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Stepping Out Over the Line

With the otherworldly Landmand, King-Collins is attempting to join one of golf’s most elite clubs

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“Come take a look at this,” Rob Collins shouts, not for the last time. “I want you to see this.”

From the back of the second green at under-construction Landmand Golf Club, in the remote, northeastern Nebraska town of Homer (population 524), Collins points out toward the third, as yet ungrassed, fairway far below the tee. The wind howls, blowing away Collins’ words as he speaks them; out of necessity and frenzy, he just talks louder. There’s the barranca, zigzagging down the center of the corridor and effectively creating split fairways. Over there are the white stakes marking the outermost sprinkler heads, which will throw water across a fairway at least 80 yards wide. There’s the sprawling, ragged fairway bunker on the left side, guarding the shortest route to the green. Collins rattles off one feature after another, his curly hair sticking out from underneath a cap, buffeted by the wind. As Collins stomps to the next feature, my mind suddenly races to the opening blast of drums, saxophone, and guitar of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”

More than six years after Collins and his design partner, Tad King, shocked the golf world with the nine-hole Sweetens Cove Golf Club in tiny South Pittsburg, Tennessee, they have become critical darlings, the subjects of countless warm reviews and laudatory podcasts. All of which led to exactly zero contracts for a new 18-hole golf course. It’s not for lack of trying: Since Sweetens Cove’s unveiling in 2014, they have sent a raft of proposals to high-profile developers. Nearly all of North America’s most high-profile golf resorts—Pinehurst, Bandon Dunes, Forest Dunes, Sand Valley, Streamsong, and Cabot Links—have debuted new golf courses in that time. Not one is a King Collins design. And they have noticed.

“It pisses me off, and I’ve got a damn chip on my shoulder about it,” Collins tells me. “That’s part of my motivation at Landmand: showing all the people who didn’t hire us that they screwed up.”

***

Landmand runs over and along more than 500 acres of the famed Loess Hills, shocking in their size and sharpness. From the course’s highest points, views stretch for miles across hills, cornfields, and riverlands. The landscape is enormous and Collins and King have responded with a golf course of size and audacity matched by few others. When it opens for public play (currently set for mid-2022), Landmand will confront players with views, shots and decisions that they have never faced before.

For Collins and King, it won’t be the first time. Sweetens Cove’s revolutionary design matched dramatic shaping and wildly contoured greens with precise detailing for an environment that is part St. Andrews Old Course, part after-work softball league. For average players, Sweetens Cove is a playground; for elite players, it is bewildering. After subsisting for its first three years as a cult favorite, today tee times are often booked solid for weeks in advance.

Collins and King are not braggarts. But they are not unaware of their talent. At Landmand, which often feels less like Nebraska and more like a distant moon from a Star Wars film, they have been forced to put those talents on full display, balancing an almost comically large canvas with attention to every possible detail. (At one point Collins shows me a flattened plot of dirt no bigger than a square foot near the bank of the third fairway’s barranca and announces, “We’re gonna flash some native grass there, so it’ll just look like an old riverbed.”) Even to the layman, features leap off the land and reveal a golf course with potential to storm its way into the world’s elite.

That’s what brought them to Nebraska. The ultra-hilly farmland had sat unused for years before Will Andersen (an established player who qualified for the 2015 U.S. Mid-Amateur), whose family farms nearby fields and owns the site, began reaching out to big-name architects to discuss developing a golf course. They all balked. King-Collins was next on his list. Collins responded to Andersen’s email within minutes; two weeks later, he and King were on a plane to Omaha.

Andersen’s initial overture was about renovating a local, family-owned course—Old Dane, a lovable nine-holer on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River from Sioux City, Iowa. But the designers loved it. “You don’t need to change this,” King told Andersen. “It’s perfect like it is.”

Next, Collins and King toured a plot of land along the Missouri River—a piece of property Andersen had shown to other designers. At least one had said the land couldn’t be developed for under $10 million. Cost wasn’t the issue, King and Collins concluded; the water table was. So close to the river, the land was at a terrible risk of flooding. They couldn’t build on the land in good conscience.

