Feature Interview with Richard Mandell

March 2002

Richard Mandell has been in the golf course architecture business for twelve years. His office is based in Pinehurst, North Carolina and his web site address is www.golf-architecture.com.Richard currently has projects underway in New York, Maryland, and North Carolina. For the past six years, he has taught a class on golf course design at North Carolina State University.

1. How did you get interested in golf course architecture and what is your background in this field?

I have wanted to be a golf course architect since I was a sophomore in high school and have done nothing but work toward my goal since then. That focus has helped me advance quickly. I grew up in Rye, New York which is in Westchester County. To this day, I feel it is here (Metropolitan New York area) where the greatest golf courses in the Country are found. I began playing in eighth grade by sneaking onto a municipal course there called Rye Golf Club (Originally a Devereux Emmet course with two Rees Jones holes recently added at that time). I played high school golf for Rye High and we did quite well. We were one of the best teams in the area all three years I played and were undefeated my senior year.

It was at this time when my passion for golf course design and many of my philosophical characteristics came into being. I consider a strong point of my talents to be in golf course routings. What I remember most about these courses are the wonderful way they were all routed following the lay of the land and not being compromised by heavy machinery. It is here where I discovered the quirks of golf course design and what shotmaking meant.

I was fortunate to play many great courses at that time through high school golf and playing junior interclub matches for Rye Golf Club. We were the Bad News Bears of the league, in the same division as Winged Foot, Westchester CC, and Apawamis. We did win our division once in what still has to be considered the biggest upset in sports history (bigger than Jets in Super Bowl III or USA Hockey in 1980), seriously. I would scramble for people to fill spots on our team the night before matches, we’d all load into my Chevy Monza the day of the matches, and many of us were more interested in the post round buffet. We even had to run through a toll booth coming back from Wykagyl CC once. I definitely grew up in the muni category. I then went to the University of Georgia for a degree in landscape architecture and learned all about length on a golf course from the Robert Trent Jones University course in Athens.

When I was at UGA, I interned and then worked out of college for Dan Maples in Pinehurst. It was a great experience in that I learned a lot about construction and putting theory into practice. I then worked for Denis Griffiths in Atlanta. There I got a completely opposite perspective of the business, regarding office work and field work. At Dan Maples Design, construction drawings were kept at a minimum as Dan’s contractor’s knew what Dan liked to do. With Denis, I learned how to put an excellent set of construction documents together, dotting ‘I’s and crossing ‘T’s. Denis had a bigger operation and exposed me to different types of projects than from what I learned from Dan. Dan had more of a ‘let’s make it work in the field’ attitude and relied on the land more. Although Denis definitely was a field guy as well, there we had a bigger reliance on detail on paper, most likely because of the different contractors Denis worked with. I really had great and diverse experience working in both offices, which helped me obtain a good perspective. Lots of people who are in the business have only experienced one mentor, some none. I’ve been fortunate to learn from two very different ones.

2. What was the decision process for going out on your own?

Primarily, recession and opportunity. As I left Denis Griffiths, I had an opportunity to team up with a group of civil engineers in Maryland. They were the original designers of Tour 18 in Houston and I met them through an article I wrote about golf course replication for Golf Illustrated magazine. We were a perfect fit in that they had good, practical development and construction knowledge and I had a good working knowledge of golf course design. Oh yeah, they had three projects just beginning as well. My decision process before that though was pretty simple.

For years I had been studying golf course architecture and at this point in my life felt that working for another firm would not increase my knowledge in this area. Now I am talking about design, history, and strategy, not necessarily field experience. This knowledge I learned from Dan and Denis. Neither of them really taught me anything about golf course design, just in office operations, field experience, and other practical matters. I already had a lengthy knowledge of design and was well-versed on golf architecture history.

So when I started with these three civil engineers, it was halfway out on my own. They allowed me to handle all of the golf course design and they would assist me in other matters, specifically civil engineering, sediment and erosion control, and storm water management- elements that most golf architects and architecture fans do not wax so eloquently about. I had the landscape and golf architecture, they had the civil engineering. Right out of the gate, I learned my first ‘on my own’ lesson, that most would-be golf developers are not. They talk a good game but have nothing. All three projects never got off the ground. Ok, so I started hitting the bushes for work.

