Gil Hanse: How I design a challenging golf course
June 13, 2014
For most of us, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are still two years away, but for golf course landscape architect Gil Hanse of Hanse Golf Course Design, it's already an Olympic year. That's because when golf is reintroduced as an Olympic event in 2016 — after what will have been a 112-year absence — the world's finest golfers will be teeing off on a brand new course that Hanse designed and built.
The University of Denver and Cornel graduate recently took the time — between work in Rio on the Olympic course and a visit to Dubai to oversee construction on a course he's building for Donald Trump — to chat with High Country Golf Magazine. Hanse gave us a little insight to his process as a designer, what makes for a challenging golf course, his work with Mr. Trump and what we can expect in Rio in 2016.
What drew you to golf course design?
My grandfather introduced me to the game in my teens. From day one I was smitten by the golf landscape and how beautiful and peaceful it was. I just never really thought that there was a career there. It was an interest, sort of a hobby, doodling golf holes on pieces of paper.
Until I arrived at Cornell (for graduate school) the reality of this being a profession and potentially a career for me never crossed my mind.
It was one of those things where I got really lucky. I studied political science and skiing at D.U. (laughs)
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I actually started at Cornel thinking more about city and regional planning with a parks and recreation bent to it.
I met a fellow at Cornell who was applying his degree solely to being a golf course architect, so I switched into the landscape architecture department.
What's your process in designing a new course?
Our goal is always to maximize the natural potential of a site. From our standpoint it's always important to make our golf courses look like they belong where they are. To build a course in the mountains in Colorado and make it look like a Scottish links would be the wrong thing to do.
Having that indigenous character and feel is really important to us. I had the great fortune to spend a year in Great Britain. Those old classic golf courses really relied on the natural topography to create their strategy and interest. I think that lesson really resonated with me.
We want the course we built in Boston to look different than the course in California, and the course in California to look different than the course in Rio.
We try to extract every natural advantage we can out of the site. Ultimately that's going to make things interesting and more unique.
Speaking of unique, you're working on a course in Dubai for Donald Trump. How is that different?
Our site in Dubai has zero natural potential. We have to shape every square inch of it to give it some interest and some character. We went out into the desert and studied the dune formations out there and we're trying to create something that's believable in that context.
That is not your first project with Mr. Trump. You recently rebuilt the Blue Monster course at Trump National Doral in Miami, Fla. — site of the annual PGA World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championships. What's it like working for Mr. Trump?
He's been great. He really has. Obviously he's very passionate about everything he gets involved in; also he really loves the game of golf. I think people overlook that when they look at his golf course projects. First and foremost he's a passionate golfer.
Tell us about the work at Doral.
It started as a renovation and turned into a complete rebuild. Donald Trump has got quite a vision for things. As opportunities presented themselves more and more with the project, he was excited to let us keep pushing the envelope. So by the time we got finished it was a pretty much a brand new golf course.
How did the pros respond to it this year at the Cadillac Championship?
The reception was great. It was really well received by the players. The golf course played the way we wanted it to.
What goes into making a PGA caliber course?
There's no requirement. It's more of a feel of what you need. There's really no standard. The thing we like to focus on is if there's variety in the yardages on the golf course. That's more important, that variety is better than shooting for a particular yardage number.
When you're designing a golf course like a Doral or a TPC Boston — when you know that there's going to be a tour event there — then obliviously length and difficulty become a big part of the equation. But when you're building a golf course for an everyday player, you're just really more focused on what's the best golf course we can build.
How do you decide on a par and the combination of holes?
It's really based on the land. A lot of people think par 72 is the standard — anything below it is not as good — but when you look at the top 10 list of any course in the U.S. or the world, most of them are par 70.
I think it's more based on what's the best combination of golf holes that you can find on that property, and when you add the scorecard up it needs to be 70 or above, 69 would raise some eyebrows.
Whether it turns out to be a combination of five par-3s, three par-5s or whatever it turns out to be, it's really more just finding the best set of golf holes.
What's goes into making a course 'playable?'