Collins and King were on the verge of heading home, having talked a potential client out of two projects. Then Andersen took them to a final piece of land he referred to as “up top.”

When they laid eyes on it, the designers gasped. “Our jaws hit the ground,” King said. It is not unusual for the two to disagree good-naturedly, as partners inevitably do; King, as the pair’s construction specialist, is naturally pragmatic, and Collins’ imagination never stops whirring. But from the first time they saw the site, Collins and King both saw its ocean of potential. 

***

In 1974, Bruce Springsteen was down to his last strike. His first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park,” had debuted a year earlier to critical acclaim, but it hadn’t sold well. His second album, “The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” also was received warmly but sold even fewer copies than “Greetings.” And glowing reviews don’t pay the bills. Springsteen needed something big. 

For 14 months, he poured every drop of physical and emotional energy into lyrics and sound worthy of his desperation. “We got one last chance to make it real,” he wrote in what eventually became the record’s opening track.

One month shy of Springsteen’s 26th birthday, Columbia Records released “Born to Run”—more than four decades later, it’s considered one of the greatest albums in history. In both production value and the scale of its vision, “Born to Run” dwarfed everything that Springsteen had done before. No one had ever heard anything like it; it felt enormous and urgent. It still does.

Collins is also a young man: At 45 years old, his architecture career has decades to go. But Landmand is indisputably a crossroads for him and King. It might not be King Collins’ last chance, but Collins acknowledges, “This is definitely our big break.”

It is not lost on him that this opportunity came after years of near-misses with big clients who chose celebrity architects. “It’s not something that bothers me as much as it used to, but it’s on our minds,” Collins says. “And we’d like to serve them an I-told-you-so sandwich.”

The late-autumn sun never rises far above the horizon line at Landmand; the shadows start the day long and stay that way. Collins and King continue along their routing, kicking up dust from the unsodded fairways as they go (“Rob walks this course like a gazelle,” a recent visitor told King). “Come take a look at this,” Collins says, showing alternate routes from opposite sides of fairways. From the tees Landmand will intimidate; but in the fairways, the design reveals its playability. It always offers routes to the hole, no matter how far players wander from the ideal line. “You’re always playing golf,” Collins says proudly.

Collins often lingers on the greens. Some of them are astonishing: the punchbowl 10th, with a flash-faced backstop 8 feet high; the driveable 17th’s enormous, 35,000-square-foot replica of Alister MacKenzie’s lost Sitwell green. But most are more subtle, sitting neatly on the ground and offering challenge more from tilts and fallaways than from dramatic contouring. “We can’t just build 18 Sweetens greens out here,” Collins confided to King early in Landmand’s construction; the pair agreed that the course’s dramatic setting and unprecedented size would make wild greens impractical. 

Inevitably, some will see that restraint as too little, too late. In a generation of golf course design defined by minimalism, Landmand is anything but—by necessity. When King and Collins arrived in 2018, they measured 3-to-1 slopes on the site’s hills: that is, for every 3 feet of distance, the land fell 1 foot. An average putting green’s slope measures about 2%; a 3-to-1 slope amounts to 33%. If Landmand had simply been grassed and opened for play as King and Collins found it, it would have been unplayable. So they spent more than a year moving earth to make it work.

Collins makes no apologies.

“One of the little chirpy, bullshit things we’ve heard in the industry is that we’re moving too much dirt at Landmand. Double-bird, fuck you, you don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about,” Collins says. “You cannot build a fucking golf course on this site without moving dirt. The site was too severe not to.”

In the 15th fairway, King asks whether anything unusual appears. Not to the unprofessional eye. King then explains that he is standing on fill 50 feet above the land that he and Collins found when they first visited this site; massive portions of surrounding hills had to be shorn over a span of weeks, and their soil brought down into the interior gap. This is Landmand’s fullest rebuttal to minimalism: Sometimes dirt moves because it must be moved. And so long as the reconstructed landforms that fit within their surroundings are not contrived, who gives a shit?

