In the Seat – An Interview with Shaper Keith Rhebb

KeithRhebb-InTheSeatCabotAt the drafting table, on a plane, or behind the controls of a bulldozer, Keith Rhebb is always right in the thick of the creative process of golf course design and construction.  As a member of the Coore & Crenshaw team, Keith is working on the highest profile and most highly anticipated projects around the world.  He and his colleagues continue to deliver mind-blowing results that are setting the standards for modern architectural greatness.

I’m not exactly sure when he had the time to do it, but Keith was generous enough to answer my questions and share his insights here.


How did you get introduced to golf?

I drove the cart for my grandfather when he played golf in Faulkton, South Dakota.  My grandfather was a farmer.  He and the other farmers in the area helped build the course.

When did you know when the game had a hold on you?

I can’t really pinpoint one specific moment.  It was more of a gradual thing for me.  The more time I spent around golf courses, the more I began to love the game.

How did you get into the business?

My first experience in the business was working with Landscapes Unlimited in 2002.  At the time, I wasn’t necessarily thinking it was going to be a long-term career path.  I walked onsite for my first job at Sutton Bay in South Dakota and knew it was something I was going to enjoy.  I started out in more of an entry-level position.  I was raking, shoveling, and operating small equipment.  I worked up to shaping, and eventually began to work for Coore & Crenshaw.  Ironically, when I was waiting to interview for the job with Landscapes Unlimited, I read an article about the Sandhills course designed by Coore & Crenshaw.  Their work interested me.  Somehow, opportunities just continued to open up and led me to where I am today.

My path into the business was a little different, but I think it was a benefit for my learning style.  I believe there is something inherently valuable in starting out doing grunt work in golf course construction.  One of my favorite parts of the job is being able to create stuff out of dirt, whether it’s manually or with heavy equipment.

Who is your favorite Golden Era architect, and why?

Perry Maxwell.  He started out as a banker who, after developing a thirst for the game, began to study golf courses.  With the encouragement of his wife, he eventually turned his interest in golf course design into a career.  From what I’ve read, he used his creative mind and his love/respect for the golf game, nature, and God to influence his creations.

I developed a better understanding of his style while working on a remodel at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem a couple of years ago.  I like his concept of undulating greens and how it affects putting strategy.  Overall I can relate to his unconventional start to the business and his tendency to put a lot of himself/beliefs into studying the land and constructing holes.

Who has had the most influence on you as an architect, both in and outside of golf?

Inside of golf it is Bill and Ben…without question.  As shapers, they give us a tremendous amount of creative freedom on fairways, bunkers, and greens.  They allow us to bring our personal creative vision to the table.  It’s okay if we do something “wrong.”  By that I mean if what we do doesn’t match what they have in mind, they don’t criticize and lose their tempers.  They provide valuable guidance to help us make appropriate changes.  I’ve learned a lot about the different aspects and stages of the design process.

Outside of golf…Hugh Herr.  I haven’t ever met him but I read the book Second Assent when I was a kid.  He lost both of his legs after a climbing incident in which he and a friend got disoriented in brutally cold temps.  He went on to develop prosthetics that work very much like human legs.  He took a horrible experience and used it to develop something that betters the lives of so many people in this world.  I like how he didn’t let challenges define what he did or didn’t do in his life.

What are the most important lessons you have learned from Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw?

Other than what I said above, Bill and Ben provide great examples of integrity and character, both in the golf world and outside of it.  From laborers to owners, they treat everyone with the highest respect.  They strike the right balance between staying true to their core philosophies and principles, yet recognizing and valuing differing opinions.  They know who they are as individuals and as a design team, which probably plays a part as to why they are not attached to their egos.  I have a lot of gratitude for what they’ve taught me in the time I’ve been fortunate enough to work for them.

What should every owner/Green Committee member study/learn before breaking ground on a golf course construction project?

Some courses start out trying to emulate other well-known golf courses (i.e. the next Bandon Dunes, the next Sand Hills, the new Pebble Beach, etc).  But there can only be one of any golf course.  Each one is going to be unique given the land and climate of its location.  I think owners/committees need a true grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of their site, and then start to develop a clear vision for the course.  After they have a better idea of what is possible and what they want, then they should hire the designer(s) who have the most compatible vision.  When ground breaks, I think the owner needs to trust the designer with fulfilling the construction process.  It gets messy when owners try to micromanage the process.

What is your favorite part of a golf course to design? To build?

Well, overall I just enjoy being creative.  But I really like the detail involved in finish work.  It’s probably my favorite part of the process.

What was your most memorable experience from the seat of a bulldozer?

KeithRhebb-DogThe most memorable times are when I realize what all is around me after I’ve been over focused on the project.  Cabot Cliffs is a good example.  Sometimes I didn’t even recognize the magnitude of the cliffs, the highlands, and the ocean around me because I was more focused on the construction details.  In Japan, my role is more creative.  I can clearly see Mt. Fuji from my dozer on clear days yet I still forget that it’s there.  It was recently cherry blossom season and the wind blew the petals around my dozer like it was snow.   

Every once in a while I get the chance to have my dog (a Weimaraner) on a project with me.  As is true to the breed, she is extremely energetic.  After I let her run around the course (with a safety vest on because she blends in with the sand and dirt), I put one of her dog beds in the cab and she just sleeps away.  She loves it.

Of all the great holes you have worked on, which are your favorites, and why?

Lost Farm #14 – The rough contours were already within the lay of the land.  We had to tread lightly so we didn’t lose what was there in the construction process.  It turned out nicely.


Streamsong Red #6 – This is a par 3 that doesn’t look like it should be in Florida.  It actually reminded me more of the landscapes that were in Tasmania (Lost Farm).  The ridges from the phosphate mining spoils provided a nice canvas for this one to take shape.


Cabot Cliffs #2 – A lot of people think #16 is the best hole on the course.  The view from the green is stunning, but I still like the second hole best.  If you walked on #2 tee today, you probably wouldn’t realize the time and effort that went into the hole.  It was a total team effort to get it into the state that you see it now.  That goes with the project as a whole…the entire team made incredible sacrifices and worked long hours to get it done in such a short amount of time.


What do you love about practicing your craft?

I travel and get to do creative work in amazing places.  Aside from that, I like leaving a job knowing that other people will be able to enjoy and benefit from the course…and not just those who play it.  Golf courses create jobs and in some places, a successful course is enough to revitalize the local economy.  But golf courses can also contribute to the environment in positive ways.  For example, I’m working on a remodel in Japan right now.  The course preserves a place for native trees, plants, and animals in an extremely urbanized area.  I guess the best way to sum it up is that I like being able to contribute to something bigger than just my own little world.

What courses are at the top your hit list to play next?

I’d like to go back and play Cabot Cliffs when it opens.  I’d also like to tour some of the classics in Scotland and Ireland.

When you are not working or playing golf, what are you doing?

I live where ever a project is located, which means I am away from home most of the year.  When I’m not working, I like to relax at home with my wife and my dog.  Kristi and I like to travel and experience different cultures.  Photography is also a big hobby of mine.


This photo tour of the construction of The Lost Farm at Barnbougle is outstanding.  Set aside a few minutes and prepare to be mesmerized.

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Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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