Q&A: Gil Hanse, Olympic course architect
NORTON, Mass – It’s been a heady year for Gil Hanse and his Hanse Golf Design group of Malvern, Pa. Selected as the designer of the course that will welcome golf’s return to the Olympics in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, Hanse also will be renovating Doral’s famous Blue Monster for new owner Donald Trump and The Vineyard Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., among others. Hanse spoke with Golfweek during the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston, where his remake of the 18th green attracted plenty of attention.
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What were you trying to accomplish on the 18th green here?
Really to just make a more interesting finishing hole. We felt like the existing green wasn’t a compelling question, especially for a short par 5 for the players. They basically had to figure out what their cover yardage was and their miss. They weren’t too concerned about the miss because they knew that up‑and‑down was fairly easy due to the size of the green, what we could do in the surround. So we felt like if we could build a smaller green, it would be more important for golfers to actually hit the fairway, to position themselves in the fairway, to have better access, better angle into that green, and then to make the recovery options more complex and more interesting. There was never a thought to make it harder or easier. It was just, What’s more interesting? So that’s what we came up with.
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When you start a new property, what is the first thing that you go to?
It’s primarily trying to figure out what the natural attributes of the site are and how we can incorporate those natural attributes into the design to make it full of character, full of interest. If the site is devoid of those natural characteristics, then we look at, how do we create something that we feel fits on the site. That’s one of the beautiful things about the links courses is, either the designer or whoever laid out those courses looked almost to find where holes fit and how the natural land could influence the strategy. So that’s really our primary focus. Let’s look at what nature gave us to work with and figure out how we can make it the best for this golf course.
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Between Martha’s Vineyard and Rio and Miami and Rio and Miami and Rio. How do you plan for the future when you’re a small group, and at some point you’ll be done with what you already have in the pipeline?
Because we’re small, all we really need – and I’ve said this before – we need the phone to ring twice a year and have it be the right two phone calls. We’re not looking for 10 or 15 projects. We’re hopeful that over the next year and a half some of those will slide in. (Bandon Dunes owner) Mike Keiser has already made a commitment that we’re going to do his new development in Bandon, so we’ve got that sort of on the horizon for when we finish in Rio, which would be another year and a half out. I realize we’re in an amazingly fortunate position in this economy and in our profession, but we try not to focus too far out in the future. We’d really just rather focus on what we’re doing at the time and giving it our best effort. It may not be Business Sense 101, but we just hope that the rest will fill itself in as we move forward. If we keep doing good work, then hopefully that will lead to more opportunities.
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As a kid, was golf architecture always what you wanted to do?
No. I wanted to be a politician, which I’m learning is actually not a bad thing this week (laughing). Yeah, my grandfather (Gilbert Hanse) was always a politician. I had always enjoyed those aspects of it. He’s the one who introduced me to the game of golf. I was actually going to focus more on parks and recreational planning. But for some reason, I always loved the golf landscape. I thought it was a beautiful landscape. And then when I went to Cornell studying landscape architecture for grad school, I met a gentleman there who was studying to be a golf-course architect, and at that point I changed my entire focus to do this.
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What offices did your grandfather hold?
He was the town supervisor, Babylon Township. He ran for Suffolk County executive on Long Island. He was also involved very heavily in Republican politics in New York state.
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Which golf course influenced you the most in your design?
The Old Course, just how completely natural it is, how it is frequently very random in how it judges and deals with shots and that that part of the natural flow of the land is so integral to the strategy of the golf course. One of the things that I love most about golf are courses that are fun to play. They keep you engaged in what you’re doing, and I think the Old Course does that. You can get in trouble, obviously, but for the most part it’s fairly wide playing corridors, and it’s a fun golf course to play. And I think that’s an important part of what architects should be trying to do.
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Why have so few courses built in recent decades had so little to do with fun?
I don’t know why the difficulty became the standard that people equated with quality. Now with architecture by people that I admire – Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Doak – I think there’s more of an emphasis on nature and fun in the game, and that’s something we try to do. That’s not to say we don’t build courses or holes that are difficult; we certainly do. We think that’s part of the tempo of the golf course. Not every hole should be easy; not every hole should be difficult. But I think that there may have been a focus at some point in time that just sort of favored difficulty or even favored, dare I say, development over fun – had to fit into a land plan.
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Who are the architects that you most admire for the designs and the work that they’ve done?
Alister Mackenzie is the first one who jumps to mind. I think he was the first golf-course architect who really understood the importance and the connection between esthetics and playability. He built beautiful golf courses that were seemingly just set in the landscape that were chock full of strategy and interest. I mean, Charles Blair MacDonald – if you asked me who would be my second favorite, National Golf Links – just because of the scale and the construction of his building and the way he thought so big. His features were always big, which I think leads to opportunities, playability, fun. So I think those would be the two that would probably have the most profound influence.
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How much do you enjoy playing golf?
I love it. I do. I obviously don’t work at it. It’s not a priority to me to try to get better. I mean, I can obviously get it around the golf course, but I love to play. It’s just when you balance the amount of travel that we have and the amount of work that we have and the family life, it’s hard to make the commitment which is necessary to get yourself to be a single digit or scratch or anything along those lines. But it’s not for a lack of enjoying the game. It’s more from a lack of time.
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Will you bring your clubs to Rio?
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You’re not one of those guys that just tees it up and sees how far it goes and says this is where we want to put a bunker?
No. You’ve seen me hit a ball. That’s not a great judge. Maybe if I stood on the white tees I could.
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Jack Nicklaus does that.
No, we definitely play dirt golf, but we try to sort of visualize what the tee shot looks like, what the shape might look like, how much width we need to contain our golf shots, so we enjoy playing that. But it’s just not a function. We rely on sort of more distances, wind, trying to factor in everything and say, right, this makes the most sense where to hit it. I think Amy Alcott can be helpful in that respect down in Rio. She’ll be able to hit balls for us, and Brad Faxon was great out here, he hit shots, and we talked an awful lot. He was great about what gets inside of Tour players’ heads, what makes them uncomfortable. He was more than willing to share those thoughts with us here at TPC (Boston), and I think that you see some of that in the golf course.