October 5, 2020 By: Jeff Babineau — Aronimink Golf Club, host of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in Newtown Square, Penn., west of Philadelphia, is rich with tradition, and no stranger to big events. The Donald Ross original underwent a significant restoration in 2016-17 by architect Gil Hanse and his partner, Jim Wagner, ahead of hosting the PGA Tour’s 2018 BMW Championship (won by Keegan Bradley), this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA (rescheduled from late June because of Covid-19) and the 2026 PGA Championship. (The last PGA Championship staged at Aronimink was in 1962, and won by Gary Player.)
Ahead of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, we caught up with Hanse, who along with his wife, Tracey, has spent 27 years in the Philadelphia area, residing in an old, renovated barn in nearby Malvern. He offered his thoughts on alterations to the golf course – restored to its 1920s Ross roots – and the challenge it will present to the world’s top female players.
PGA: Gil, you’ve been able to do some really cool projects in your career, restoring some great courses and designing, among others, a golf course that hosted golf’s return to the Olympics in Brazil in 2016. For an architect who considers Philadelphia his home, what was it like to work on a gem such as Aronimink?
GIL HANSE: The great thing about it was that it was a home game for us, living 15 minutes away. It’s nice to be able to sleep in your own bed. Whenever you’re entrusted with a great old golf course like that, and then to have it be in your own hometown, it’s pretty exciting. You also know you’re going to get a lot of scrutiny. The golfing fraternity and community is a small one, so you don’t want to make a mistake in your hometown. (He laughs.) We were excited, but we also know what a great responsibility it was. And now that the club is hosting a lot of significant championships, that ratchets it up just a little higher.
PGA: The goal of the project was to recreate what Donald Ross was intending to build in that period, which happened to be in the height of his architecture career, and went beyond his plans on paper. What was the process, and the challenge, to doing that?
GIL HANSE: The club had started down the path of restoring Ross’s work a little over 20 years ago with another architect, and it was great – Ron Pritchard did an amazing job getting the club to think about Donald Ross, and focus on Donald Ross. He started the process of tree removal and restoration of the golf course. And then after his phase of the project was done, the club discovered a lot of these old aerial photographs. And it showed very clearly that what Ross built was very different from what he drew. We were able to convince the club that this next phase of restoration should focus on what he built. That’s why you see all these clusters of bunkers, and groups of them, as opposed to one single bunker. There are videos, old movies of him on site, so we know he was there. You can see the bunkers in the background. So while this is a significant departure of what he normally would do, it was clear he knew what he was doing and he was involved in the design. We’d like to think he understood the potential of this property and how good it could be, and they did something a little more dramatic than they normally did with the bunkering.
PGA: So you added 100 or so bunkers, expanded greens, widened fairways to restored angles into the greens, continued to take out some trees, returned tees to their freeform shapes … what was most significant among all the work you did at Aronimink?
GIL HANSE: I think it’s the bunkering. It’s the visual, the character of these clusters and how they sit in the landscape. They’re dramatic. You have a wonderful set of Ross greens. We expanded those hoping to recapture some old hole locations. So I think that’s prominent. We lengthened the golf course a little bit; we did all the things that you do for championships. But I think that the restoration of that bunker style and those configurations is definitely the most dramatic part of what we did.
PGA: When you did design work at Pinehurst in the last decade and got to live in the Dornoch Cottage, which was once Donald Ross’s home, what did you learn about him you might not have known before?
GIL HANSE: One thing that we did learn was that his house was set up with his office in the front – the legend was that he wanted people to pass by and see the light on. He wanted people to think that he was working all the time. We all know that he was brilliant at his craft, but I also think that he was a fairly effective businessman. He understood what it takes to succeed and he wanted to be at the top of his craft. I think there were some things we learned about how he did that. Of course, living right on Pinehurst No. 2 (the course was right out his back door), he could tinker and tinker and tinker. I think he enjoyed doing that.
PGA: That had to be very inspiring to you, getting to live in the house where he once did.
GIL HANSE: Yes, absolutely. It was just one of the most meaningful things that Tracey and I have ever experienced. To have had that opportunity, it’s something we’ll never forget. Every time you just walked in that house, it was, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is his home, and we’re getting to live here?’ It never got old. It takes you into a different time period. And the people of Pinehurst have done a remarkable job of restoring the house, putting up old photographs … everything about it was phenomenal.
PGA: At Aronimink, as viewers tune in this week, what will be two or three key holes to watch?
GIL HANSE: No. 11 is a fairly lengthy par 4. There’s a lot of fairway bunkers, rows and rows, so you really have to hit a good tee shot. And then that green probably has the most significant slope of any of the greens on the golf course. Through our expansion, we were able to recapture some hole locations front right and front left, so I think those are going to be really hard to access. So I think 11 is going to be a really key hole.
No. 16 is a par 5, a scoring opportunity for players near the end of the round. But they really have to be thoughtful on how they place their shots. I think with a good competition and a lot of people in the mix, hopefully someone comes to 16 and makes a birdie, maybe even an eagle, to jumpstart (the finish). On the front nine, I would say No. 7 is one of the most interesting holes on the property. On the tee shot, do you lay back and stay up on top of the hill, having a flat lie going into that green? Or do you push it and try to get the ball farther down (off the tee), for a little pitch up the green. You really can’t see the (putting) surface from down there. And the green itself has some significant contour. It’s by an old spring house, and it makes for a very photogenic golf hole. That’s a good one to look at.
PGA: The 16th hole, as you mention, leaves a late opportunity for a birdie, but for the most part, the finish at Aronimink will be pretty stout, is that right?
GIL HANSE: It is. The 17th is a medium-length par 3, but you have water to deal with there, and a sloping green. And 18, coming up the hill, is played to a great green complex. You’ve got to get your ball in the fairway if you’re going to get it home in two. And 15, that hole is a beast. It really is.
PGA: A deserving player will be holding that beautiful KPMG Women’s PGA Championship trophy on Sunday night. As you assess the challenge that is presented to players, what do you think will separate the winner from the rest?
GIL HANSE: I think the fairways are fairly generous, so players will have to drive it well, but don’t necessarily need pinpoint accuracy. I think it’s going to be somebody’s creativity around the greens, the ability to get up and down. You’re going to miss greens there, and it’s the scrambling ability that will be important. As with any Donald Ross course, being able to read those greens, because they have such significant contours, but also an amazing series of subtle breaks within them … I think it’s going to be all around the greens. Whoever can get up and down out of trouble and putt well, that will be the critical part.
PGA: The scrambling we’ll see this week … there will be a wide variety of shots you might not normally see, correct?
GIL HANSE: There’s significant slopes feeding into the greens, and you can use those. It’ll be a little bit like we saw at Winged Foot (at last month’s men’s U.S. Open), where you can use backboards and slopes and sideboards. But you’re going to find yourself well below the green, sometimes in the rough, sometimes on a steep bank, sometimes in deep bunkers, so you’ve got all the variety. There are a couple areas where you have short grass and the ability to play some different shots, especially in the approaches. You have a few really steep approaches where balls will run back and you’ll be chipping uphill to a target where you can’t see the surface. You have the full set of challenges around the greens.
PGA: When the BMW was at Aronimink two years ago, steady rains that week softened the course. Can we expect to see different conditions this week?
GIL HANSE: I was out there on Thursday, and the course is in great shape. John Gosselin, the superintendent, has done an amazing job getting it ready. We’re all hopeful that Mother Nature cooperates … Any championship test in this era, whether it’s men or women, needs some firm conditions to be challenging. So we’ll keep our fingers crossed.