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‘The future of golf is fun:’ Gil Hanse reveals his vision for where course design is headed

August 30, 2017

When Arnold Palmer’s original routing for TPC Boston opened in 2002, it felt like a course transplanted from a Florida resort, with eighteen individual holes on a wandering layout whose long cart rides from one hole to the next epitomized its lack of flow and local flavor. It never quite fit in Norton, Mass., a town of 20,000 some 40 miles south of Boston, but the TPC had already landed a PGA Tour event, the Deutsche Bank Championship. The tournament, which debuted in 2003, was well-attended, but fans yearned for golf carts, while pros and members alike noted how the course lacked continuity. When the PGA Tour announced just three years after TPC Boston’s debut that the second leg of the newly minted FedEx Cup Playoffs would come to Norton, the TPC needed to up its game. The Tour tapped Hanse Golf Course Design, a boutique firm that had just opened Boston Golf Club to rave reviews.

“I think at that point we had a good reputation within the industry, with people who knew golf and golf course architecture, but we weren’t on the radar anywhere else,” Gil Hanse said in a telephone interview Monday. “TPC Boston literally put our work out there on national television for millions of people to see, and things obviously multiplied from there.”

Since its inception as a FedEx event in 2007, the event (now called the Dell Technologies Championship) has boasted a list of winners that includes many of the game’s biggest stars —Stricker and Singh, Mickelson and McIlroy (twice), Henrik and Hoffman and Rickie, too. Hanse quickly became one of the go-to designers for reconstruction and renovation, and added some of the glitziest names in golf to his portfolio, too: L.A. Country Club, Winged Foot, The Country Club, in Brookline, Mass.; Aronimink, just west of Philadelphia; and Oakland Hills, in the suburbs of Detroit.

Hanse attributes much of that momentum to TPC Boston. In 2005, once they’d been awarded the project, Hanse and his partner Jim Wagner began drawing up the plans, working with local Tour star Brad Faxon on establishing an appropriate feel for the place. The initial renovation happened fast: Just two weeks after Tiger Woods won the 2006 Deutsche Bank Championship, the crew got to work.

“We set out to New England-ize things, and I think now it feels as though it fits in with its surroundings more naturally,” Hanse said. “We were very deliberate with the way we worked in fescues, blusters, vegetation, and stone walls to remind you that you’re in the woods in a New England town. That’s the flavor and more rugged character we were hoping for.”

When winter came early in 2006, parts of the project were tabled indefinitely. Portions of 16 holes had been reworked, while two holes—12 and 13—remained untouched. Still, the course reopened in the spring to positive reviews, both from the members and the pros. Fans were pleased, too — in the first event after the redesign Phil outdueled Tiger in front of massive crowds. The club was reluctant to shut down the course again for more renovations, so over the following years construction continued slowly—a redone tee here, a green tweak there.

“That was really the first domino that fell,” Hanse says, referring to how his work in Boston upped his profile. Hanse now has a design credit on more than a dozen of GOLF’s Top 100 Courses,  several of his original designs, including Scottish links course Castle Stuart, are highly-touted, and several more, including Streamsong Black, are in the midst of opening. Hanse achieved broadest recognition when he outdueled powerhouses such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, and Tom Doak in landing the bid to build the Olympic Course in Rio. And as the architecture analyst on Fox’s U.S. Open broadcasts, he has educated national audiences on the nuances of course design.

As Hanse has taken on more projects, the scope of his concerns and the purview of his responsibilities has necessarily widened, too. In designing courses specifically for the Tour pros, he’s been forced to confront one of the game’s toughest questions: What can golf do to confront the realities of modern technology and unprecedented swing speed eviscerating classic course designs? “Well,” he said, “to get any kind of golden ticket answer, you need to do something about the ball, and that means limiting distance based on the course and the tournament. I don’t think you take away the ball from the average guy, that doesn’t do anything to advance the game of golf. But if you want to play at some of these great courses, maybe you go to the Creek Club [on Long Island] and use an 80 percent ball, or a place like Sleepy Hollow [in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.].”

I mentioned to him my colleague Alan Shipnuck’s much-debated suggestion that the pros should be playing 9,000-yard courses to give them a true test of length. “It may sound so ridiculous, but, no, he’s not far off at all,” Hanse said. “There are a ton of other factors, but he’s probably pretty close with that.

“Look, it’s not just a golf question. It’s an environmental one. You have to irrigate and fertilize, and the amount of resources used in maintenance alone can get out of control. At some point we can talk about courses being defenseless, and that’s ultimately just a perception of score rather than the quality of the course. But there are other concerns that come along with the need for these massive courses—with the game being more expensive, the environmental requirements are more arduous and that threatens the core of the game, of course doing the right thing environmentally in the long term.”

This is the position Hanse finds himself in, as one of golf’s tastemakers. His work requires the approval of professionals—he cited Geoff Ogilvy, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson, and Charley Hoffman as those whose comments he pays particular attention to—but it also requires the approval of amateurs, even beginners.

“The future of golf is fun,” he said, noting the accessibility of the short course he just completed at Pinehurst as an example. “Golf is such a difficult game that whatever we can do to make someone’s first interaction with the game fun and positive is going to be a win. Of any sport, golf has the best field and the best landscapes, and those selling points will always resonate with people. The allure of being outside and spending time with people is huge and you can’t match it anywhere else.”

For most architects in the post-recession golf world, the challenge lies in finding projects, but Hanse has to guard against taking on too many. He attributes much of his success to a hands-on approach, and he fears work could suffer from overextending his lean team.

“I’m still getting on a bulldozer and Jim on an excavator, and we’ve found over time that the maximum number of significant projects we can have going on at the same time is three,” he said. His focus today is on Aronimink; Southern Hills, in Tulsa, Okla.; and Merion, the 2013 U.S. Open site outside Philadelphia.

But wherever his bulldozers are, this time of year has always given him a reason to turn on the television and take in the Labor Day action from TPC Boston. “It’s always an exciting week for us,” he said. “I always watch, and I’m interested and intrigued by the action, and it’s the one course that has been a constant in the playoffs.”

This year’s reveal of the par-4 12th and par-4 13th holes means that Hanse’s fingerprints can now be found on all 18 holes.

“Twelve is longer now, and the tee shot has a lot more thought to it,” Hanse said. “It used to be that you’d just rear back and hit it as far as you can, but now we’ve lengthened it and created a choice off the tee; it’s a much bigger risk now to push it forward.” And 13? “We’ve extended the ridge across from 12, which connects the holes much better than when they were two different landscapes. We updated the contouring to make your angle into the green a little more strategic. And the green is 20 yards further back, with a kicker slope in front for shots that need to land there. We feel really good about the course as an entire package now.”

The changes are significant to the course, but they’re also hugely meaningful to Hanse given they bookend his rise to the peak of his profession.

There are still more mountains for Hanse to scale. He’s says he’s still holding out hope for a Bandon project that was proposed, approved, then shuttered several years ago, and he references with a sigh the design for a course at Nebraska’s Prairie Club as “the one that got away.”

So what will Hanse watch and listen for this week?

“Like anything in life, you usually only get keyed in on the negative stuff,” he said. “It’s best when you don’t hear much of anything at all.”