I think width is really the key criteria. You have to make sure you give people room to get off the tee. Thirty-yard-wide fairways are not really a good playable corridor for the average golfer. I think you need to make sure you have enough width to get people around (40-50 yards). Once you have width then within those corridors you can start to make the challenge more appropriate to different skill levels. Really the critical aspect of making a golf course playable is to make sure it's wide enough.
What do you do to make a golf course challenging?
Having just watched the Masters, I think Augusta is really the perfect example of what a golf course can be. You make golf courses playable for everybody. But to score on those golf courses, that's where you really have to pay attention to angles and strategy. Augusta has really wide fairways but to actually score you have to hit the proper side of the fairway and you have to deal with topography and slope to get there, so that you now have
the proper angle to attack the hole location.
The most difficult thing for any golf course architect to do is make it playable for a 30 handicapper and challenging for Phil Mickelson.
It's getting whatever hazard you decide works on a golf hole in the appropriate position for the accomplished golfer and yet still give the other golfer room to maneuver through the property.
Tell us about the site for the 2016 Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro and your plans for the course
The site itself is very nice. It's very flat — the complete opposite of a High Country course — maybe about 20 feet of elevation change. It's pure sand. That's the best medium you can work in, number one from a drainage standpoint, number two it gives you a chance for courses to play firm and fast.
From an aesthetics standpoint we like that exposed sand look and feel. The golf course itself sits on that landscape pretty well. We didn't try to over build it. It's fairly low key.
Since Brazil has very few golf courses and sort of a limited palette of what golf courses look like, the picture we wanted to paint (to the Olympic committee) was the Australian sand belt, because the vegetation looks very similar. The ground itself fits in with that model. The climate is also fairly similar. I think so far the translations are working out pretty well.
You were competing against some big names for the Rio bid — Gary Player, Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus. How did you win it?
No one has ever told me definitively how it happened (laughs). I wish somebody would. They've been pretty coy about it.
Then what do you think won it for you?
When our group came out of the room, I felt really good about it. I felt like we nailed the presentation, and I think the committee heard it. That's always good when you feel like you've left the room and you've given it your best.
I think ultimately at the end of the day the commitment we made — my wife Tracy our daughter Caley — the commitment to move down to Rio to actually live there for a significant part of the construction part of it, I think that was a clincher. They realized you can't commit yourself any
Our message was good. I think our design was as good as anyone else put out there, and I think our commitment to being on site was what really clinched it for us.
How do you feel about the challenges and moving forward?
I think the challenges have been fairly well documented. The good news is that things are picking up down there. Irrigation is pretty close to being turned on which means we can start planting grass and do the finish work that we need to.
We feel good about what we're building. We've enjoyed a certain level of success doing things the way we believe and so we should probably just continue down that road.
The pressure from an Olympic standpoint, we'll feel that a lot more when the tournament is on — when the players are there. We'll see when you get the best players in the world in a significant competition, there's a lot of pressure. You hope that the golf course will perform as you envision it.
You've worked on courses in the Front Range — restoration work at Lakewood Country Club and Denver Country Club — what would you think about a project up here in the High Country?
My wife would be the happiest person in the world. She loves to ski and loves Colorado. We would be thrilled for someone to think of us to do a project in Colorado.
What kind of challenges would that bring?
Obviously you're dealing with the altitude and the considerations in length and the way the golf courses play. Unless you have a valley setting, you're dealing with challenging topography with respect to how do you get up and down the sides of mountains without the golf holes being too challenging, too difficult.
I think one of things that architects have to be careful about is to make sure the site is actually conducive to building a golf course. There are probably some sites that you would find in mountain areas that would mean that some of the playing corridors are fairly narrow or the topography is fairly steep. I think it's incumbent on us as golf course architects to say, 'hey this doesn't work.'
I would hate to see golf courses that get shoehorned or forced onto a piece of property. When you have more severe topography or more impactful natural areas, you really have to
be careful in advising properly or making sure you have enough room to make sure the golf course is number one playable, number two enjoyable.
When you have such a short season it's even more critical that you build something that's going to be a success. You really don't have a lot of time to get people out there to play it.
We appreciate your time Gil. what's one tip you could leave us with?
I think that golfers really — we all as a group— think we're better than we really are. Having a little bit more humility when it comes to the selection of where you're going to tee-off from is really a critical element in enjoying the game of golf.
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