After a few years of inactivity, two partners pitched their tent and went back to the house and my third partner and I went deeper into the woods, where we found moderate success. We were call Whole In One Design Group and our schtick was that we offered all design disciplines under one roof (golf architecture, civil engineering, land planning, environmental science, and landscape architecture), a very efficient concept, but one in that the golf development world was not interested. Nonetheless we were very successful with our concept and our efficiency showed in the ability to get projects quickly permitted and finished at or under budget with little field adjustments.

Through this period, I learned that people were more interested in a personality designing a golf course and not in design and construction efficiencies. It turned out that it was mostly my design ability and style that led us to projects, though few and far between. In April 2000, I bought out my last partner and changed the firm to Richard Mandell Golf Architecture. People want a name, not a corporation. This was a great move for me as now I am truly out on my own, but with lots of diverse experience.

3. How did you secure your first project?

Although I officially am on my own as Richard Mandell Golf Architecture, I consider my experience with Whole In One Design Group as my own as well, as I was the lead architect. Now in answer to your question do you want to know how I secured my first project that ended up in the ground, or my first paying customer? Let’s take the first project in the ground. The first real project WIODG secured was called Easton Club in Easton, Maryland and that was one of the first projects my partners were working on that originally fell through. Easton Club was in their hometown and was spearheaded by a group of locals. I can’t say I had anything to do in securing this one, yet it was our first project and is a clear collaboration by myself and my last partner, Bob Rauch. The first project after that was a nine hole expansion of an old Alfred Tull course called Seaford Golf & Country Club in Seaford, Delaware. The members chose us due to our proximity to the site, our ability to work with the Client needs and budget, and what they saw of Easton Club (still under construction at the time). My first project as Richard Mandell Golf Architecture was a greens renovation project called Bald Mountain Golf Course at the Lake Lure Golf & Beach Resort in Lake Lure, North Carolina. I was hired in 2000, but had worked on securing this project since 1994. I was primarily hired again due to my ability to work with the Clients, proximity to the project (I had since moved back to Pinehurst) and primarily my ability to work with their demanding budget and site conditions. I gave the Client what they want (as long as it was sensible).

4. How do you convince a group to hire your firm vs. a name firm?

Typically a group is either looking for a name or not, and that is always my first question. There have been instances when I was the group choice if they went with a non-name, yet they ended up choosing a name. I never really go up against Fazio, Jones, Nicklaus, etc, directly- it is either a name or not issue. My challenge is more in convincing someone to hire me on experience- my twelve years versus someone’s thirty years or so. That is getting easier to overcome than when my number was in the three to five year range. In those days it was finding someone who could recognize my knowledge was more valuable than someone else’s experience. I was also much more flexible with Clients than the established architects.

5. What type of projects do you get?

The ones with ridiculously low budgets, crazy sites, or crazier clients. I have to make do with less and become successful two steps behind the big architects. This is the natural succession of the business and is fine with me though. I remember seeing Mike Hurdzan a few years ago and asking him how things were going. He said that he is finally getting the good clients. Now this is a guy who had been slugging it out for over thirty years at this point, had his own book out, Devil’s Pulpit, etc. saying he is finally getting the good projects. Here I was thinking I had a long way to go, yet I can see my improvement in the quality of projects I am getting even now. No international game inventors, but at least these Clients actually own the land.

As I mentioned, I get projects which couldn’t attract the established architects, and have luckily made them worthwhile. That is what happened at Creekside in Atlanta and is what is happening at a renovation of mine in New York, Sanctuary Country Club. Now that project may not be done for ten more years, but I have already shown that you can re-route the site and get a decent golf course where many others said it couldn’t ever be done.

6. How accurate is the following statement – Projects with lots of restrictions (monetary, environmental, etc.) take as much or more skill than well-funded ones on great property.

As accurate as you can get. As I touched on earlier, this business gets proportionately easier the longer you are in it. You start getting better sites and more money. That results in you being called for work instead of you doing the calling. The fact is that anyone can design a golf course for $4 million or more on 200 rolling acres. Try doing one for $2 million on 150 acres, 60 of which are wetlands and homes already surrounding the property (sometimes even coming into the property). I love that challenge and have been successful in building $2.5 million projects that appear to be $4 million projects. Money and environmental restrictions are a site condition to overcome just as rock or steep slopes. There are many well-oiled golf course architects that believe that can’t be done. I have friends who work for some big names that think building a course for under $5 million is science fiction. They can’t comprehend it.

