Famed for creating Brazil’s Olympic Golf Course, Gil Hanse has been designing golf courses for almost 30 years. His creations include the recently opened Streamsong Black in Florida and The Cradle Short Course at Pinehurst. He talks to Golf Travel Solutions about his life in golf architecture.
How did you become a golf architect? I had doodled golf holes all throughout my undergraduate degree and upon going to Cornell for graduate school in city and regional planning, I met a student who was studying to be a golf course architect. He was in the landscape architecture program where I was taking a class on parks and recreation. At that point I decided that I wanted to make the switch and pursue my dream of designing golf courses. With the support of my wife, Tracey, I won a scholarship from Cornell to spend a year in Great Britain and Ireland studying golf course design. Upon completion of my studies, I was offered a job by Tom Doak, a fellow Cornell grad for whom I had worked construction one summer. After nearly four years working for Tom, I decided to start my own firm in 1993 and here we are today.
Which past architects inspired you? We work on so many restoration projects, and our goal is always to restore the works of those great architects and draw inspiration from their work. There are elements in the work of all of the great designers that we emulate as we work on our own courses. Of particular inspiration to us are the works of Tillinghast, Mackenzie, and Raynor but we have also found Ross, Emmet, and Flynn have had an impact on our work.
Where does inspiration for new course come from? The land. Every golf course we build, we start first with the premise of how we can maximize the natural potential of the site to create interesting and fun golf holes. Since every site is different, this approach allows our hole designs to be unique and the use of the native soils and vegetation allows our courses to look different from one to the other. We also draw our inspiration from the goals of the owner. We need to design a course that will match the objectives as laid out by the owner since they are the end user.
How do you go about starting a new design? We walk the site numerous times and catalog that property on a topo map. This cataloging allows us to identify the natural features that do not show up on a map or on an aerial image of the site. They could be rock outcroppings, sand dunes, specimen trees, or any interesting feature that we hope to preserve and integrate into the design. Once we have a good feel for the site we go back to the office and start working on routings from the site visit plans.
What are the toughest obstacles to overcome? Permitting often throws the toughest obstacles our way, and sometimes they make no sense at all. We once permitted a golf course where the amount of earth moving required for us to install all of the permanent water diversion and control features far outweighed the earth moving to build the actual golf course. Water had been moving across that site for eons without any trouble and we had to interrupt that flow and capture it permanently instead of allowing the land to flow uninterrupted. Frequently, common sense has no place in the permitting process and that is tough to understand.
Do you have a particular golfer in mind when you start a design? At the start, we are focused on what project goals are for the owner and the type of golfer we are trying to cater for is based on that. Since we have been fortunate to have been involved in several designs over the past couple of years, that particular golfer changes from project to project. With the Olympic Course in Rio, we knew we would be designing holes that would be played by the best players in the world on the biggest sporting stage in the world. At Mossy Oak Golf Club, we had an owner who wanted us to focus on playability for the average golfer since it would be open to the public. And, at Ohoopee Match Club, we have an owner who wants to design a course that will be played primarily for match play. All of these varying outcomes are ultimately what drives our thought process on playability for each project.
What is the usual reasoning when courses need updating? We always approach our restoration or updating projects from an historic angle, so it is frequently a need to get back to the design roots and character of a course. It is strange to hear that courses need to go back to their past to be updated, but those original designers were so good that bringing it back always results in good outcome.
What’s been your toughest challenge as a designer? The toughest challenges are usually the ones that are out of your control. They require the most patience and the highest degree of understanding as you try to move a project forward in a way that you know will yield the best results. I think it was well chronicled that we had a number of challenges during our work on the Olympic Course in Rio, and it taught us a lot about perseverance in the face of adversity. I think I am most proud of the effort of our guys and my family that we were able to work though the struggles and still produce a golf course that provided a fitting stage for a great couple of weeks for the game of golf.
Is there a lot of specialist equipment used in golf design? Not by us! We are still at our core, dirt guys, who design in the field and try to take advantage of the opportunities that come up in the field every day. We don’t need a lot of specialist equipment for that, except for knuckle buckets for the excavator operators. They allow the bucket to tilt and swing at different angles, watching our guys use them is like watching an artist with a brush.
What kind of unique jobs do you get offered? I think that my television gig for FOX at the US Open is pretty unique for golf course architects. It has been a lot of fun, I continue to learn on the job, and I have an amazing amount of respect for all of the things that go on behind the scenes to produce that event for television.
Is golf course design and maintenance sustainable? It can be. There is nothing that makes them mutually exclusive, it just requires proper focus and execution from both the design and maintenance side of the business. With proper stewardship of a golf course that is designed to exist in harmony with its surrounds, to utilise native vegetation and proper turf grasses, to reduce water usage and the reliance on artificial inputs for turf “appearance”, I believe that golf can be a great example of sustainable and eco-friendly land use. We still have a long way to go in this country, but if you look at the way golf courses are prepared and maintained in Australia and Great Britain, I think that is the way forward for golf in the US.
Is the industry in good health? I am not sure that the industry is in good health, but I also do not believe it is in poor health. My strongest belief is that golf is the greatest game created and that if we can get people properly introduced to the game it will thrive.
Do we need more golf courses? I think that there is always room for quality, no matter what business or field you are in. On a strict numbers basis, we do not “need” any more golf courses, but we need good, interesting, sustainable and fun golf courses that will help to get people interested and passionate about our game.
What are the commercial challenges of course architecture? My design partner, Jim Wagner, and I have always adopted an attitude and philosophy that we would just keep our heads down and try to do good work and that eventually someone would notice. We have never advertised or spent a lot of time trying to promote our work, figuring that would take time away from what we love to do. This is a philosophy that is still with us today, and it worked when no one knew who we were and we believe it is our best way forward. I get it, we are extremely fortunate to be where we are in our field and in many ways the work, interviews and opportunities find us now. But I think it is important for anyone in our field to work as hard as you can at the important stuff and the commercial challenges and aspects to our business will work themselves out. If we had not been consistent in our approach to our business throughout the last 23 years, it would be disingenuous of me to offer this advice with our current standing in the business. But, I look at Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, for whom I have the utmost respect, and they have always conducted themselves in this manner and that is more than good enough for me.
What makes the perfect course? A course that is fun and interesting to play for all skill levels and one that feels in harmony with its surrounds. It is a course that requires thought off the tee in order to score, yet room to play for those who are out to enjoy a round of golf. For my eye, the aesthetic should be rustic and a bit rugged, slightly disheveled, and there should be plenty of short grass in front of and around the greens to inspire creative shotmaking. And, you should be able to take your dog with you if properly trained!
Why does a course like Augusta stand the test of time? It was designed to be playable by all skill levels, but the level of precision required to score at Augusta is so high based on its design. This combination of playability (wide fairways, few hazards) and scoring precision (angles are important, greens guard the golf course) are the perfect combination of design balance, something we should all be striving for when we design golf courses.
What is your favourite course? The Old Course in St. Andrews. Simply the most fun, natural, interesting and endearing golf course ever “created”. Close second is National Golf Links of America.
And your favorite hole? The 4th at Fishers Island Club. So unique, interesting and breathtakingly beautiful.
The course you’d most like to play (but haven’t)? Chicago Golf Club.
What would be your dream project? To build a course with Mike Keiser on a sandy site. We have had opportunities to work with great owners like George Bryan at Mossy Oak Golf Club, Rich Mack at Streamsong Resort, Donald Trump on several projects, John Mineck and Rob Ketterson at Boston Golf Club, Mark Parsinen at Castle Stuart, and many others. We are looking forward to getting a chance to work with Mike on one of his projects.