Olympic-course architect Hanse wins jobs with personal touch

Gil Hanse makes his mark on Waverley Country Club in Portland, Ore.

Most kids who spend their youth playing in a sand box eventually grow out of it. The lucky ones who never overcome the thrill of pushing dirt around become golf course architects.

In the case of Gil Hanse, he often can be found sitting on a bulldozer, pushing and shaping dirt until it takes the form of classically inspired golf holes. The 49-year-old architect does this so well that he remains much in demand despite the global slowdown in course development.

Not even his newfound fame as designer of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games course has softened his basic commitment: to build courses in the field. It’s the same approach he took with Boston Golf Club in Hingham, Mass., No. 20 on the Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list. He also adopted the same hands-on strategy in his renovations and restorations of more than a dozen courses on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list.

Some course designers are most comfortable poring over topographic lines and hand-drawing every planned 1-foot contour on a base map, which they then hand over to a big construction firm to build. Other course architects seem at their best making sales pitches, doing news conferences, and parachuting in for a brief site inspection while being videotaped standing atop a mound with a set of rolled-up plans in hand.

And then there’s the old-school Hanse, who is more at home strapped into the seat of a bulldozer, wielding the steel blade of the 7-ton machine with the precision of a surgeon.

That’s not to say he wings it in the field without benefit of a plan or budget. It’s just that his preference is to spend time on site so he can feel and manage the process by which raw land is converted into compelling golf ground. And for all his indulgence out in the field getting dirty, dusty and sweaty, he cleans up with the best of them. He owns his own tuxedo, after all, and he’s not only comfortable wearing bow ties but has been sporting them (and tying them himself) since taking a liking to columnist George Will’s sartorial taste 30 years ago.

Back then, with a B.A. in political science from the University of Denver (1985), Hanse was considering a career in public policy. After interning in the Denver-area office of the late U.S. Rep. Dan Schaefer, Hanse studied city and regional planning at Cornell. He had grown up in Babylon, N.Y., where his grandfather was an elected figure of considerable stature in Long Island politics. Hanse’s sporting interests included intramural rugby, skiing and basketball, and he enjoyed playing golf, having discovered it as a 15-year-old at Southward Ho Country Club, a classic Long Island layout designed by A.W. Tillinghast.

In his first year of graduate school, Hanse befriended a fellow student, Tom Griswold, who was studying golf course architecture (and later became a design associate with Tom Fazio).

The light went on for Hanse, who says, “Until then, I didn’t even know you could have a career designing courses.”

He began reading intensively in the craft’s legendary literature, whether Gertrude Jekyll and Horace Hutchinson in turn-of-the-century back issues of the British weekly “Country Life,” or books by Bernard Darwin, whose 1910 classic on “The Golf Courses of the British Isles” included prints of evocative watercolors by Harry Rowntree that conveyed as much as the mellifluous prose.

Hanse was swept away. He spurned an offer of a staff position in Schaefer’s Washington office and spent his first summer after graduate school doing grunt maintenance work at the Country Club of Ithaca. The next summer he complemented his formal education by working for a young, unknown architect named Tom Doak, who was then building his first design, High Pointe Golf Course in Traverse City, Mich. From there, Hanse headed off to Britain, funded by the Frederick Dreer Award, a Cornell scholarship that allows its recipient to study a horticulture-related topic for up to a full academic year. Hanse, following Doak, who won the award in 1982, chose to study the great golf courses of the U.K. and Ireland.

Hanse spent a half-year living near St. Andrews, commuting to golf courses throughout Scotland and England – walking, taking notes, playing and interviewing greenkeepers, club secretaries and architects. A fortuitous call to the office of famed British course designer Fred Hawtree resulted in an internship, with Hanse helping Hawtree prepare his biography of Harry Colt by doing drawings and slanting his field visits to favor obscure Colt courses. Such is the reputation of certain esoteric golf course architecture biographies that a pristine, signed copy of “Colt & Co.” published in a limited edition in 1991, now fetches $2,000 on the secondary book market.

The work for Hawtree helped Hanse refine his drawing skills and allowed him to appreciate the proper place and value of formal planning documents. A paper trail in the form of sketches and spreadsheets, he says, “is helpful in communicating ideas to clients and memberships but can’t replace what takes place in the field.”

Back in the U.S., having graduated in 1989 with a master’s in landscape architecture, Hanse went back to work for Doak, this time helping build Legends Golf & Resort’s Heathlands Course in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Black Forest at Wilderness Valley in Gaylord, Mich.; and Stonewall Golf Club’s Original Course in Elverson, Pa. Hanse also did the drawings for Doak’s book, “The Anatomy of a Golf Course” (1992). Then, after trying to work

out a partnership agreement with Doak, Hanse decided it was time to head off on his own.

His initial solo work came in the form of modest restoration jobs on Long Island, where Hanse was networking with area superintendents.

Instead of delegating the site work, Hanse did it himself, eventually adding trained agronomist Rodney Hine, who from 1994 to 2003 was involved in turfgrass specification, managing documents and on-site shaping.

Together, they went to Scotland in 1995 to build Crail Golf Club’s Craighead Links on a modest budget that allowed for virtually no earthmoving – little more than working with the existing contours.

The result was a linksy, ground-hugging, fescue-laden layout with the occasional, whimsical blind shot and maddeningly unpredictable bounce.

The principle here is simply that of short grass as a semi-hazard. It’s a penchant he shares with fellow traditionalist designers Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.

In 2001-02, when a Boston-area businessman and avid golfer named John Mineck went casting about for a designer to build the private club he envisioned in Hingham, Mass., many of the industry’s big-name architects came calling. Some of them had full-blown routings ready for the proposed 200-acre site – a complex parcel with steep falloffs, rock outcroppings, heavy woodlands, a sand quarry and wetlands, and a two-lane public road that ran right down the middle. With local permitting an issue and with his own preference for classical shotmaking and the ground game, Mineck wasn’t impressed with most of those schemes because they called for massive earthmoving. On the recommendation of Coore and Crenshaw, who were then just starting work 30 miles away on Old Sandwich Golf Club in Plymouth, Mass., Mineck contacted Hanse.

It took a few days of walking the site before Hanse and Hine even ventured to say whether they would take the job. It was months before they ventured to present a naturalistic routing that would yield the kind of pure golf atmosphere and walkability that the late Mineck desired. It contained a short, seductive par 4; dramatic greens that contained a certain level of mystery for the golfer approaching from the fairway, and it ended on a par 3.

Hine, who helped build Boston Golf Club and left Hanse’s employ in 2004 to become superintendent at the course, commends the designer’s ability to imagine scale on a vast canvas.

“Gil has a great sense of utilizing space, of creating a feel for intimate scale that opens up on a shot into a vast arena,” Hine said. “He’s working with different landscape rooms out there, and has a knack for making some things immediately obvious and others a little obscure, so that you anticipate the rollout of a shot.”

In an era that has catered to good players who want to see everything in front of them, Hanse has shown the value of a different, almost dissident style focused on variety, intrigue and uncertainty. Among those smitten by the approach was veteran touring pro Brad Faxon, a New England native who was fascinated by Boston GC and talked up Hanse’s talents to the PGA Tour when it came time to renovate the Arnold Palmer-designed TPC Boston.

Hanse says his biggest achievement there “was making the golf course look like it was actually in New England.”

Along the way he also made the course wider, shorter and more thought-provoking for the world’s best players – an unusual alternative to the then-prevailing ethos of simply toughening courses. Faxon marvels at the transformation of the previously awkward, sharp dogleg-right, par-4 fourth into a risk/reward short par 4 where, as he says, the pros “rack up everything from 2s to 6s.”

The work on TPC Boston gave Hanse a comfort level with PGA Tour-level data that most traditionalist designers never deal with. It also gave PGA Tour Design Services, the arm of the PGA Tour that oversees the TPC Network, confidence that Hanse could do everything from finding enough “cup-able” locations on greens to accommodating spectators and defining distinct lines of optional play off the tee.

Small wonder, then, that when Donald Trump was assessing designers for his impending purchase and renovation of Trump Doral Golf Club (nee Doral Golf Resort and Spa), PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem recommended Hanse as the architectto upgrade and restore the Dick Wilson-designed TPC Blue Monster course for resort play and the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship.

But even that prestigious job pales in comparison to the assignment that Hanse landed a year ago, when he won the bid to design the 2016 Olympics course in Rio de Janeiro. He beat out some formidable competition: Doak, Martin Hawtree (son of Hanse’s mentor), Robert Trent Jones Jr., Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Gary Player, and the team of Peter Thomson and Ross Perrett. Pretty heady company, especially for a little boutique operation.

Besides Hanse, there’s only his design partner, Jim Wagner, formerly a superintendent, and since 1995 Hanse’s right-hand man on everything from documents and agronomics to shaping and routing. Office manager Andrea Lynch tracks the paper flow and billing back in Malvern, Pa. And that’s it – a small operation, self-styled and committed to meeting the needs of clients by showing up and spending time on the ground.

Hanse won the Rio job in part by pledging to be on site to build it himself. Along the way he’ll rely upon Caveman Construction, a Wagner-managed in-house team of feature shapers whom Hanse frequently summons. The team – shapers Neil Cameron, Kyle Franz and Robert Nelson – ensures day-to-day control over the look and feel of the courses Hanse creates.

To get them geared up for the Rio job, Hanse recently took them to Melbourne, Australia, for a week to study the artfully shaped, scruffy-edged bunkers at Royal Melbourne, Victoria Golf Club and Kingston Heath Golf Club. He plans to implement that style in Brazil.

There’s no shortage of hurdles facing Hanse and his design associates as they prepare to build the Rio course. Having moved there for the job, Hanse has been biding his time, doing renovation work on one of Rio’s few existing courses, Gavea Golf and Country Club, and waiting out the permits, budgets and politics that eventually will free him and Caveman Construction to ply their craft.

If and when Hanse finishes the course, this is what Brazilians and Olympians likely will find: a layout with all sorts of subtle intrigue, one that is easy to maintain and environmentally sensitive in terms of grasses and ornamental plants. They’ll find shared fairways, multiple options on tee shots and an abundance of half-par holes (short and long par 3s, 4s and 5s). And they’ll find plenty of width to accommodate the wind, as well as greens that vary dramatically in size, contour and accessibility.

In short, they’ll find fun, and that elusive trait will flow from the depth of character that only an on-site design team can create.

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