When people ask how I can design on such a shoestring budget, I point out all the great old golf courses in the world and most of them have very little dirt moved. It is knowing where to spend your money wisely- on items which will have a direct effect on the end-user. Many high-ticket items may not ever translate into a better golf course if they were never there in the first place.

7. Describe a hole that you designed and what do you like about it?

Most of my favorite golf holes are ones that take full advantage of the terrain in the routing phase. None of my designs are ever preconceived because the site and client needs dictate my design decisions. My favorite holes usually match this criteria. One hole I would like to describe is the eleventh hole at Creekside in Atlanta. It is a dogleg-right par five of about 520 yards. It is tough as nails as one crosses wetlands off the tee and on the second shot. That is not what I like about it. What I like about it is that it is very playable for different golfers and that it is a true example of minimalism. My definition of minimalism is that we do as little as possible to make it work. The land makes it a beauty and a challenge, I am just making it work. The first landing area appears much larger than it is, which helps, and the hole is routed in the direction the lay of the land goes. All the sand bunkers fit naturally with a minimal of earthwork and the green is a great setting. It also slopes from front to back. Nothing wrong with that. The front of the green has a large mound which helps deflect shots of low trajectory, creating a challenge for one looking to reach the green in two, yet the green is very receptive for a wedge approach in regulation. I like the hole due to its simplicity, and not every contour is manipulated. That is never really necessary.

The 11th hole at Creekside G&CC outside of Atlanta features a mound and bunker at the front left of the green. If going for this downhill, dogleg right 540 yarder in two, the golfer must flirt with them in order to feed the ball on the green, which slopes from front to back.

8. How do you market yourself?

Hard. A grass-roots movement that puts lots of money in Sprint’s pockets, Texaco’s pockets, and HewlettPackard’s pockets. I must go anywhere and everywhere to find work at any time. At this point in my career, I do not boast Best New Course Awards nor a recognizable ‘branding’. Actually, I hope to never have a recognizable ‘look’ as I consider my design process to be very instinctual and reactive to the land. Someone asked once if I have a million golf holes in my head, but I don’t. I never sketched golf holes as a child. The reason is that I always looked upon design as a reaction to the site and still believe that.

What I have to offer to clients over other golf course architects is the proven ability to stay at or under budget and meet deadlines, a design philosophy that puts the site and the market ahead of fads and costly ‘signatures’, and a need to challenge the golfer. That is the true spirit of golf and that is what I hope many get when they talk with me. I think this ability will ensure my longevity and eventually put me at the top of the business. Two specific design concepts my courses will follow are: having less than 50 sand bunkers and less than 200,000 cubic yards of dirt moved (the latter idea can best be translated, ‘as little dirt possibly moved’. I also am easy to work with and a team player with all involved. That is certainly a major contributor to my success. Hopefully these building blocks will attract high profile clients to me as the years go by and my design ability is revealed. I think they will.

9. What is your office like?

My office is in the Historic Theatre Building in the Village of Pinehurst. Many say there isn’t a better place to be regarding the history of our profession. My office definitely reflects my attitudes towards golf course architecture and the game itself. It is simple and comfortable. I have a small operation with only one assistant, Jason Justice. I don’t want to have a big office nor the corporate atmosphere because that is not me. I only want to focus on a few projects at a time and will always be the one to do routings and detailed design. I even do earthwork calculations myself because that is the best way to become intimate with the site and will translate into better field adjustments down the road. I am a golf course architect so that I can design golf courses. I don’t want to be bogged down managing.

10. Tell us about the special topics in golf course design class you teach at North Carolina State University.

I have taught this class for six years now and I believe that it is the only golf course design class taught by a professional in an accredited landscape architecture program in the U.S. Next year it will become a required class for the new Professional Golf Management program at NCSU. I currently have many turfgrass students who get to use the class to replace a required class from their own program. The class has a primary focus on history of golf course architecture as I devote five three-hour classes to history alone. The students get a lot of detail that most people never get, yet after it is said and done it is the history they like the most. I also discuss basic topics such as strategy, golf course routing, and construction. They get a good overview of the business aspect of golf course design and learn what drives many design/development decisions. We also do about ten design tasks ranging from a routing to designing a golf hole as if the student was an architect of their choice. That is the best project as it really displays their understanding of history. At the end of the semester, a student can distinguish between what a Harry Colt bunker may look like versus a CB MacDonald bunker, yet are savvy enough to understand that no generalities shall ever be drawn when discussing golf architecture, or its history- something I wish most people would understand.

