By Adam Stanley
What a life it’s been for Keith Rhebb. A life, he says, he couldn’t even imagine in his dreams.
Rhebb got his start in 2002 after working for a construction company in his hometown of Lincoln, Neb., and has made a name for himself working alongside Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on some of the most notable projects in golf the last five years.
Now a celebrated architect and designer in his own right, Rhebb chats with LINKS about how his career began, his biggest inspirations, and updates on his latest endeavors.
How did you get into golf course design?
I wasn’t really thinking about golf at all. I liked being outside and working outside, but I was doing concrete work in Lincoln, Neb. Getting hired by Landscapes Unlimited in Lincoln, where I was from, and then going on the road—that’s what started everything for me. I moved to South Dakota for a job and that was my first time getting on a golf course and working. I was never in maintenance or anything, so I came to this out of the blue. After my first introduction into construction and golf, I realized this was what I really wanted to be doing.
Now you’re working alongside Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, whose courses are likely going to be talked about for another century. How do you describe your journey?
Bill and Ben are two of the best people to ever work for and with. To learn from them, and the creativity and ability they allow you to have, is amazing. It’s just so enjoyable. I’ll go anywhere on earth to work for them.
Who were some of your design inspirations outside of Coore and Crenshaw?
It’s funny, if you told me ‘a Donald Ross course’ or ‘an Alister MacKenzie course’ or ‘a Perry Maxwell course’ before, that was foreign to me. I met Pete Dye at Oak Tree in Edmond, Okla., and spent a day walking around with him when I was working on a construction site, and I didn’t really know the gravity of what Pete had done. I was just out there walking around with Pete on a Landscapes Unlimited job.
It piqued my interest to research the other designers whose courses I’ve worked on. Perry Maxwell would be the person whose style I really appreciate. Having the opportunity to work at Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pa., and learning about William Flynn, who has a lot of the same characteristics as Maxwell, those are the people for me.
Has your design philosophy changed at all since you got started?
With the industry now, you’re looking at these fun, short courses and not these beastly long, knock-your-teeth-out type courses. You’re thinking about how the ball runs and not how only a few players can get around a course. It’s all about building fun, enjoyable courses with fun people and making it fun for the people who are playing it, so they can come back and enjoy it again.
How can you best describe a typical day when you’re on site at a course?
It’s about getting in there and seeing what you worked on the day before, but now in the morning light, and walking through your game plan for the day. You can plan a project as much as you want, but in the first day things might change. Since we’re on site every day (Riley Johns and me), there is a lot of flexibility because we’re making the decisions—we’re there to coordinate and problem solve.
You’ve been working on some amazing projects over the last year or so, particularly. Let’s run through them here. How did things go with Sheep Ranch?
It was really cool to see the respect Bill and Ben had for what was done there before by still capturing that land and not going in there to change the world. People put their creativity on that site before and there’s nothing worse than knowing you did something and then knowing someone else was going to come there and wipe the slate clean. Bill searched what was there and got 18 holes out of that course.
The re-worked Plantation Course at Kapalua?
Bill and Ben said they needed to get a head start on the Kapalua project. We had a hard date—there was a tournament we had to have! I got the call to go out there to do the bunkers and the greens. To see what Bill and Ben had built 30 years ago—you can see the trickle effect of that whole thing. I can only imagine how big a challenge that was 30 years ago building that course.
How about the Forest Dunes project?
Riley and I were still working with Rolling Green on the master plan. We’re working with Coore and Crenshaw, and still working on Rolling Green, and out of the blue Lew Thompson (owner of Forest Dunes) calls up and wants us to come out and do a short course out there. Riley and I both looked at each other and said, “You want to start now?” We never want to overcommit to too many people and not be able to have our input and our creativity on site. That’s one thing when they hire us, they’ll get us to work with them and collaborate. We were almost trying to turn it down (Forest Dunes) in some ways. But we built that in 81 days basically, from start to finish.
Did you ever think you’d get to be able to do what you do, and in all the cities and countries you’ve done it in?
No, not at all. It’s just one of those things that happened. You have to pinch yourself and be appreciative. We are actually going to work like anyone else, but it’s just in a beautiful spot. But there is a lot of uncertainty because you don’t know when your next job is—you’re basically working yourself into unemployment. If you can accept that, it’s the right field to get into. I’m very appreciative of being able to travel to different countries and experience the cultures. I never thought I’d be doing this. It’s a long way from Lincoln.
So what’s next?
Cabot St. Lucia is just kicking off. We’re doing clearing and from there, as more work gets done, we’ll start to build some golf holes. In April in New Zealand, the Tara Iti project kicks off and we’ll head down there. That is, of course, if nothing changes in the next week or two.