Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns say their friendship evolved organically when they first met in Cape Breton, N.S., as members of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s shaping team on Cabot Cliffs.
The same approach worked well for the two young designers when they rebuilt Winter Park Golf Course in 2016. The nine-hole municipal course north of Orlando, Fla., went from losing $250,000 a year to recently surpassing $1 million in revenue in just five years.
Rhebb and Johns used a similar concept to design Bootlegger, a 10-hole short course at Michigan’s Forest Dunes; at Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland and at Point Grey G&CC in Vancouver, where they devised long-range masterplans. And its how Rhebb and Johns plan to tackle their upcoming renovation of the Rolling Oaks Course at Cabot Citrus Farms in Brooksville, Fla.
Both course designers admit their recent business partnership also came together organically.
“Riley and I don’t force things,” said Rhebb, who has spent two years leading the construction of Coore/Crenshaw-designed Cabot Point in Saint Lucia. “We never drew up some masterplan to be partners. We reached the point where we looked at everything we had done collectively, where we were in our careers, and we both agreed it made sense.”
Rhebb & Johns Golf Design is the company’s new name and it has been a windfall for both.
Long identified as a tag team anyway, their legal and business affairs are now easier to navigate on both sides of the border — Johns is from Canmore, Alta., and Rhebb from Winter Park, Fla. — while the formal arrangement provides clarity for clients who now get to deal with one company instead of two independent contractors working collaboratively.
“When you’re penciling an agreement together and you have two distinct business entities operating under one umbrella it can be confusing, especially with one American and one Canadian,” explained Johns who returned to Canada last summer after a year in New Zealand working on Coore and Crenshaw’s Te Arai Links. “After Winter Park we realized we work well together. Getting the foundation set for Rhebb & Johns Golf Design was a long time coming.”
It’s impossible to overstate the role Coore and Crenshaw have played in this new business venture. Both Rhebb and Johns have been worked for the prodigious design team for varying lengths of time and it’s something neither designer takes for granted.
“Bill and Ben have been so supportive of us,” says Johns, who first worked for Coore & Crenshaw at Cabot Cliffs. “Always incredible mentors and great sounding boards whenever we had questions. They’ve helped us in every way you can imagine. Probably behind the scenes in ways we don’t even know of. That’s the kind of guys they are. We couldn’t ask for better role models to emulate.”
As Coore and Crenshaw wind down their careers, it seems their intention is to pass the torch to Rhebb and Johns.
“Two thoroughly talented and gifted individuals,” says Crenshaw on the Rhebb & Johns Golf Design website. “I’m amazed at their work ethic, constantly bringing up fresh ideas that are founded in solid traditional values with a nod to the history of golf course architecture. I would support and endorse whatever and wherever they embrace future work.”
Coore’s take is equally glowing.
“Our course designs have benefited greatly from Riley and Keith’s insights and talents; and we have watched with admiration as they have evolved from creative shapers producing artistic, interesting golf features, to becoming accomplished golf course designer with acclaimed designs of their own,” he said.
While the Coore & Crenshaw business model focuses on high-profile new projects over some of the world’s most tantalizing terrain, Rhebb and Johns admit their vision is much more understated. Although hopeful of a commission for an intriguing new build in the future, they plan to keep their business small. Doing so, they say, will help them maintain an identity of being craftsman and allow them to pick and choose clients they want to work with.
“Our model isn’t to take on the big boys or conquer the golfing world in any regard. We want to stay nimble, be flexible and light on our feet so staying small is our objective. In a perfect world if we could cherry pick our work it would be municipal courses and rebuilds with the odd restoration and historical consultation. That would be perfect,” Johns says.
Despite their boots being on the ground at many spectacular Coore & Crenshaw courses, the most rewarding project Rhebb and Johns have embarked on to this day is still Winter Park Golf Course, known to regulars as WP9.
Admittedly, it might still be that when they call it a career.
Working within the constraints of a $1.2-million budget, they under promised and over delivered. Not only did Rhebb and Johns get the beleaguered nine-hole muni off life support, they revived it with a blueprint other cities and municipalities can use. Winter Park has been averaging 40,000 rounds a year since reopening. Money left after coming in under budget built WP9’s Back Nine, a community putting green.
“When you get people coming up to you, shaking your hand and saying thank you, you changed my life, those are the ones that get us,” said Johns. “If we could do more Winter Parks we’d be happy. You know as well as anyone right now that communities and golf are often pitted against each other. I think that’s a bullshit narrative and could be easily dispelled with more places like WP9.”
Johns and Rhebb are in the midst of more upgrades at Winter Park. In January they were on site again looking at new tee decks and bunker enhancements. Profits are re-invested into the golf course.
“WP9 is getting so much play we have to find more tees to help spread the wear and tear,” Johns said.
They’re also looking to formalize a retainer with the City of Winter Park. Rhebb & Johns Golf Design currently has no legal agreement to remain course consultants at WP9. Jason Sealy, the head of parks and recreation for the city of Winter Park, would like to change that as soon as possible.
“Nothing is written that protects the golf course from meddling if there are changes in government,” said Rhebb. “Jason wants to establish that for the life of the golf course, regardless of the mayor or city councillors or who’s running parks and recreation any changes or adjustments on the golf course have to go through us.”
Asked if they could have envisioned how far they’ve come in such a short time both laughed. “We’re fortunate how all these puzzle pieces have come together for us,” Rhebb say, “how it all started with us meeting up in Cabot, doing WP9, working for Bill and Ben and where we are today. Honestly, if you wrote this up as a script it would be a tough sell. No one would believe it.”