11. How has your appreciation of the history of course design influenced your work?

The history of golf course design has influenced my work in the sense that I have a great understanding of why certain golf holes look the way they look, and have evolved the way they have evolved. This helps with all types of golf holes from different time periods and helps in discussing aspects other than historical reference. The simplicity of great design is a major building block in my design approach and gives me historical footing to base my conclusions. History of golf course design also shows me what is successful and what is not, and why. Charles Blair MacDonald once said, ‘Never seek an original idea in building a golf course’, and I am sure he was referring to learning from history’s mistakes. I let the site and historical reference become focal points of my original ideas.

12. What is the biggest design issue that you have to face that Herbert Fowler might not have a century ago?

The easy answer would be environmental regulations, yet the fun answer would have to be people’s preconceived notions of golf course design and the influence of the golf industry. You want to know why most golf design is considered uninspiring these days? The industry and the need to make golf a business. Don’t get me wrong, I have chosen it to be my business and thus have decided to live with the consequences. But the primary difference in golf course design yesterday and today is that in the past no one was looking to make the numbers work, or worrying about lawsuits, or trying to sell homes, or golf clubs, or golf balls.

I recently saw a post on your website asking what golf course architect will save the game of golf. Don’t put it on us, the game must save itself and I don’t know how that will happen in the future as long as there needs to be a new Big Bertha or Pro VI each year. I have a realistic attitude towards that outlook and that is not to get so caught up in saving the game or the profession. We can be as creative as we want and as innovative as we want for the majority of golfers. Yes, we can. But we should all stop worrying about what happens to Augusta National and if Scott Hoch is happy where he is playing these days. Designing for the tour and for everyone else are like night and day.

Now, of course, Herbert Fowler and other architects of the past had the virtue of being innovators in a young profession with much less competition. We don’t. That’s a fact. Yet it doesn’t mean I won’t push the envelope of design in my career, I will. I, and my fellow architects will concur, am sure that many non-name architects of the present could trade places with Donald Ross, and that person may be just as exceptional as we consider Ross today. On the flip side, Donald Ross may be just one of the pack if he was around now instead of in his era. I hate to suck the air out of all the www.golfclubatlas.com chat rooms, but that is a very realistic scenario. It was a lot easier to be innovative back then because there was less precedence. There weren’t as many of us back then and there are too many of us now. Now if someone designs a plateau green similar to what you may find at Pinehurst #2, everyone says you are just copying Ross. That’s unfair.

Fowler had the advantage of doing design as an avocation more than as a profession. A different attitude comes with that. Fowler probably didn’t have to worry about maximizing lots or trying to market the golf course to the masses (golfers and non-golfers alike) for pure business interests, or worry about how his golf course will be affordable to play. He designed for a small group of people interested in a great place to play golf, not necessarily a return on an investment. He also didn’t have to worry about the stimpmeter. I think advances in grasses are awful for the game. Not regarding disease resistance or drought tolerance issues, but regarding green speeds and design. This handcuffs the Architect from creating great putting surfaces in most applications (i.e. playable daily-fee golf courses, residential development golf courses, etc.).

13. Do you have a favorite design strategy that you look to implement where possible?

I don’t really have a specific design strategy I look to rubber stamp. Again, that probably goes back to my philosophy of letting the land truly dictate my design decisions. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain ideas I always consider, but I will never start a design process with preconceived notions. Simple variety is a design tool that I always try to implement across the board. After I know the course is functional, I expand a routing to ensure a variety in distances and direction of golf holes. I use the basic schools of design (strategic, penal, and heroic) and a proper understanding of their components into the lay of the land all the time.

But if I had to pick one strategic concept to describe my design philosophy it would be that I only use a hazard to challenge the golfer, not to penalize the golfer. It is following this mantra which has led me to utilizing a minimal number of sand bunkers. It has also led me to utilize the contours of the land (natural or created) to create strategy.

