The new Mickelson National Golf Club, near Calgary, Canada will open in spring 2020, supporting an 1,800-acre real estate development by Qualico Communities and Bordeaux Developments. We spoke with Barry Ehlert, managing partner of Windmill Golf Group, the development firm responsible for the course.
“I have been working on this project for 13 years,” says Ehlert. “It went through different processes with the economy and the recession. Initially it was a Johnny Miller and Stephen Ames co-designed golf course — back when Ames had just won The Players and Miller was an NBC golf analyst.
“But with a seven-year delay and economic downturn, I literally sat back and thought to myself — let’s go back to the drawing board and think about what we are doing here and what we would like to accomplish from a design standpoint. Primarily, what I kept asking myself is, if there’s anybody in the world of golf that I would work with who would it be, and the name for me is Phil Mickelson.”
Ehlert was introduced to Mickelson by a business associate and, in 2014, Mickelson and his design team were hired. It took nine months from the first discussion to signing the contract. At the time, a source close to the deal said: “Phil thinks he can build something that’s never been done in Calgary.”
“Phil’s first major visit after construction started was when I knew he was ultra-engaged — it wasn’t about slapping his name on a golf course,” says Ehlert. “I remember it very vividly to this day, we were standing behind the first green and there is kind of a viewing area there where you can see multiple holes, and Phil started pointing out all of these different design characteristics and features and different strategies that high and low handicap golfers could deploy. We were talking about what people might do in order to best accomplish strategy for a particular hole — there were five or six that he did that with.
“Going around the course that day, he knew exactly what was out there and it really made me think how much time, effort and energy he had spent on that design. I knew how much time I had spent analysing the plans because of how integral and important it was to me, but he spent more time than me, or else he had a far better memory — it could be a combination of the two! He was certainly ultra-engaged, extremely enthusiastic, really fantastic to work with and he has been an absolute dream come true creating a vision and executing a plan like that.”
Mickelson has worked with design partner Rick Smith — co-designer of Arcadia Bluffs — and design director Mike Angus, throughout the project.
Construction began in 2015 and the club has had to deal with a limited growing season given its location. The golf course has been built on a former farmer’s field that was relatively flat with little elevation change and no trees. Ehlert says it was the Canadian version of a desert as there was nothing there.
“There has been a huge amount of grading of the golf course, which has helped to create significant elevation changes. The course also features natural water, ravines and crevices. It has become an absolutely spectacular facility that we are really proud of. There’s not another golf course like this in Canada.
“I’m excited by the variation of golf holes and the unique strategy that somebody could deploy, especially up by the greensides,” says Ehlert. “There are so many different opportunities where, if somebody misses a shot, it will prompt golfers to question what to do next.
“Phil has articulated many times that he believes that golfers in general like to hit driver, so the design is such that people can certainly hit driver on any hole that isn’t a par three. But there are some holes that have higher risk and reward and some that are short and driveable that call for a hybrid or a three wood. Variations of golf holes is the hallmark of what we are.”
Construction of the golf course is finished with ten holes currently open for a short preview. A further three-to-five could be made available with the final few holes kept back as the club wants to give them the maximum amount of time to grow in as possible.
One of the standout holes, which will not be available during preview play, is the sixteenth. “It really is spectacular,” said Ehlert. “A short driveable par-four looking west back towards the magnificent Rocky Mountains, there’s massive elevation change — probably 90 feet from tee to green — and there’s an awesome recirculating water feature that sits below and to the left of the hole. The aesthetic appeal of the hole is tremendous! The bunkering is outstanding — there’s some bunkers up towards the green but still on the fairway — and we’ve got these incredible fescue eyebrows at the back of them that really help set the hole off with this contrast.
“We also have this area on the golf course that we refer to as ‘the abyss’, which is where three par-threes come together in a horseshoe-type configuration. Holes three, eight and seventeen all sit in close proximity to each other — that is a super unique design characteristic. The abyss was built to look like a natural sand area with this waste bunker that is at least one acre in size. It is massive!”
The first hole to be built was the tenth, which has received rave reviews from visitors, according to Ehlert. “That hole was one that people pointed to and said, ‘this is the most beautiful spectacle that I have ever seen on a golf course’ — I can’t tell you how many people have told me that,” says Ehlert. “It has a split fairway, an awesome bunker that sits in the middle of the fairway but with a very generous left and right where the fairway splits. There’s also a split in elevation with the right side of the fairway sitting 10-to-15 feet higher than the left. There’s lots of strategy involved with where you want to hit it. From an aesthetic standpoint, the tenth is definitely up there from what people have said about how magnificent the hole is.”
Ehlert gives a lot of credit to Phil Mickelson Design partner Rick Smith. “He’s very accomplished and he has helped a tremendous amount with hundreds and hundreds of hours on site giving very detailed insight and articulating Phil’s vision for the project,” said Ehlert. “Also, Mike Angus has done a lot of the physical work. He has been integral to the success of the project.”