cream. Landmand sits atop a dramatic glacial tilled ridge. The Landmand first cut would determine if the team was scraping gristle or spreading frosting.
The Andersen family are farmers. Excellent farmers. Growing things is not a problem for Will. He’d just as soon as hop in the truck to grab 20 tons of river sand or jump on the tractor to plant a test acre of a grass strain. They know where to grow and not to grow crops. The flat land below the glacial till is excellent farmland. They grow crops there. The land atop the glacial till was not excellent farmland so they don’t grow crops there. That said, they hate waste so decided that perhaps they might grow golf where they don’t grow crops. It was unknown was how well glacial till works for golf. Within moments of the first diesel belch, the group ran to the dozer tracks to review and hand sift the till. The outlines cut by the dozer blade were crisp and clean. Turns out that this mound of till was cake frosting. The dozers continued to push the moist putty. When the blade raised and retreated, the smooth landforms of the new fairways and greens stood their ground, free of crumble or collapse. The consistency of damp loamy sand shapes were malleable and accurate. Upon dismounting the D-8 Cat, King remarked with an ear-to-ear grin: “It’s like butter.”
How will it play?
Some early visitors to the raw Landmand site proclaimed it too severe to build. Based on minimalist design approaches, they were not wrong. King and Collins agreed, yes, it was likely too severe to build a minimalist course, but it was too spectacular an opportunity to walk away. Landmand is why electro-diesel hydraulic vehicles were invented. The King-Collins routing is bold. Up-and-out-and-out, and-out-and-back-across-and-out-and back in. A dramatic trek across ridges, rolls and ravines. Admittedly, upon an initial review and walk of the routing, the severity of some of the proposed elevation changes were “worrisome”. To be transparent, I thought it was a bit batshit hilly. There was nothing remotely minimalist about this master plan. Back in the day, though, Langford and Moreau would be buying rounds for the house.
The project began taking physical shape over the course of 2020. Tons of glacial till was bludgeoned into a variety of compelling lanes, softened elevation changes, and fantastical features. No two holes will ever be mistaken for each other. The shock and awe has abated. The property has big sky infinity views, outsized punchbowls, expansive landing areas that ascend ridges to the bottom of the sky.
Hybrid steam shovelling
The machines have won and forced the land to do the bidding of the architectural drawing. If there is an outstanding variable, it will be the delivery of visual drama. Hilltop big sky views have forced adjustments to the routing and width. The big sky is where the big wind originates. There are days when the wind blows as if you’re teeing off of a bullet train platform. King-Collins have made significant expansions of strategic landing areas. Simply stated, more width. The architects eschewed a number of lower elevation nap-of-the-earth routings that would have resulted in boxed dead ends and severe climb outs. Additionally, the glacial till drains well and wind-bakes into a sand like dry surface. The grass slicks like ice when windy and wet. This necessitated reworked corridors to deliver yet more width. Another issue taken into consideration is the ability get the water to hit the grass in the windy conditions. With a 310-foot elevation change from the irrigation lake to the high point atop the fourteenth green, the irrigation and pump house infrastructure spec could service a ski resort snowmaking system.
During each of our multiple site visits, more earth was moved, softening the shock of the elevation changes. Minimalists will still hate it. The enormity and drama of the property is amplified by the routing. On a clear day, the views atop the ridge stretch for more miles than you can squint. Also seen is the wind coming from Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Landmand is a big piece of golf architecture. Will Andersen was clear in his mission, build a destination that delivers dramatic and magnetic public golf.
Landmand is a polarising ‘big architecture’ piece of public golf. The Andersens’ investment and commitment to the delivery of a great public golf destination in an area not known for dramatic golf is noteworthy. They are building a big dramatic go-to destination with a vengeance. The proximity to a corridor of roughly seven million people from Kansas City to Minneapolis will likely make it a must-see destination for the Missouri Valley and Midwest.
When the snowboard came to the ski areas, it was banned by many that believed it to be heretic to the sanctity of winter culture. Flash to today, snowboards likely saved the ski industry via both additional visitor revenue and design innovation. The non-traditional X Games transformed sports to the point where it has become a leading attraction in the ancient Olympic Games. The X Games entertainment value redefined centuries of status quo.
Landmand will be polarising. Whistling Straits polarises as a manufactured links on a tabletop flat former military base. Calusa Pines was a swamp. Landmand is the antithesis of low-dozer impact minimalist golf architecture. But if you believe in ghosts, get your Ouija board because Langford and Moreau have an opening day tee time. King-Collins and the Andersens are crafting an X Games style playground.
The more ‘extreme’ sports that Ron and subsequent boss Chris Steipoch added to the X Games portfolios, the higher the ratings and ad sales. Coincidentally, the more plentiful were the visits to the ski areas and subsequent mountain and BMX bike, skateboard, ski and snowboard sales. The recognition of new sports configurations grew the ancillary travel, hospitality and retail hard goods marketplace. Towns were converting swing sets and sandboxed playgrounds into skate and BMX parks. Juggernauts such as Trek Bikes are funding municipal trail networks. Some of NBC’s highest rated Olympic programmes are the X-Games inspired snowboard competitions. Traditional bike and ski business boomed via infusions from a new generation of users. Back then, the older traditionalist skiers reviled the new reality, but their kids, and the X Games saved an entire winter sports industry. The X Games literally grew the games.
The pandemic has grown the game of golf more than forced ‘Grow the Game’ initiatives. Landmand is poised to be a dramatic addition to the portfolio of architecture-forward public golf. The Andersens and King-Collins have channelled the ESPN X Games mojo. Let’s say Sweetens is the GCA equivalent of a skate park. Landmand has the soul of an Olympic super pipe. There is a high likelihood that thousands will trek to play Landmand. It is still windy as hell and minimalists will hate it. The beauty is, they don’t have to come.
While a Disney Studios executive and producer, Vaughn Halyard spent a significant amount of time working with counterparts at ESPN and the X Games. At that time, he was the lone ‘studio guy’ allowed to have his own cubicle at ESPN’s HQ in Bristol, Connecticut. To this day this remains a fond badge of honour.
This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.