US superintendent Kyle Hegland is a self-proclaimed turf and golf course architecture “dork”. He was therefore a veritable kid in a candy store when he ventured to the Melbourne Sandbelt for the very first time as one of 45 course volunteers for last December’s Presidents Cup.
Kyle Hegland reckons he should have been born an Aussie. The Wisconsin native and current superintendent at one of America’s minimalist masterpieces – the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed Sand Hills Golf Club, Nebraska – has long had an affinity for Melbourne’s famed Sandbelt, an obsession that has developed into an incurable itch over a near 20-year career.
He can lay the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of two-time Masters winner Crenshaw and one of the US golf industry’s legendary superintendents, Doug Petersan. While undertaking his turf management degree at Michigan State University, Hegland interned at the Crenshaw-designed Austin Golf Club, Texas, which at the time was under construction.
Hegland clearly remembers three photos there, given to Crenshaw by fellow course architect doyen Tom Doak, of Royal Melbourne Golf Club’s 18th East hole. As Hegland explains, there was something hypnotising about the photos. They piqued something in him, something he couldn’t get over and he vowed then and there that one day he would make the trek to Australia to see it in person.
After graduating with his degree, Hegland returned to work under Petersan. A staunch devotee of the firm and fast school of course preparation, Petersan’s ways resonated strongly with Hegland’s own emerging turf management philosophies. Add to that his boss’s extensive library of golf and course architecture books that he regularly poured over, and Hegland quickly became, as he happily confesses, a golf course architect and turf “dork”.
Just over four years at Austin, where he rose to assistant superintendent, at the age of 27 Hegland scored his first superintendent posting at the renowned Sand Hills. It was an opportunity he knew wouldn’t come around again and somehow convinced his then fiancée (now wife) Ashley to move from the Texas state capital to Mullen, Nebraska, in the remote high plains of the US Midwest.
Mullen is minimalist too. Just 500 people reside there and the township is situated 12 miles from the golf course. It’s a five-hour drive west to Denver, Colorado and a five-hour drive east to Omaha, Nebraska. As Hegland quips, “it’s not easy to get to and it’s not on the way to anywhere”. He jokes that Ashley was interviewed harder than he was for the job, but he ultimately got the gig and for the past 13 years has been able to indulge his passion for course management. And doing a damn fine job of it too!
Built in 1995 and regarded as one of the most important course constructions of the modern era, Sand Hills is a rugged natural beauty. Coore and Crenshaw’s third design together, such is the wonderous topography of the land that just 3000 cubic metres of material was moved during its construction. The end result is stunning – sweeping fescue fairways weaving their way over and through rolling sand hills (hence the name), bentgrass greens complexes that were ‘discovered’ rather than constructed and huge, yawning blowout bunkers.
In its 2019/2020 Top 100 Greatest US Courses rankings list, Golf Digest ranked Sand Hills No.9. Only the likes of classic layouts Pine Valley, Augusta National, Cypress Point, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, Merion, Pebble Beach, National Golf Links of America are ahead of it. As Hegland phrases it, “if you like golf, you couldn’t not like it.”
This article was originally published in the Australian Turfgrass Managment Journal (Volume 22.1 Jan-Feb 2020)
Words and images by Brett Robinson.