What does Mickelson’s Calgary design mean for Canadian Open?

Mickelson National in Calgary, AB.

Mickelson National in Calgary, AB.

That’s the million-dollar question, and it isn’t just about Mickelson’s design fee.

Earlier this week Barry Ehlert, the head of the Windmill Golf Group in Calgary, announced he’s hired Phil Mickelson to lead the design on a new course. Ehlert had previously been working with Johnny Miller and Stephen Ames on a design on the site, but it never broke ground. Ehlert, who recognized the appeal of Miller was limited, elected to make a change in approach:

Phil Mickelson Design (PMD) has been signed to create a championship golf course for a spectacular planned community west of Calgary in the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Barry Ehlert, Managing Partner of Windmill Golf Group, is developing Mickelson National Golf Club of Canada as a centerpiece of Harmony, a 1,700-acre community built by partners Qualico Communities and Bordeaux Developments.

“I could not be more excited about the partnership we’ve formed for my first signature golf course in Canada,” said Mickelson. “The Calgary area has a huge number of golf fans and players and we plan to create an outstanding golf course – one that’s both fun for amateurs and challenging enough to host the world’s best players in a PGA Tour event.”

The gently rolling foothills will be transformed, with shaping reflective of the mountains, water features and sensational landscaping to accentuate the golf course design. It also will be true to the guiding principles of the community: purposeful, caring and stable. That is, complementing the fabric of family-oriented community, ensuring sustainability and honoring the legacy of the Copithorne family, which settled the land more than a century ago.

“Harmony presents a tremendous new opportunity for us,” said Mickelson. “Our setting is magnificent and I’m really looking forward to contributing to a quality, family-oriented community.”

Mickelson’s first design was Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, AZ. PMD recently completed successful projects in Kunming and Shanghai, China, and has ambitious plans for the renovation of Torrey Pines North, home of the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego.

Ehlert told me something was in the offing when I was in Calgary three weeks ago. At the time he said the PGA Tour pro would be working with former members from Tom Fazio’s staff and he felt it was the right mix of marketing and design muscle.

Ehlert recognizes the Canadian Open could take years—or even a decade—to materialize in Calgary. Until now there has been no course that had the mix of quality and length to host the tournament, and even the rebuild of Glencoe’s Forest course has received mixed results. The likelihood is that a Mickelson design wouldn’t be ready for play until 2017 at the current rate (Ehlert says he’ll break ground right away), and even then it is hard to imagine it holding the Canadian Open until 2020 at the earliest.

So how involved is Mickelson in the project? Steven Loy, his business manager, was at the unveiling, while Mickelson was preparing for the Ryder Cup. I’ll admit I find the timing odd—Ehlert might have waited until he could have Mickelson on site to make a bigger splash—but Loy said Mickelson would be very involved.

“When he does these things he really gets into it,” Loy said.

It is easy to be skeptical of another PGA Tour pro being involved in a design. There are those that are actively involved with what they build—Tom Lehman is in the U.S., and Mike Weir was with Laval, his only design to date—there are many more PGA Tour pros (Fred Couples comes to mind) who simply show up for the ribbon cutting and ceremonial opening.

Loy insists that isn’t the case with the Calgary course, and that Mickelson will make numerous visits. Loy says while there are China projects on the books, the only other course Mickelson has on the go is the rebuild of Torrey Pines’ North Course, which will kick off after the tournament ends next year.

“We are very particular,” says Loy. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but we’ve turned down a lot of jobs. Phil is going to do 10 in North America and 10 outside of the U.S. And we have to line them up for all the right demographics. And frankly this will likely be our flagship outside of the U.S.”

Loy was particularly surprised that it took this long for someone to build a course like the one Ehlert has in mind. Of course Gordon Stollery, the late Calgary oil man and owner of Angus Glen in Ontario, considered a project similar to this, but couldn’t find water to make it work.

“I was shocked when I got to Calgary to find they didn’t have this kind of exclusive golf course in Calgary with all the population and the economic factors as well,” says Loy.

And what will it turn out to be? Loy makes a pretty interesting comparison to Jack Nicklaus Muirfield Village. If the Calgary project even gets in the ballpark, it will be a major success. Ehlert says the project will involve moving a lot of land—something Fazio designers are expert at.

“The thing it reminds me of, from the early video, is Jack’s Muirfield,” says Loy. “I see a lot of similarities here. There are valleys that could create meandering streams and there are fields to create tremendous golf holes. It will really be a cool area.”

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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