Riding High

With the completion of the 2016 Summer Olympics golf course, no designer is in more demand than Gil Hanse.

BY ROB DUCA • PHOTOGRAPHY BY WAYNE SMITH

It was a day like any other for golf’s hottest architect. Gil Hanse’s morning began in Bethesda, Maryland, where he had spent the previous day making changes to the course at Burning Tree Club.
After driving to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and boarding a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, he spent the afternoon applying finishing touches to restoration work at the Vineyard Golf Club. Early that evening he was walking the fairways of The Wianno Club in Osterville with golf course superintendent David Johnson, providing advice on tree removal and bunker improvements. By 7:30 p.m., he was heading home to Philadelphia, but not before a stop on Long Island, New York, to catch up on yet another project.

Gil Hanse is a very busy man.

“I try not to quantify how often I’m on the road because I don’t think I’d like the answer,” he says. “People have asked me how this works when I have a family and three children. I’m a huge Dave Matthews fan, and he was asked in an interview about being on the road and away from his family. He summed it up best. He said his family has never known anything different. It’s not like I had a 9-to-5 job and now suddenly I’m on the road 200 nights a year. It’s just the way my life has always been. It works out for us.”

Hanse has spent two years redesigning The Vineyard Club, rerouting the eighth and ninth holes and five of the nine holes on the back side. “It’s basically a brand-new golf course,” he says. “We made it look more rustic.”

That’s in keeping with the company philosophy, which he says is to “lay the golf course around the natural features of the land” and to “maximize what the land gives us before we start to manipulate the site.”

He has also worked on TPC-Boston, the Boston Golf Club, Brae Burn Country Club, Myopia Hunt Club, Taconic Golf Club and the Kittansett Club. “I spend a fair amount of time [in New England],” he says.

Hanse has compiled a Hall-of-Fame resume in just the past decade, beginning with his work on the Boston Golf Club in 2004. He has since designed courses in Scotland (Castle Stuart), Florida (Streamsong Resort) and Oregon (Bandon Dunes), and performed renovations to The Country Club in Brookline and The Blue Monster at Doral.

But no project placed Hanse more squarely in the news (some might also say the crosshairs) than when he won the bid to build the course for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Hanse and design partner Jim Wagner beat out seven candidates that included such heavyweights as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and his old boss, Tom Doak. How did he do it? He attributes his success partly to his willingness to move to Brazil while he built the course, bringing along his wife and 18-year-old daughter.

“That’s why we got the job,” he says. “I spent 220 days on site. That’s almost unheard of in this day and age.”

What’s that saying, be careful what you wish for? Hanse might have occasionally felt that way while building the course as lawsuits and delays due to land and environmental concerns created havoc and more than a few worries over whether it would be completed in time for the Games. The process was something of a nightmare, but the course, still without grass, was finally finished last January, less than 20 months before the Olympic torch is to be lit.

“The only positive from it taking so long to build is we had plenty of time to think, discuss and make changes,” he says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s build this green because we’re going to grass it tomorrow.’ We knew we could let it sit for six months, and every day we could drive past it and think about if we should make any tweaks.

“I never felt like it wouldn’t get done. We knew there were legal challenges that could happen any day. We could show up one morning and they might say, shut it down. But you can’t plan for that. It became frustrating because the process was so inefficient. The landowners and the developers were the ones driving the schedule.”

Hanse was introduced to golf at age 16 by his grandfather, with whom he played Southward Ho Country Club on Long Island, an A.W. Tillinghast-designed course. “I don’t know if it was being out there with my grandfather, who was my idol and role model, or the beauty of the landscape, but something caught my eye,” he says.

After studying political science at the University of Denver, he enrolled in Cornell’s School of Architecture and Planning with the goal of becoming a city planner. But then he took a landscape architecture course, told his wife he had found his calling and switched majors. While at Cornell he spent six months abroad studying golf course design at St. Andrews, Scotland, visiting nearly 150 courses and interning with the firm of Hawtree and Son, the oldest continuously practicing golf course architectural firm in the world. He went to work for Doak after graduation.

“I worked with Tom on his first solo project, High Point Golf Club in Michigan,” he says. “I picked rocks, raked, and at the end of the job he put me on a bulldozer and told me to build a bunker. He said that you’ve got to know how to build a golf course before you can design a golf course. To this day I still get on the bulldozer.”

Hanse Golf Course Design, Inc., which Hanse founded in 1993, is now a big-time player in the golf world. But he remains loyal to those who helped him get started. It’s why he took the time to make a detour to The Wianno Club to offer advice on a relatively minor project. “The hardest part [about success] is retaining relationships with clubs that have been really good to us along the way. You don’t want to turn your back on them and say you’re too big,” he says.

Hanse doesn’t appear in danger of such cockiness, especially when he warmly greets Johnson, the Wianno superintendent, and later says, “David has become a dear friend.” But morphing into arrogance would not be a difficult road to take, and not only because of the Olympic assignment. Before he got the job in Rio, he was hired by Donald Trump to renovate Doral. The new Blue Monster was unveiled this winter during the PGA Tour’s annual stop and received wide-spread praise.

“That was gratifying because we were dealing with such an iconic venue,” Hanse says. “It was a departure for us style-wise. We don’t generally build golf courses with green grass, white bunkers and a lot of water. But we were able to take our beliefs and apply them to a different landscape. It showed the range of what we can do.”

Hanse says working with Trump was a positive experience. “He’s obviously a strong, opinionated character,” he says. “He was much more a grand vision, big-picture type of guy. The key thing with him is he loves golf and he’s really passionate about it.”

But Hanse knows, for better or for worse, that his lasting reputation will likely be determined when the Olympics come to Rio in August, 2016. “I don’t think it’s the best course I’ve ever designed. Streamsong and Bandon Dunes are better pieces of land,” he says. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that this will be the golf course that will receive the most attention for a concentrated amount of time. I’ll certainly feel pressure and be nervous when they play the event.”

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