BROOKINGS – How does a South Dakota State University graduate from tiny Wausa, Nebraska, (population 634) become a premier golf course architect in Brazil?
The short answer is a lot of hard work, a little bit of luck, and being the right guy at the right time. The long answer takes a little more explaining.
Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, Dan Blankenship moved to Wausa at a young age. Blankenship was interested in golf throughout his youth, playing golf with his dad at the local Rolling Hills Country Club outside of Wausa and Hillcrest Country Club in Yankton.
“When I was in high school, my guidance counselor asked, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘I want to do something to stay in golf,” Blankenship said. “At the time, there were no specific majors for agronomy close to me or even golf course architecture. I mean, there still really isn’t, so I chose something that I thought would kind of keep me in the field.”
Blankenship attended SDSU, where he majored in landscape design and took a handful of agronomy courses. During that time, he was a member of the men’s golf team and during the summer months, worked on the grounds crew at the Brookings Country Club. There he worked directly under Tedd Evans, superintendent of the course, learning the ins and outs of maintaining a golf course.
Following graduation in 1983, Blankenship was out skiing with a friend in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, still figuring out what he wanted to do with his life.
“I was kind of waiting to work, and I drove down to Denver to see my aunt and she told me about a Pete Dye-designed golf course being built,” Blankenship said. “So I just went by their construction trailer and asked for some work. They said that all of the big positions were taken, but if you just want to come out and be on the crew, you are welcome to.”
The Dye group, known as Dye Designs, is one of the most influential golf architect groups in the U.S., delivering The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (home of this year’s PGA Championship), Whistling Straits and Crooked Stick Golf Club, among many others.
Perry Dye, of Dye Designs, was designing and constructing the Glenmoor Country Club in Englewood, Colorado. Blankenship worked on the construction crew in the spring of ’84. From there, he quickly moved up and stayed on as the assistant growing superintendent. Blankenship kept working at Glenmoor, soon becoming the assistant superintendent, monitoring and taking care of the course.
After a few years, the Dye group offered Blankenship a chance to go international and work in Asia, designing, building and delivering courses.
“Heck yeah, I’d go,” Blankenship said. “I went over to Japan in late ’88, when they were having a big golf boom and designing a whole bunch of courses.”
From there the Dye group approached Blankenship about working on a course in Brazil. Blankenship packed his bags and headed down to South America, where golf was a relatively newer sport.
“I worked there for about six months before they had a big economic crisis and stopped everything,” Blankenship said. “So I went back to Asia and worked in Thailand at Bagna Country Club in Bangkok for a year and then spent 2 1/2 years working in Taiwan.”
Back in the U.S., the golf boom of the late 1980s started to slow and golf course projects became harder to come by. The Dye group began to have financial difficulties and cut loose many of its associates, including Blankenship. During that time, Blankenship returned to South Dakota, where he helped shape Broadland Creek Golf Course in Huron.
Now on his own, Blankenship began looking for projects.
“A group in Brazil called me asking to come back and finish a project four years later,” Blankenship said. “I went back down and from then on kept getting jobs down there, and it has been non-stop since then.”
In Brazil, there are only 120 golf courses in the entire country and less than 60 18-hole courses. This means the sport is very elite and played by very few. Blankenship estimates that there are around 30,000 golfers in Brazil. In the U.S., there are more than 30 million.
“It’s not even a real thing down there,” Blankenship said. “You tell people you’re a golfer and they ask, ‘What are you doing in Brazil?’”
Blankenship is considered the premier golf architect in Brazil, designing most of the modern courses there. His company, Gold Tee International, is responsible for building 18 courses the last 25 years – no other architect has built more than three.
“I am very entrenched there, and every golfer in the country knows who I am,” Blankenship said. “A lot of them are my friends. Clients have tried other architects, but it’s always one and done. Now they don’t even look anywhere else.”
Blankenship, who speaks fluent Portuguese, married in Brazil and has kids. His favorite course that he designed is the Terravista Golf Course, in Porto Seguro, in the southeast part of the country where Brazil was first discovered.
“Terravista was a special project,” Blankenship said. “There’s amazing properties in Brazil, and that’s why I wanted to stick around. I just kept getting these beautiful sites to design a course on.”
Blankenship, who now lives in Denver but spends two weeks a month in Brazil, relishes the opportunity to someday work in the U.S. He has a site picked out in western Nebraska, right on the north shore of Lake McConaughy at the edge of the Sand Hills, where he hopes to one day design and deliver a course. The site is situated near his favorite course on the planet, the Sand Hills Golf Club, a consensus top 10 course in the country, where he is currently a member.
“The sand hills region, that has 10,000 golf courses waiting to be built there,” Blankenship said. “It’s amazing out there – the topography, the sand, the climate. It’s all perfect for golf.”
Before COVID-19 hit, Blankenship was deep in the process of looking for investors. Now Blankenship has restarted the process and has hopes of getting the project off the ground in the near future.
Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected]