Malvern’s Golf Mastermind

Gil Hanse’s work on the 2016 Olympic golf course is just one project of many worldwide.



INTELLIGENT DESIGN: Olympic golf-course mastermind Gil Hanse at his home office in Malvern

photo by tessa marie images  

Twelve days after Gil Hanse announced that the 2016 Olympic golf course was complete, he headed to Disney World with his wife, Tracey, and daughter, Caley. The trip wasn’t only for pleasure. He had business at nearby Streamsong Resort, which had just hired him to build a new course. 

The next day, Hanse would return home to Malvern to focus on restoring bunkers at Merion Golf Club, constructing a new course in Dubai, and resuming work on a handful of other projects. So it goes for one of the busiest architects in golf today.

Merion superintendent Matt Shaffer ranks Hanse among the top all-time course designers, along with the likes of Donald Ross and Tom Doak. “In the modern-day era, he’s kind of that guy,” says Shaffer. “They take what they have and they make it great—and they don’t move tons of dirt to do it.”

Merion recently hired Hanse’s eponymous firm to restore bunkers that were moved when the U.S. Open was held there in 2013. It was Shaffer’s first opportunity to work with Hanse, though he’d long been a fan. “He might be the nicest person I’ve ever met,” Shaffer says.

The amiable 51-year-old Hanse describes himself as a mediocre golfer—a 13 handicap—who’s in love with the game. As a graduate student at Cornell University, he’d sketch golf courses. Then he realized he could make a career of it. He still plans to devote real time to perfecting his swing. At the moment, though, his schedule won’t allow it. 

Hanse Golf Course Design has also done restoration work at Gulph Mills Golf Club and renovated Paxon Hollow in Broomall. The company designed the courses at Applebrook, Inniscrone and French Creek—and those are just the jobs in this region. A list of recent projects spans the globe, from South Korea to Mexico to Canada. His team designed the famous Castle Stuart course in Scotland and Boston Golf Club in Massachusetts.

Then, of course, there’s the Olympic project, completed earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, setting the stage for the sport’s return to the games after more than a century. “There’s going to be a lot of people watching golf for the first time around the world, and if it becomes a very boring, difficult, protect-par mentality, then I don’t think that shows the game in its best light,” says Hanse. “The stretch of 15, 16, 17 and 18 is all very approachable. You can definitely make a bunch of birdies and eagles finishing. That was done on purpose, to sort of put some fireworks at the end of it.”

The Olympic course also needs to be playable for amateurs once the flags and fanfare have left town, bound for Tokyo 2020. To that end, the fairways are relatively short and wide, and the holes are placed in ways that encourage specific, strategic angles of approach. “We don’t anticipate that the players are going to have a ton of difficulty off the tee, hitting a 60- or 70-yard-wide fairway,” Hanse says. “But we’re hopeful that, with some of these hole locations, they’re going to have to come from the left or right side of the fairway to get access to them.”

And after all that planning, careful maintenance is key. Hanse calls course superintendents the unsung heroes of the profession. “If the course is maintained like a rice paddy, the design doesn’t work,” he says.

 

When Gil Hanse was tapped to design the Olympic golf course for the 2016 Summer Games, he didn’t expect to have to deal with so many photographers. More than 1,500 will receive credentials, compared to 100 or so who shoot the Masters at Augusta National each year. “So when it’s the final day, and let’s say it’s Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson all tied for the lead, and all 1,500 want to show up, where do you put them?” Hanse poses.

The likely solution: Construct a grandstand and allow only some of them to work the rope line. Still, the surplus of photojournalists was one of the milder surprises that Hanse encountered.

When the Rio 2016 Organizing Com-mittee announced in 2012 that his firm had won the contract for the course, it was something of an underdog victory. With a handful of decentralized employees, his company had beaten out seven larger, older companies vying for the job, including those headed by former pros like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman. LPGA champion Amy Alcott was a consultant on Hanse’s design, and its minimalistic approach of working with natural landscapes was an asset. In its official announcement, the committee stated that his proposal “addressed the environmental sustainability directives for the games and efficiently conformed to the building restrictions on the land.” 

It’s likely that Hanse’s hands-on skills also contributed to the committee’s decision. Caveman Construction, the in-house crew headed by design partner Jim Wagner, does most of the earthmoving for his designs, and Hanse takes great joy in working the bulldozer.

When work was set to begin, the process was nothing like what had been described to Hanse during the bidding stage. “I was personally naïve about what it would take to do business in Brazil,” he says. “I was told by a lot of people that it would be a very different experience. And I thought, ‘Well, it’s the Olympics—it’s not [like] doing just any project in Brazil.’”

Early on, progress was slowed by a dispute over who actually owned the land on which the course would be built in Barra da Tijuca, an affluent and growing neighborhood. Environmentalists also took legal action, claiming construction would threaten endangered species. Both obstacles were eventually cleared, but not without plenty of headlines.

Determined to get the job done on schedule, three members of Hanse’s design team—Neil Cameron, Ben Hillard and Kyle Franz—moved to Rio. So did Hanse, bringing along his wife and Caley, the youngest of his three kids.

Meanwhile, Wagner oversaw work on two Donald Trump-owned projects: the extensive renovations of Blue Monster at Doral, near Miami, and the construction of a course in the United Arab Emirates.

Hanse knows that his firm’s success makes him an outlier in an industry that has slowed in recent years. As his star rises, his instinct is simple: Stay small. “I still love getting up and down on a bulldozer and being out in the field,” he says. “If I can’t do that, then we’ve lost track of what’s gotten us to where we are.”

Hanse’s company has a modest office in Paoli, but he’s never set foot in it, opting instead to work on-site or out of his home. He hopes that neither he nor his staff ever forgets how lucky they are to be doing what they love. “Yes, it’s serious. Yes, there are people spending millions of dollars on this—and we don’t take that for granted at all,” he says. “But I think there has to be that spirit of, ‘Hey, we’re trying to build something that’s fun, that people are going to enjoy. And we should have fun doing it.’”

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