Late this fall, Tom Doak—the godfather of golf minimalism—visited Landmand; he declined to share his impressions for this story, but it’s not difficult to imagine that Landmand will face a generational divide. Sweetens Cove did. Tobacco Road did. Collins defends Landmand as a natural step forward from Sweetens Cove—which, for all its eccentricities, clearly harkens to classic architectural principles reminiscent of Pinehurst No. 2 and the Old Course. And like each of those courses, Landmand offers multiple routes from tee to green, allowing (sometimes encouraging) play along the ground through a diverse set of landforms.

“Sure, Sweetens could be seen as over the top,” Collins says. “But the question was: Is it still grounded in fundamentals? If the answer is yes, then who cares that the fourth green is 94 yards deep and serpentine?”

As Collins and King hike up a sloping fairway on the back nine, King notes: “Doak said this fairway is gonna be hard to grow in.”

“Yeah. Whatever,” Collins shoots back.

For all its otherworldly features, there is something familiar about Landmand. Collins points to Garden City, the Walter Travis design in New York, as the inspiration for Landmand’s tidy green-to-tee connections and putting surfaces that sit neatly on the ground rather than elevated above their fairways; Lahinch and Tobacco Road drip from the bunkering; and it heralds a sense of grandeur borrowed from Nebraska’s most famous club, Sand Hills—which Collins calls his favorite golf course.

Ultimately, like all great courses, Landmand fits its setting. Regardless of how much shaping the site required, Landmand’s finished product looks like it belongs.

“For a lot of people, the temptation might have been to sink into this minimalist expression—and to me, that would have been the biggest mistake, the biggest waste of time and waste of the Andersens’ money,” Collins says. “I tell all our interns who work with us: ‘There is one fucking Tom Doak, and there is one fucking Bill Coore, and it’s not you. So don’t try to be. Be yourself.’ If you spend all your time doing what they do, you’re gonna chase your tail for your whole career.”

Standing on Landmand’s 18th green, above a massive bunker jammed full of curves lined with railroad ties and a tuft of earth nearly 10 feet tall (an ode to a now-defunct feature of the 17th hole at Lahinch), there is no mistaking that Collins and King have rejected all opportunities to follow other big-name architects’ paths—which is not to say they haven’t hoped to work where they have. Within five years of Bandon Dunes’ opening in 1999, architect David McLay Kidd had designed courses in England, Ireland, South Africa, Nepal, and Hawaii. Globetrotting has eluded Collins and King. Since Sweetens Cove, they have designed a playable practice facility called The Miracle in St. Simons Island, Georgia, and recently finished work on a nine-hole course in upstate New York. Two projects in Mississippi have been announced publicly, along with one in Texas and another in Memphis.

The biggest opportunities have remained elusive. In a 2019 interview, Mike Keiser, Jr.—scion of the Bandon Dunes developer and spearhead of the family’s development at Sand Valley—called Collins an “extremely talented architect” who “we also have an eye on.” Even so, the three North American resorts that Keiser’s family owns—Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links, and Sand Valley—have a total of nine 18-hole courses among them, and all but one are designed by Doak, Kidd, or Coore and Crenshaw. Similarly, Pinehurst Resort president Tom Pashley says King Collins “certainly would be on our short list” for any future developments, but the resort has no such plans for now.

“I trust Bill and Ben more than the rest,” Keiser Sr. told Matt Ginella in 2018. “And then it’s David. After what he did at Gamble Sands and now Mammoth Dunes, he’s next. Then it’s Tom.”

In golf development’s current landscape, where according to the National Golf Foundation just nine 18-hole golf courses opened in 2019, being outside that elite class means the opportunities for ladder-climbing are few and far between. Collins says he doesn’t take it personally—but he isn’t forgetting about it, either. As such, he and King have poured all their creativity and frustration into Landmand. It is an emphatic statement, made by designers at the height of their powers in a setting that feels like the top of the world.

“I want King Collins to be the first one you call when you’ve got a great piece of land, or at least to be on the list of two or three that you call,” Collins says. “Then we’ll do one or two at a time and just focus on that. I don’t care how many courses we do. We’re just not gonna lay any eggs.”

He adjusts his cap and bounds off to the next hole, casing the promised land.