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Gil Hanse Q&A: The course designer on lessons from Doak and working for Trump

September 11, 2017

Gil Hanse reaches to pass me the barbecue sauce, and that’s when I note his freshly calloused hands. We’re lunching at Papa Buck’s BBQ in Metter, Ga., not far from the site of his newest project, Ohoopee Match Club, which is set to open in 2018. “Hand-raking greens in Pinehurst,” Hanse explains, referencing another of his many current gigs, this one across a couple of state lines at Pinehurst Resort. Does he hand-finish all of his greens himself? “One of us will be on pretty much every green,” he says, stabbing at his pulled-pork platter and acknowledging the contribution made by his longtime design partner, Jim Wagner. “That’s what you have to do to get the level of detail required. We’re gonna have eyes on it. We may jump on and make little changes either with a rake or a Sand Pro [tractor], but we definitely have that type of involvement. It’s a commitment in our minds, an understanding, that that’s the best way to build a golf course. And yeah, it’s enjoyable. What guy didn’t have Tonka trucks as a kid and wanna play in the dirt?”

After leading a tour of Ohoopee in the warm July sun, Hanse—who, from his home base in Malvern, Pa., just west of Philadelphia, has designed 16 original courses (including Castle Stuart, Boston Golf Club, and the just-opened Streamsong Black) and overseen the renovation or restoration of dozens of others—sat down with GOLF for a wide-ranging discussion. The man whose fingerprints are all over this year’s Top 100 lists is revealed to be a meticulous architect, one who loves his work and cherishes being just one of the guys in the field.

You launched Hanse Golf Course Design in 1993, after several years of working closely with Tom Doak, a collaboration that included a co-design credit on Stonewall Golf Club. You were living in Colorado at the time. Why did you and your family relocate to Malvern?

We lived here for about six months during construction of Stonewall and liked the area. When it was time to start my own company, it was important to be near something I had worked on and that had my name on it.

Why did you leave the gig with Doak?

It was just one of those things that, well—it was time. I had worked for Tom for about four years. We had had discussions about forming a partnership. It never came to fruition. No particular reason. It just didn’t happen and didn’t seem like it was going to happen. At that point in my life, Tyler [the second of his three children with his wife, Tracy], had just been born and it was one of those defining moments where you go, “How do we ultimately go forward?”

So there wasn’t a wild crescendo, a scene where you and Tom threw beer glasses at each other.

No. I don’t think I’ve ever had a beer with Tom, so we wouldn’t have thrown beer glasses at each other. And we’re still very cordial.

What’s the most important thing you learned while working with him?

Just being involved and present—and having the opportunity to make changes in the field. Tom embraced the way Pete Dye did things. Traditionally, architects have prepared a set of plans, and contractors have implemented those plans. There usually aren’t significant alterations. Tom and Pete understood that you do the best you can on paper with concepts, ideas, and getting the routing right, but ultimately everything has to happen in the field to get the best out of a golf course. Understanding that methodology was certainly lesson number one. Another critical thing Tom taught me was to step away when you think it’s done.

Although the firm has your name on it, you and Jim Wagner have been close collaborators for 23 years. What’s his role?

Ah, my partner in crime. He’s my partner in the decisions we make on projects going forward, and all the design work on-site has his influence and skill in it. He handles the budgeting, the scheduling—in that regard, his mind works much better than mine. He’s also, I think, the best shaper in the business. The funny thing is, Jim and I rarely see each other. We don’t divvy up projects like, “That’s Jim’s project, that’s Gil’s project.” We’re both on every project, but I’ll be on-site one week and he’ll be there the next. I probably do more than the lion’s share of the routings, but Jim’s very involved.

Another of your regular collaborators was our 45th president. You tackled a handful of courses for Donald Trump—Dubai, Doral’s Blue Monster, Red Tiger, Golden Palm. What was he like to work with?

He was great to work with. He gave us the freedom to concentrate on details, while his focus was on the big picture. He was very supportive all the way. He’s an owner whose foremost goal is quality golf, and he has the financial resources to back up that vision. Whatever you think about him as a person or politician, why wouldn’t you want to work for somebody like that?

As an analyst, you just called your third U.S. Open for FOX Sports. Would you like to see the Open return to Erin Hills?

I think so. It’s refreshing to see a modern golf course that asks players to make decisions. Fortunately—or unfortunately—they set up Erin Hills to be played in very windy, firm conditions, and neither of those showed up [tournament week]. As a result, scoring was lower than they probably anticipated. It just goes to show you the impact that Mother Nature and course setup has on architecture.

