September 16, 2020 By: Paul Sullivan — Gil Hanse is an acclaimed golf-course architect, who teamed with the L.P.G.A. Hall of Famer Amy Alcott to build the Olympic course for the Rio de Janeiro games in 2016.
This week his restoration of Winged Foot Golf Club’s West Course will get its international debut as host of the 2020 United States Open. He completed the work in 2017, after first restoring the club’s East Course in 2014. (Both are ranked in the Top 100 courses in the world according to Golf Digest and Golf Magazine.)
Winged Foot’s West Course is a famously brutal course on the U.S. Open rotation. But Hanse has a roster of restorations set to host major events. The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., will host the U.S. Open in 2022 and the Los Angeles Country Club in 2023. He has also worked on courses that previously were in the championship rotation, like Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., and Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., where Jack Nicklaus won the Open in 1967 and 1980.
In a previous generation, the architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. was known as the “Open Doctor” for his work preparing some of these same courses for the U.S. Open. When asked if he’s the new “Open Doctor,” Hanse laughed and credited his business partner Jim Wagner, and in Winged Foot’s case, the club’s superintendent, Steve Rabideau.
Hanse could more aptly be called the “Open Therapist.” He does not remake a course, but unearths how architects like A.W. Tillinghast, the designer of Winged Foot, wanted to challenge golfers. Hanse does extensive research and then brings those original features back, making adjustments to fit the length of the modern game.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
How did the Winged Foot restorations happen?
Through a change in superintendents and a change in leadership at the club, we had an opportunity to come in and talk about how both courses should be treated. It was a pure restoration. We were hired. We put together a master plan for all 36 holes. The East Course came first. Some of the luster had come off it. We were hopeful we’d do both.
Was the East Course a tryout for the West?
I don’t know if it was a tryout. I think what happened was when they saw the changes to the East, they realized they couldn’t have the West sitting there untouched when the East had been restored to that level, not only architecturally but also all the infrastructure.
Did you feel added pressure working at such a famous golf course?
Not really. I don’t want to sound cavalier about it. We understand the responsibility, and really what we focus on is the research. If we’re convinced that’s the right thing to do, we do it. When you know you’re hosting a championship, you have to decide what the proper length is. That’s different than a pure restoration at a course that’s ultimately for the members.
How do you balance the needs of the members with the needs of the tour pros?
A lot of it is positioning of tees and bunkers. At Winged Foot, we’ve reopened the front of the greens, which helps the member who has the ability to bounce it up and doesn’t affect the pros. But when you show up at Winged Foot, you expect it to be hard. No one is looking for it to be easy.
Has the restoration process changed in the past two decades?
To a certain degree. There’s a recognition of these great architects. What’s also changed is the technology. Twenty years ago, we’d never have tried to rebuild all the greens at Winged Foot or Baltusrol. Now we have the technology to map them and a high degree of certainty that if we pull up the green it’s going to go back the same way.
Do these restoration projects make you think about who might restore your courses some day?
If karma is a real thing — and the fact that we’ve been so meticulous in restoring the work of these golden age golf architects — then hopefully someone will take a similar tack with our courses.