May 11, 2020 By: Richard Wax — In the second of Richard Wax’s two-part interview with Gil Hanse, we hear how Hanse became a golf course architect, his work on the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro, as well as his approach for designing and working on golf courses.
How did golf architecture become your profession? Were you a keen amateur golfer? Did you learn the skills on the land?
I am a keen golfer, but I was never an accomplished golfer, and I love the game passionately. You could trace it back to when I was a little kid and, like most kids, loved to play in the dirt and create little things. My love for the game of golf started with my grandfather who was not in the golf business but simply a keen amateur player, who introduced me to the game. He was the only golfer in our family, and I worshipped him. He was my idol. I always looked up to him. To have the ability to be out in this beautiful landscape with him was probably the most special part of my growing up.
So, there was something about that landscape. It was more the fact that he was there. I was mesmerised by it, but I also started doodling golf holes.
I went to university to study political science and history. Eventually it came around that if I studied landscape architecture, I could make a career in this field. I had the great fortune to follow in Tom Doak’s footsteps at Cornell. When I graduated, he was just starting his company. I was his first employee and obviously learnt a great deal from him. The whole methodology of how we work stems from that experience.
Did your work for the Olympics in Rio generate new contracts for your company? How is the course playing now and is it appropriate for the local market?
It is no secret that our profile was raised dramatically when we were selected to do the Olympic golf course. It has led to opportunities which we would not have received otherwise. The golf course by all accounts is playing just fine. I have a couple of friends who live in Rio who play it every weekend. If an issue occurs, they will send me a message. If they think it is playing particularly great, they will let me know. I think that they are continuing to maintain it. It is certainly not overrun by play but I think that there is enough to sustain the business model to keep it in operation.
I know that they are continuing to host championships and qualifying events there and have heard that it is the only Olympic venue that is still in active operation in Rio, which is sad in itself.
You have achieved your status by being selective about projects. Are you concerned about becoming too popular and losing focus?
We work very hard to try to find that balance. It is not easy. It is probably what we worry about more than anything. I understand it. We are very fortunate. It is a high-class problem. There are a lot of people who would be willing to trade places with us in this regard. As long as my age and my health allow me to get up and down on a bulldozer, that’s what I want to be able to do. If we ever get to a point where I cannot do this because of our workload, then I would feel like we have lost the battle.
We are very conscientious about trying to make things schedule out. Obviously, it’s a very difficult thing because projects don’t always start when they are supposed to, and they don’t finish when they are supposed to. So now you get into a position where you are scrambling to still provide appropriate attention, but you have committed yourself elsewhere.
Having a great partner like Jim Wagner and a group of really talented guys like the Cavemen around us, we are able to maintain what I would like to think is a high level of quality and still have our focus on our presence on site. We are aware that it could get away from us, so we are trying to be careful.
You have always been committed to building your own courses. Tell us why you think this is important.
My favourite time on the site is at the end of the day when all the machines are turned off. You can look back on the day’s work and see what you have accomplished, shaped and created. My partner Jim Wagner and I are able to do that in concert with all of the guys that work with us at Caveman Construction.
There is a love of the camaraderie on site with all of us pulling together in the same direction to try to build a golf course as well as designing it at the same breath. In my mind, operating a D5 bulldozer is the best eraser there is, so if I feel like we need to make a change on the moment we can do it right then and there.
We start out with a solid premise, philosophy or thought process, but we love the fact that we can come back and vary it from day to day. We hope that through our observations on site and, from the fact that we are doing the physical shaping ourselves, what we start the project with only gets better during the course of construction.
Does your practice create detailed working drawings so that cost estimates for items such as the earthmoving and irrigation/drainage plans can be elaborated by the main contractor?
We produce the minimal level of plans necessary to get the golf course built. Some jobs require a lot more detail because of permitting or bidding. But what we prefer to use is a methodology that we have developed whereby there are going to be so many square metres of greens on the entire site and so many square metres of bunkers and so many square metres of tees etc.
We tell the contractor how we would like to have them built. That allows us to basically set a limit and this is how we are going to spend our budget. But it doesn’t shackle us with, for example, if we have 10,000 square metres of greens, we can spread them around through the golf course as we see fit, so long as at the end of the job we come up with 10,000 square metres.
So, that gives the owner proof and certainty that he knows what the cost is going to be. The contractor has the scale and he can bid accurately for the job. But it still allows us to have the flexibility to implement work on site without feeling as if we have to adhere to a specific plan.
Are we going back soon to shorter golf courses? Do you see this is on the horizon?
I don’t know that we are going back to that. On the other hand, the fact that it is an acceptable part of the conversation as related to golf architecture is a really good thing. There was a time when nobody would even contemplate the notion that we could start to create shorter golf courses. I think there is a way to go before that becomes the norm, I think the fact that it is becoming accepted and even encouraged in certain circles is a positive.
How would you like your contribution to golf course architecture to be recalled?
I would like us to be remembered as having been respectful of the work that came before us, both in the way that we chose to restore that work and look after it. Our new courses have an eye towards the past and the traditions of the game. It would be nice to be recognised as having a keen respect for the game of golf itself and the practice and art of golf course architecture. Also, that we worked hard on the sites that we have been given.