Erin Hills certainly raised the profiles of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, the architects who designed it. What course put Gil Hanse on the map?

Boston Golf Club, in 2005. That led us to the most opportunities—the renovation work at TPC Boston, which led to the design opportunity at Castle Stuart.

In 2011, Phil Mickelson said of Castle Stuart, it’s “one of the best golf courses anywhere in the world. It should almost be a prerequisite to play Castle Stuart before you’re allowed to design golf courses nowadays.” What do those words mean to you, six years later?

He also made some nice comments when we were selected to design the Olympic Course. Phil’s been great to us, publicly and privately. Anytime you get an elite player like that enjoying your work, it’s a big positive. But he can be critical, too. We’ve had a few conversations where he’s pulled me aside and said, “Hey, what were you thinking here?”

Your profile as a designer reached a new peak with the Rio Olympics. It’s well documented what a challenge it was to get the course built. What gave you the gray hairs?

The construction process. Day-to-day decisions were being made by people with a lack of knowledge of what it takes to build a golf course and a lack of ability to listen to what we were trying to tell them. As a result, the project dragged on for nine to ten months, much longer than it should have. We never had to sacrifice quality, or else we would have left. They let us build the course we wanted to build, but it took a lot longer. We worked on Rio and [Trump] Dubai simultaneously, and wound up learning a hard lesson. The criteria Jim and I have established for working are clear now. Question one: Is the developer giving us a piece of land where we can build something exceptional? If the answer is yes, we move on to question two: Are we gonna have fun doing it? If the answer again is yes, sign us up.

There are conflicting reports about the condition of the Olympic Course, now that the Games have concluded. What do you hear?

I’m hearing good things from locals. Back in March, one of the international news agencies put out something about the state of the Rio facilities—the terrible state the pools are in, the Olympic Park with a chain link fence around it. And they ran an aerial photo of the “degraded” Olympic golf course. I looked at it and I’m like, “You can see the mower stripes on the greens. You can see all the bunkers are raked. You can see the fairways are mowed. How is that “degraded?”” It was definitely a fake news story. Very frustrating.

Was there a moment during the Rio Games—a golf hole played by someone, a strategy executed—that said, “This is what we do. This is how this course was intended to test these players”?

Sixteen, the short par 4, was that hole—just watching the different ways the golfers played it, the way the leaders took it on, the way the guys chasing took it on. But the really telling moment was at the end of the men’s competition, the way [Justin] Rose and [Henrik] Stenson played their second shots into 18. Justin knew the angle he wanted to come into that hole location from. He really strategized. He and his caddie, Mark Fulcher, spent the time and preparation to understand that the angles were important. How could you ask for anything better, when you get the two guys battling for the first gold medal in a hundred years to come down to the finishing hole, and you see two distinctly different strategies and approaches, and one pays off and one doesn’t?

Los Angeles Country Club’s North course is the venue for this year’s Walker Cup and for the 2023 U.S. Open. Some of our panelists call the work you did there the greatest restoration they’ve ever seen. What were you tasked with, and why are the results so successful?

We brought holes back to the corridors that [architect George] Thomas had established in 1927. We reestablished the width and put bunkers back that had been removed for various reasons. The sympathetic part of the restoration was that we moved bunkers downrange for the modern game, and we added back tees. Stylistically, the bunkers are different from what Thomas left behind. We focused more on [his] overall body of work, and on some of the more beautiful bunkers that [he] created. So it wasn’t a pure restoration. The goal was ultimately to put it back as close to Thomas as we could.

Caveman Construction is the construction arm of your design firm. You describe yourself as “one of the cavemen.” What does that mean?

I’m much more comfortable being one of the guys as opposed to being the boss. I do get it—that our guys, our clients, aren’t going to treat me or look at me exactly the same. But I’ll do whatever it takes on a job to get things done. That just gets back to the belief that we’re all a team. I like sitting with the guys after work and having a beer and talking about what’s going on, or about football or NASCAR or whatever. We’re a bunch of knuckleheads, and we laugh about it. But sometimes we’re sitting around and that “Aha!” moment happens, when you snap your fingers and figure out the best way to solve a problem.

Part of what’s great about what we do is that when you turn the machine off every day, you can turn around and see what you did. There’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment: “We built this. We created something.” I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but it’s just one of the best feelings ever.