Architect Gil Hanse on What Makes a Great Golf Course
Across the global golf landscape, there are good courses, bad courses, and unforgettable ones. Architect Gil Hanse has created several of the latter. His original designs include Streamsong Black in Florida, the Rio Olympic Course in Brazil, and one of our favorite courses in the world: Castle Stuart in Scotland.
Over the past decade and a half he’s also been charged with restoring some of America’s finest gems from the Golden Age of architecture including including Oakland Hills (Donald Ross), both courses at Winged Foot (A.W. Tillinghast), Fishers Island (Seth Raynor), and the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club (George C. Thomas Jr.,) which will host the US Open in 2023.
This year, Hanse and his long time partner and shaper Jim Wagner have unveiled their sublime restoration of Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course (A.W. Tillinghast) and, later this summer, will welcome members on to a stunning original creation—The New Course at Les Bordes Golf Club in France.
We caught up with Hanse ahead of the opening of the New Course to hear about the project’s inception, his thinking on design, and what makes a great golf course.
Men’s Journal: Your first course in continental Europe opens this year, The New Course at Les Bordes Golf Club in the Loire Valley. You designed the 10-hole short course there, The Wild Piglet, which opened to acclaim last year. Plus you spent time refreshing the venerable Old Course at Les Bordes (a Robert Von Hagge design.) Can you tell us how the project came, about and what drew you to it?
Gil Hanse: We were contacted by the owner of the project, Driss Benkirane, and he asked if we might be interested. I was intrigued by the prospect and agreed to come to France to visit. Driss arranged a great evening including a boat ride on the Loire, great wine and food and I was hooked! In all seriousness, that introduction to Driss and the project was important in that it displayed the commitment to quality he has for the entire estate—the golf course in particular. He has a high Golf IQ—and when we got around to the golf part of the property, I was very impressed with the sandy nature of the site, the existing vegetation, and the gentle topography. It’s not every day you’re asked to design a course directly next to one of the top rated courses in Europe, the Old Course at Les Bordes. The opportunity to do something different with our site, the quality of the owner and estate, and the location made it very attractive to us. Once we came to an agreement, we then tried to create a vision of a heathland course in the vein of the work carried out by Tom Simpson at his masterpieces at Chantilly and Morfontaine. We’d never built a course patterned after his work, or that style, and it was immediately attractive to us. Time will tell if we were successful in our attempts.
As a designer, where do you find inspiration?
We find inspiration in the golf courses that look to nature to provide their challenge, intricacy, and style. Most of these courses are from the Golden Age of golf course design, but there are also many fine examples of these types of courses that have been built in the last 30 years. Nature inspires the texture, colors and, most importantly, the topography.
You both construct new courses and restore-rebuild old ones. How are those processes creatively and technically disparate?
Our new course projects are primarily about the potential of the site and the character of the client. Jim Wagner and I have a pretty simple formula: The first question is do we have the potential to build something exceptional? And are we going to have fun doing it? If both boxes get checked, then it comes down to timing. Once we’re in, we’re striving to maximize the natural advantages of the site and create interesting golf holes. With a restoration, we’re looking at the architectural pedigree of the original designer and the potential to restore his work. We also try to be geographically diverse. We never want to corner the market in any given area or any particular architect. Then we set out to do as much research as possible to get that restoration as accurate as possible.
So is there a difference between a renovation and a restoration?
It’s our belief a restoration is when the work of the original designer inspires all the design decisions we make on the project. We try to be as project specific as we can, researching what that particular architect did on that course. We never use the word ‘typically,’ as in Donald Ross ‘typically’ built crowned greens. We feel that word allows for a lot of interpretation by us and we don’t want to interpret. We want to be literal. Renovation is when we allow our ideas, biases, and concepts to influence the alterations we want to make to an existing course. In a restoration project, you try to channel the previous architect’s intent into a version that gels with the contemporary game.
Is that always possible?
I think it was Brian Silva who coined the term “sympathetic restoration,” and in many ways our restorations are always sympathetic to the original design and as accurate as possible. However, we do take some latitude in the addition of tees both forward and back, in the relocation of bunkers to match the distances of the modern game, and very rarely in softening the slopes on greens. That last liberty is one we take very seriously and we do everything we can to not modify the contours of greens. We feel like it’s much better to slow down greens speeds instead of carving up these works of arts. We try to retain a level of severity consistent with modern putting speeds.
When you’re updating a track like Baltusrol’s Lower Course or The Country Club, how do you balance its role as a major championship venue that has to test the best in the world every so often with its more central purpose as a course that’s played daily by amateurs?
That’s an interesting question. We’re so focused on restoring the original architect’s vision that we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that balance. We have so much trust and respect for the original design and designer that we feel like that balance will all work out in the end. There’s also the expectation among members and guests that if a course is capable and worthy of hosting a major championship it’ll be more difficult than a “normal” golf course. As a result, I don’t think that there’s that much focus on the balance by the players as well.
What differentiates a good golf course and a bad one?
A good golf course allows the players to make choices, provides options and interest, and is one where the golfer is learning something new every time they play. A bad golf course does none of the above. The truly great golf courses get everything right. They’re strategically interesting and fun to play, they maximize the topographical and scenic potential of the property, and they get the scale and nuance correct at every level. Beyond that, you need to have a high standard of maintenance and presentation. Those must be in concert with the design. When all of these notes come together, the truly great golf courses have a distinct sense of place, a comfort in their surroundings and maybe even a little bit of swagger.
Is there a project you’re particularly proud of—or that you think will stand the test of time?
They’re all like my children so it’s difficult to choose. I think the Ohoopee Match Club stands out in my mind because of its insistence on match play as the form of golf that’s played there. I love match play, and for an owner—in this case, Mike Walrath—to decide he was going to create a place where the form of the game is honored and required, is both ballsy and brilliant. Jim Wagner and I love taking chances and Ohoopee allowed us to do that in a big way. Oddly enough, the most successful thing we may ever build is The Cradle at Pinehurst. Another different type of course, but one that asks you to have fun, and golf certainly needs more of that.
If you could only play one more round of golf, where would you play and with whom?
I would play at The Old Course in St. Andrews. There are too many people I’d love to play with, so I can’t pick a particular group, but my wife Tracey and our children would be walking with me!