Former Players champion fulfills bucket list with RainDance National, a unique Colorado layout that measures 8,463 yards — the longest course in North America
Fred Funk would never be confused with current PGA Tour long bombers Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy or Justin Thomas. So what is one of professional golf’s shorter hitters doing designing the longest course in North America?
The answer to that question is indeed a long and winding road that includes many chapters over a 12-year period that eventually resulted in RainDance National Golf Course opening this summer.
The course, about 20 miles from Fort Collins, Colorado, is 8,463 yards from the back tees with two par-5s that measure more than 700 yards — each laid out across some spectacular high plains Colorado scenery.
The connection Funk, the 2005 Players Championship winner, had with this project involved a chance meeting with Colorado land developer Martin Lind in 2010. At stake was a potential trade of Funk’s private jet for a piece of Lind’s land.
Lind already had 27 holes of golf near the RainDance property but this was the Great Recession and finances were dicey. “The genius I thought I was it became pretty apparent I was in deep trouble (financially) so we were dumping everything we had,” he says. Wanting to keep the head of his flight department on board, Lind told his employee to go shopping for a jet.
"In 2010, you could borrow money on personal property but you could not get a real estate loan," Lind says. "I had a bunch of property, which was free and clear. I was trying to trade a jet for some dirt. I called it 'the two dead dogs for a dead cat trade.'"
A potential client was found in Florida.
"I said 'let’s bring them out and we’ll figure it out,'" Lind recalls saying. "I had no clue it was Fred.
Funk gets off the plane and he and Lind begin the negotiations, which soon fell apart for various reasons.
"You fall in love with the guy right away. He’s just that guy," Lind says of Funk, who has won 29 professional tournaments in his career. "So, we’re taking a look around for an hour-and-a-half, and to be very honest with you I was spitballing ideas with him because I was on the verge of having everything lost and filing bankruptcy. It was just a giant letdown we couldn’t get this jet deal done."
The two then took a short drive to a high point on the property.
"There wasn’t a tree on it," Funk recalls of seeing what would become RainDance. "I’m looking at this piece of land and I said ‘What are we doing here?’ He said ‘Fred, this is where I want you to design your first Fred Funk signature golf course.’ I go, ‘What, I’ve just met you?’ He said ‘Yeah, but I want you to do it. I read a lot about you and now that I’ve met you I want you to do it.'
"We were just trying to make lemonade out of a lemon on that day. Fred instantly said, ‘I’ve always wanted to, I have so many ideas, there are so many courses I play where I say I wouldn’t have done this or that or I would have done this better. But I’m never going to get that chance, that’s a very elite pedigree of people in this industry that get to do that.'"
The two broke for lunch and returned with a large topography map for further review.
"In these big letters about three inches high on the topo map it said ‘RainDance.’ And I asked ‘What is that?’ Martin said ‘that’s the land we were just on.’ Well, that’s the name of the golf course, I just love that. We went to the bottom of the hill and looked up at the property and you could see these big arroyos and I said ‘Wow this is just spectacular, but I don’t know if we can get a golf course in here.’”
Funk’s curiosity for golf course design took a more intentional path when, in 2005, he visited and toured Arnold Palmer Design Co. in Florida and met Harrison Minchew, a top Palmer assistant.
“We showed him around and talked about what we did,” says Minchew. “After I went out on my own in 2008, I reached out to Fred and said if he ever comes up with a potential client that we should work together. A couple of years later he got back in touch with me and said: ‘I think I have something.’”
That “something” was a 325-acre piece of property that Lind had showed Funk during their encounter.
“Oh my gosh, it was perfect,” Minchew says. “It had these small canyons that were throughout the site. In between these little canyons were significantly flatter areas that were perfectly suited for fairways.”
Minchew and Funk began routing plans on the 5,000-foot site in fall 2011. With Lind’s liquidity still on shaky ground, the process of designing the new course was extremely slow.
“The first couple years Fred was full of piss and vinegar and he kept asking ‘When are we going to start, when are we going to start?’” Lind says. “I had no ability to start. But God has been good to me and my family and we had some mineral rights that were in the right place and we had just enough spoon-fed liquidity to keep all the banks at bay and keep the land intact. We leaned into every problem and I could write a book on how hard that decade was but we came out of it.”
Lind began selling residential property in 2015 and the ball got rolling.
“Once we started grading it came to life, it became so magical, so I said ‘Let’s just build it,’” Lind says.
Having worked on around 200 projects with Palmer over the years, Minchew was patient and never gave up hope that RainDance would get built. He recalled one Palmer job in California that took a decade to finish.
“On this particular one you absolutely had to hang in there because it was such a wonderful, wonderful site,” Minchew says of RainDance. “Martin told Fred and I that ‘I’m going to do it, I just have to do it when the timing is right.’ And yes, we were chomping at the bit for years because for Fred this was a bucket list thing for him to do. I knew how great the site was and it was really the best site I have ever worked on as far as the amount of land we had, the type of land, the existing prairie vegetation on the land, the long views — everything — and it didn’t have very many homes on it either. Just 65 lots on the golf course that are set well back from the golf course.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2020 and Minchew, who went out on his own to create Harrison Minchew Golf Course Architecture, picks up the phone to deliver the good news to Funk, who has won three majors on the senior circuit, including the 2009 U.S. Senior Open.
“Harrison called me and said ‘We’re going.’ I said, ‘Where in the hell are we going,’” Funk says. “He says ‘We’re going on the golf course, we’re moving, we’re going to start.’ We went balls-to-the-wall from that point. We finished it in 15 months.”
Funk finished 197th out of 202 players in driving distance in 2005, when he won the Players Championship, but it didn’t take much convincing from Lind and Minchew to start stretching out the layout.
"Fred had played back in the day in the tournament at Castle Pines and that golf course is at 7,000 feet elevation and some of the longer, high-ball hitters would get 15-20 percent longer on their ball flights," Minchew says. "We knew we needed to be somewhere around 8,000 yards and some of the holes were downhill and would land on a down slope and roll out and we wanted the conditions to be hard and fast."
The group soon began searching Google for the longest golf courses. The top dog is in China and sits at more than 10,000 feet elevation, so Minchew knew that wasn’t possible at RainDance. Once the various designs began unfolding, the course was in the top five — and then one thing led to another.
“Martin wanted that length because it’s pretty cool to say your golf course is the longest in North America,” Minchew says. “So, we started stretching it. When he said that we kind of rolled our eyes, but he ended up being correct.”
In order to make sure the course didn’t turn goofy or gimmicky, the team called upon professional golfers Sam Saunders, who is Palmer’s grandson and lives in nearby Fort Collins, and Funk’s son Taylor, who plays on PGA Tour Canada, to hit test shots during the design work.
And while there is an occasional carry of 280 yards and the difference between the tips and the women’s tees is a whopping 3,500 yards, RainDance is getting rave reviews for its playability. In fact, Saunders and a few other pros have carded 67s from the back tees.
There is 225 feet of elevation change on the course.
"You feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Minchew says. “The views from the site are extraordinary — you can see 30, 40 miles — and that’s really cool.
“We wanted to make it look like the golf course was always there, and I know us architects always say that, but in this particular case it really got my attention from that standpoint because it was just so beautiful.
And in the end, the personable and colorful Funk garnered yet another friend.
"You can call us the Three Stooges or the Three Musketeers, whatever you want to call us, but Martin walked every step of the way with us and Harrison was the project manager and it’s very rare for an architect to be on site full time and he was," Funk says. "And Martin has now turned out to be one of my best buddies in my whole life."
A chance encounter indeed.