Leaning back in a creaky desk chair inside the last physical vestige of what was the Bobby Jones Golf Club complex, the golf course layout spread out on the conference table before him, Richard Mandell is in his element.
Some 650 miles removed from his office in the meticulously manicured village of Pinehurst, North Carolina — the home of Donald Ross’ arguably signature masterpiece, Pinehurst No. 2 — he sits in the tattered maintenance shed overlooking drawings of the acreage being re-engineered and reshaped into the original Ross-designed 18 holes.
His boots muddy from an early-morning inspection of the project Mandell, the golf course architect selected by the city to bring Bobby Jones back to its original but improved state, is in town for his bi-weekly oversight visit. He briefly ponders the question of what he does to relax while here.
“This is relaxing,” Mandell said. “Sometimes I wonder if there is enough for me to do when I come here, yet I seem to fill my time. Whenever I have a spare minute, I’m working with the shapers, which is the most crucial element at the ground level.”
The Bobby Jones complex is Mandell's 11th Donald Ross restoration among dozens of new build and renovation projects. After years of delays — he was contracted in 2017 — earth moving began in earnest earlier this year to convert what had been expanded into a 36-hole complex using nine of the original holes in each 18-hole course.
Sarasota Parks and Recreation General Manager Sue Martin, who formerly managed the Bobby Jones Complex, sees a contrast between Mandell the golf course architect and Mandell the businessman.
“I see a whole different person in Richard than when we were going through the process of preparing the contracts and putting together price estimates — then changing them numerous times — and now to see him out there with boots on the ground,” Martin said. “He’s a totally different person to watch and the vision that he sees, I can't see. I can only see the old golf course.”
Bobby Jones was closed shortly after the onset of COVID-19, the decision made afterward to not re-open until renovations were complete. Frequently changing plans pushed the start of the restoration multiple times before the city finally settled on the original 18 holes plus a par-3 layout across Circus Boulevard. A temporary clubhouse will be installed until a new permanent facility is built.
Mandell’s six degrees of separation from Ross starts with his first job, working for famed golf course architect Dan Maples, first as a college intern in 1990 and later full-time on staff.
“There's a direct lineage from Donald Ross to Dan Maples even though they are architects from different eras and used different types of equipment, but the process is the same,” Mandell said. "The way Ross drew his greens is 90% of how Dan Maples draws his.”
Mandell is also an author. In his book, The Principles of Golf Architecture, he catalogs eight elements and 27 principles applied to thoughtful golf course design. The book highlights the work of several legends of the industry and cites examples of how they implemented the principles in their own designs.
They include Charles McDonald, America’s first golf architect, along with Harry Colt, A.W. Tillinghast, Tom Simpson, Pete Dye, Ross and others. He draws influence from all of them.
“I like Ross of course, but in writing the book I wrote a lot about McDonald. If you asked me four years ago who my favorite architect is, I would have told you, Simpson, Colt, Tillinghast and Ross. But in writing the book, I seem to reference a lot of work by McDonald and Pete Dye. None of my work is like Pete Dye, but I do like his work and I think some of his philosophies and the things he's done are as important to the history of golf as anyone. He’s influenced a lot of guys.”
Golfers won’t find any Pete Dye influence at the restored Bobby Jones. The course is all Donald Ross, modifications primarily made for proper drainage of what was formerly a floodplain. Tee to green, though, the layout is the same as when the course was built in 1925.
"This course has evolved and changed, and it has suffered because of all the trees that were added and it became a shade issue,” Mandell said. “That's a challenge to bring it back to the original course, but it's a great responsibility that will increase over time, and not just here. They aren't making any Ross courses anymore. Every architect is different, and every architect changes over time, too.
“I'm working on Isla Del Sol Yacht and Country Club in St. Pete right now, and I'm doing something completely different there than I am here. We’re trying to create something that doesn't look like the standard ’70s and ’80s Florida golf course, which is also completely different than what we’re doing here.”
Mandell’s experience with Ross layouts was not a primary factor in winning the Bobby Jones contract. In fact, it wasn’t much of a factor at all because the city's original version was a renovation of the 36 holes plus the par 3.
“At the time Richard was being considered to do 45 holes, it was not a Donald Ross course anymore. That had become the back nine of the American and back nine of the British courses,” said Martin, who was a member of the selection committee. “Although it weighed into the decision, it wasn't top of the list. Now that the only regulation course is the original Donald Ross course, it absolutely worked out well.”
Bringing back the fun
The mission of growing golf extends beyond governing bodies, club pros and organizations that introduce the game to new players. Golf architects play a key role also, and Mandell said he and his contemporaries have the platform to foster enjoyment through design.
The new short course at Bobby Jones, which he expects to open shortly after the main course, is a trend revived from the 1960s and ’70s, but with more thoughtful design.
“The design of that era wasn't that inspiring,” he said. “We've got our adjustable short course here, and I'm planning on it being fun and enjoyable. We’ll have nine green complexes and multiple flat areas that will be tee boxes so you can play counterclockwise or clockwise or cross-country. We've created five or six different ways to play that golf course so management can change that up on a monthly basis, or a weekly basis — even daily if they want to. That's innovation that's trying to create repeat play, and fun and enjoyment.”
Which brings up the principle of fun. That isn’t one of the 27 defined in Mandell’s book, but is perhaps the sum of them combined.
On the back cover of the book is a quote by Bobby Jones himself.
“Every golfer worthy of the name should have some acquaintance with the principles of golf course design, not only for the betterment of the game, but for his own selfish enjoyment. … When he has taught himself to study a hole from the point of view of the man who laid it out, he will be much more likely to play it correctly.”
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.