14. Where do you come up with your design ideas?

I am a very instinctual designer. What I mean by that is that whatever the first thing that enters my mind when designing golf course features is usually the primary element of that design. Although I feel strongly that all golf course architects practice some level of replication, I never consciously refer to a previous design idea. I am sure that sometimes it creeps out of my subconscious though. I do visit and observe existing golf courses and their influence certainly permeates my design psyche. Overall, though, I try to be very random in my design of golf course features. An attitude of randomness will best promote variety and best replicate nature.

15. How do you balance maintenance issues with inspiring design? How does residential development around golf courses affect design?

Inspiring design never has to be a maintenance challenge. Good strategic design, well-routed golf holes, enjoyable rounds of golf all do not require high-maintenance. These attributes are inspiring design to me as well as to the architects of the past we pay such homage to. They were into natural-looking golf course features, but not the eye-candy of today. To me, aesthetic concerns are more applicable to potential maintenance difficulty. Too much sand, drainage problems, steep slopes, not enough clearing are all issues which require high maintenance. Steep slopes and drainage problems are a result of poor routings, which also result in lots of earthwork and cost, both construction and maintenance.

There is a certain point where maintenance concerns should not be the sole driving force in design. I have had superintendents tell me they can’t maintain a feature and I think that all these guys want are flat round greens and flat round sand bunkers. Although I try to minimize hand labor as much as possible, there has to be some or the art of golf course design will cease to exist. I think that the advances in maintenance practices are fantastic, yet somewhere along the way a certain segment of the industry got away from providing great golf (inspiring golf, perhaps) and became more concerned with how golf course design can better serve the maintenance and grow-in requirements.

The poor routings that contribute to high maintenance concerns are often the product of a necessary residential component of a golf course project. In answer to part two of your question, residential design diminishes inspiring strategy lacking in many golf courses today. This can directly be attributed to the element of corridor width. The narrower a golf hole can be, the more acreage for home sites is available to the residential developer and the more money he/she can make. The narrower the golf hole, the less options the golfer has in attacking a golf hole. The wider the golf hole, the more options. Options are what provide inspiring strategy. The great courses of the past had plenty of width to provide great strategies. We are fighting for as much as we can with developers and land planners.

16 How hard is it to get restoration work?

I haven’t really pursued restoration work much to know firsthand, but I am guessing it will take a leap of faith on a Client’s part. Now that leap of faith, to me, is clearly in taking the romance out of the restoration concept and replacing it with concrete evidence. What I mean is that restoration does need a solid understanding of history and the architects, which I certainly have, but it is mostly research, research, research. The biggest challenge is defining restoration from a project to project basis. It is also, at what point in time will we restore the golf course to? Opening day? What the original plans say? If one is going to do true restoration, there are no changes taking modern conditions into account, that is renovation.

I know there are a certain few that have a stranglehold on the restoration business, but that does not mean us other guys can’t do the job. Especially with restoration, it comes down to being able to research and interpret concrete evidence (as concrete as it can possibly be). I hate when I hear that a Club doesn’t want an architect to learn on their dime about restoration. Everyone is learning on a project by project basis, regardless of how many restorations one has under ones belt. There isn’t a person alive that can unequivocally say that a certain Architect would never do this or always do that. Maybe somebody did, but did the contractor follow through? Did the club follow through after that? No one can say with absolution. The only way anyone can do a proper restoration is if there are construction drawings and pictures from opening day, and they are mirror images of each other. Without those items, everyone is learning on a project by project basis. Can’t tell me otherwise. I would love to do restoration because of the passion I have for the history of golf course architecture and the opportunity to help preserve this history to the best of anyone’s ability.

17. How do you convince someone to give you that first chance?

The best way to convince someone to give me that chance is to convince them in the process and to show them that a lack of restoration projects on someone’s resume should not automatically exclude an architect from consideration. Show that research is the key and that my knowledge of a specific architect and site conditions is plenty to augment that research.

18. What would you like to have accomplished 10 years from now?

To save golf course architecture as defined in www.golfclubatlas.com. I would like to get that project in New York I referred to earlier finally done . I would simply like to design great, innovative golf courses for all types of golfers. Pretty standard, really. All joking aside, I would like to be recognized as one of the best in my field and I would also like to show that I can do this with the site and strategy truly foremost in one’s mind. I truly would like to assist in slowing the rising costs of the game for people. One more thing: I would like to be chased by Client’s and not have to chase them!

The End