By Al Lunsford
You might be reading this on a typical day at the office, daydreaming of slipping out to the nearest muni where you can roll a few putts instead of shuffling through emails. It will probably take a drive, or short walk if you’re really lucky.
At JH Blades, a Houston, Texas-based insurance company specializing in the upstream oil and gas sector, employees need simply to get up from their desk and they’re on the tee box of Blades Golf Club—a 12-hole putting course designed by their chief executive officer and constructed in the halls of the company’s office.
What started as a golf-nut’s quirky idea has turned into a renowned indoor links attraction that has hosted the likes of local celebrities such as musician George Strait, 2016 PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker, and 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett, among other professionals.
JH Blades CEO Richard Martin, originally from Brighton, England, is a 15-year member of the R&A and has been certifiably golf-obsessed for quite some time. After starting his career in London, he moved to Houston in 1990 and took the reins at JH Blades in 1997.
In 2008, Martin decided he’d like to re-do their second-floor office space to incorporate a more English-style open-plan layout. In order to do so, the engineers in charge of the rebuild needed to literally raise the floor six inches to run the company’s wiring underneath the new setup, with concrete slabs on top. This necessity sparked Martin’s idea.
“When they raised the floor and put those slabs in, I told the engineer, ‘I guess we could put some golf holes in here, couldn’t we?’” says Martin. “And the engineer said, ‘I guess we could.’ So, I said, ‘Alright, we’ll have nine of them.’”
Laughing this off, the engineer returned two weeks later to the eager executive who had marked out on the floor his blueprint of where he wanted each of the holes to be cut—the genesis of Blades GC.
The course has changed a little bit over the years (only four holes remain from the original layout) and now features 12 holes, an homage to the original 12-hole layout at the first Open Championship played at Prestwick—that number, Martin says, is something that will never change moving forward.
The par-35 route has two sets of tees (490 feet from the Medal tees; 562 feet from the Championship tees) and consists of holes ranging in length from the eight-foot par-two 12th (Medal) to the 105-foot par-four 11th (Championship). Each hole is named after a different hurricane, referencing one of the environmental risks the company insures against.
The most salient of features at Blades is an eight-by-five-foot plot of sand nestled between the 2nd and 6th holes. Martin calls this the ‘most famous bunker in the world’—and it just might be so. The lone waste area on the course consists of sand from around 40 of the world’s most famous courses, including the Old Course at St. Andrews, Royal St. George’s, Royal Portrush, Torrey Pines, and Prestwick. Martin asks permission from the famed clubs he plays to scoop a bag full of sand to take back to Blades and is still regularly adding to his collection.
Each hole has a miniature flagstick with a different flag from famous golf courses around the world, another of the club’s interesting idiosyncrasies. Martin says they’ve been playing with the flagsticks in for about five years now, noting proudly, “We beat the USGA and the R&A to that rule.”
The holes snake around corners as players try their best to avoid manmade obstructions, mainly desks and chairs. Goose-neck putters (double-sided) are provided because you’ll almost certainly have to play shots both right-handed and left-handed during the course of a round—as the local rules on the scorecard state, “All furniture is integral to the course and should not be moved.”
During the winter, the putting surface runs much faster than in the summer when the air conditioning is on and there is a bit of moisture in the air—Martin has his own stimpmeter and checks the speed of the course regularly, clocking it at 11.5 this fall.
More than 1,000 different people have played the course to date—Martin knows this number for a fact, as it is indicative of the number of participants to play in the annual JH Blades Open which celebrated its 11th anniversary in 2019. There are about 280 people who play each year, made up of clients who come in from the first of July through the second week in November—the course can only cope with about 20 people playing at any one time.
In terms of the future, Martin is working on adding in another bunker and a water feature (a one-by-one-foot pond), saying, “It’s just a matter of getting the contractor in here to do it. We’ll probably have that in for the tournament next year.”
Martin, who is constantly carrying a putter around the office and looking for new angles to tee off from, holds the current course record of 23 as a right-hander (his best score as a lefty is 25). With the chance to play his beloved design every day of the year, it’s a wise bet he’ll never give that title up.