When Olympic officials announced two weeks ago that Gil Hanse had been chosen to design the golf course for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the reaction across much of the golf world was, “Gil who?”
“Upset victory” opined one story. “Dark horse won the day,” said another.
This, despite Hanse’s growing reputation – Golf magazine named him Architect of the Year in 2009 – and a portfolio of courses from Boston to California to Scotland that are turning heads and winning awards.
Still, the Olympics course is one of the all-time plum design gigs, and Hanse easily was the least-known among eight finalists that included such superstar architects as Greg Norman, Gary Player, Robert Trent Jones II, Tom Doak and the monster tag-team duo of Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam.
Okay, we won’t argue “upset victory.”
But in Philadelphia, for anybody familiar with the local golfing landscape, the reaction to Hanse’s selection might have been a little surprise but surely not a shock. Here, we know Hanse not only as an adopted son, but also as an architect who already has left a lasting mark on the GAP golf scene.
While Hanse’s first solo, start-to-finish design project was in Scotland (Craighead Links opened in 1998 just 10 miles outside St. Andrews), his second was back home in the suburbs of Philadelphia: Inniscrone GC, in Avondale, Chester County, a semi-private club turned muni.
Then came Applebrook GC, the upscale private club in Malvern, Chester County, which opened in 2001. Two years later, in 2003, Hanse unveiled another private club, French Creek GC, in Elverson, Chester County.
Besides new construction, Hanse also has done renovation work at Paxon Hollow CC, the muni in Broomall, and restoration work at ultra-private Gulph Mills GC and Cobb’s Creek GC, the crown jewel of the Philadelphia-owned muni courses.
If Hanse is known in Philadelphia for his local ties, he is known in wider golf circles for his design philosophy of minimalism, purity, traditionalism and environmentalism. He takes what the land gives him, then works his magic.
A Long Island native, Hanse first came to Philadelphia in the early ’90s for what was to be a six-month stint. Tom Doak, another respected young architect and fellow Cornell grad, had given Hanse a career break by hiring him as his assistant in designing Stonewall, an upscale private course in Elverson. Hanse’s contribution to Stonewall turned out to be substantial enough that Doak gave him credit as co-designer. Hanse never left.
“Stonewall is the reason we live in Philadelphia, plain and simple,” Hanse told me this week. “We liked the area, we made friends.”
“We” is wife Tracey and their three kids, Chelsea, a first-year law student at Villanova, Tyler, an aspiring chef who is spending the year in Italy, and Caley, a high school freshman.
In deciding to settle the family in Malvern and launch Hanse Golf Course Design, Hanse also knew that it wouldn’t hurt to be near the one course that had his name on it at the time; he could show off to potential clients. Nor was it lost on Hanse, a passionate student of classic course architecture, that Philadelphia is a virtual living museum of courses designed by giants of the classic era, such as Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast and William Flynn.
Over time, in addition to his design philosophy, Hanse also has become known in the business for giving a client what he pays for. When you hire Hanse, you get Hanse on the property, often at the controls of a bulldozer, not some celebrated player-designer who jets in from time to time to check on the project.
While his company is small – it’s Hanse, four design partners and an office manager – he is the first to admit he doesn’t work alone. Chief among his lieutenants is Jim Wagner, for whom the term “right-hand man” doesn’t seem to do justice. Hanse also gives enormous credit to the elder statesman of the firm, design partner Bill Kittleman, longtime head pro at Merion GC (1970-96), who continues to brim with wisdom and ideas.
When I spoke to Hanse last week, I asked him if he has lasting memories from each of the three courses he designed in Philadelphia, back in his early days. Of course, he did.
From Inniscrone, which was a big career break but a project that came with all manner of environmental restrictions and limitations, Hanse’s recollections have nothing to do with any of those headaches.
“What I remember is the owner made me put in the cart paths before the holes were built, so he could drive his Cadillac around the course,” said Hanse, chuckling. “He wanted to take people out there for tours, and he didn’t want to have to put them in a golf cart, because it was so dusty and dirty.”
Even more memorable, Inniscrone was his first big project working with Kittleman. “Having him in the dirt with Jim and I was great,” said Hanse. “That’s the lasting memory from Inniscrone. He taught Jim and me so much.“
From Applebrook, besides being able to sleep in his own bed at night, Hanse recalls the lesson he learned from the founding partners: Don’t always try to build the most difficult course you can.
“To be honest, the owners of Applebrook were not enthralled with Inniscrone,” said Hanse. “They thought it was too hard, too quirky. They basically said, ‘Look, we’re already members at Aronimink and Pine Valley and Merion. If we want to play challenging golf courses, we can. We want you to do an enjoyable golf course. We want you to tone it down.’ ”
Hanse, now older and wiser, admits that he, like a lot of young architects, had a “tendency to overdo it.” Applebrook taught him restraint.
From French Creek, where he gives Wagner the lion’s share of the credit, Hanse recalls an unforgettable conversation one day.
It was the last project where Kittleman worked “in the dirt,” and he wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Kittleman had an idea for the green complex at the par-3 17th, recalled Hanse, and “We said, ‘Take it, go with it.’ ”
Kittleman then proceeded to baffle two shapers – first Rodney Hine, then Wagner – as he described his vision for the green.
“I’ll never forget, Bill said to Jim at one point: ‘I want it to be like an inverted egg upside down … but I want it square,” said Hanse, chuckling again.
“At that point, Jim just shook his had and said, ‘I have no idea what you want,’ ” said Hanse. “Bill had some amazing descriptions to get what he wanted, but the 17th turned out well.”