Gil Hanse 
A conversation with golf course architect Gil Hanse

By Joe Logan
Published June 23, 2011

In a time when more golf courses are closing than opening in the United States, and even some of the biggest name architects are laying off staff, Malvern-based Gil Hanse has all the work he can handle.


Why?  Because he is good, a rising star in the industry, named Architect of the Year by Golf magazine in 2009.  And because during the boom times, he kept his operation small.  There is only Hanse, 47, his design partner and right-hand man, Jim Wagner, design partner Bill Kittleman and one staffer to run the office.  When a developer hires Hanse Golf Course Design, Inc., they actually get Hanse and Wagner, not a junior associate whose every move has to be reviewed and approved by the name architect.


"We have always wanted to be very hands-on in what we do," Hanse said the other day, as we played a round together at the Golf Course at Glen Mills.  "As a result, I don’t want to say it has made us recession proof, but it has helped us get through the recession.  We are in much better shape than some of the bigger companies."


Hanse’s growing list of hit courses span the globe, from right here in our back yard to Scotland and, soon, China.


A native of Long Island, Hanse studied golf course design at Cornell.  He was living and working in Colorado in the early 1990s when he was given the opportunity to work as the right-hand man to Tom Doak in designing Stonewall in Elverson; Hanse’s contribution was sufficient for Doak to give Hanse co-design credit.


Hanse and his wife, Tracey, liked the area so much, they stuck around.  They had made plenty of friends, but Hanse, a fan and disciple of classic-era design, was drawn to the rich living museum of wonderful old classic courses in and around Philadelphia.


After Stonewall, Hanse and Doak went their separate ways, and Hanse soon founded his own design company. His first project as the name architect was Inniscrone GC in Avondale, Chester Country.  That followed by Applebrook GC near West Chester and French Creek GC in Elverson. Bausch Collection Photo Galleries of Inniscrone, Applebrook, French Creek.


As his reputation grew, Hanse was offered opportunities around the U.S., including Rustic Canyon GC near Los Angeles and Boston GC.  He also ventured overseas, where he designed  two courses in Scotland, Craigshead Links near St. Andrews and Castle Stuart in the Highlands, named by Golf magazine as Best New International Course in 2009.  In all, Hanse has a dozen new designs or major renovation/restorations to his credit.  Hanse’s portfolio.


On GolfClubAtlas, the cyberspace hangout for armchair architects, Hanse is hailed for his eye, his deft touch and his minimalist style.


These days, with new course construction in the U.S. essentially flat-lined, Hanse’s work on the home is limited to renovation and restoration.  To land new design projects, Hanse, like many U.S. architects, are venturing around the world.  He has two projects on the drawing boards for China, the East Port Club in Tianjin and another major project which has not yet been announced.


I’ve know Hanse for years, since before Golfweek magazine picked him as one of the stars in the golf industry who was under 40.   When we played a round at Glen Mills earlier this week with a fellow golf scribe, Jeff Silverman, I brought along my voice recorder to catch up with Gil and get his thoughts on the state of the game.


Here’s an edited version our conversation:


Q & A


Q: What are you current projects:


A: From new course design perspective, we are working on two courses in China.  One is East Port Golf Club in Tianjin; the other is a major project I can’t talk about yet.


Q: Who is playing golf in China these day?  Isn’t it limited to the upper class?


A: That is what we have seen so far.  I think the Olympic movement will help to drive more public play and people getting to the game, as opposed to just the elite.  Although they just recently banned golf course construction in China, again.  My two projects are in preliminary design work right now.  Hopefully will break ground in the fall or winter


Q: How about in the U.S.?


A:  Mainly renovation and restoration work.  We are just finishing up some small work at The Country Club (in Brookline, Mass.) and Myopia (Hunt Club).  Our big projects for the fall are Waverly Country Club in Portland, Oregon, which is an old Chandler Egan design we are excited about.  We are doing a large scale renovation of that course.   We haven’t quite finalized it yet but we are hopeful to be doing work at Denver Country Club, doing bunker work.


Q: What is the state of golf course architect business right now.  Is it as bleak as everyone says?


A: You know, we are very fortunate in that we are as busy as we can be.  We have been lucky to stay busy these past couple of years during the downturn.  A lot of it has been in the renovation/restoration end of things.  We have been fortunate to be involved with clubs that still have the wherewithal to invest in their courses.


Q: You have not had to lay anybody off?  You have kept your operation small on purpose, right?


A:  Always have.  We have always wanted to be very hands-on in what we do.  As a result, I don’t want to say it has made us recession proof, but it has helped us get through the recession.  We are in much better shape than some of the bigger companies.


Q: How many courses are being built in the U.S. right now?


A: The last number I heard was 36 last year and it’s probably less this year, scattered all over the country.


Q: Any course construction going on around here?


A: Not that I know of.  This area, for us, has been dry for quite a while.  I don’t know if that is a reflection on the courses we have built or just the opportunities.


Design Philosophy


Q: You design philosophy is minimalist.  How did you come by that and how does it manifest itself in your designs?


A:  A lot of what we look at is to try t maximize the opportunities that exist in the land and work that into our design. Although at Castle Stuart, while it looks natural, is almost a maximized design, where we tried to recreate a natural looking landscape.


The fact is that we are minimalists at heart and we really try to appreciate the landscape.  If we have to move a lot of earth or create landscapes, it gives us the opportunity to look more natural than maybe some other people would.


Q: Where did you did you learn that?


A:  Working for Tom Doak was a big part of that.  Also the year I was able to spend in Great Britain studying the golf courses over there.  They are all natural and reliant on the topography for their strategy.  The combination of Tom’s influence and Great Britain made it the way we wanted to go.  And then I think the combination of Jim Wagner and I have the ability for whatever reason to be perceptive to make things look and feel right.


Q: How has your design philosophy evolved as you matured?


A: I think we are trying to put more emphasis on fun, as opposed to difficulty.  I don’t know if it is a criticism but people have noticed a trend in our courses that they tend to be pretty difficult.  I think a lot of that is predicated on the role models we have chosen.


We are trying to soften things a little and make them more enjoyable, more playable as we go forward.  Castle Stuart is a perfect example of that.  Mark Parsinen, my co-designer on the course, was a large part of that.  He is the owner of Kingsbarns and the developer of Castle Stuart.


He talks an awful lot about, what is the average golfer facing on their third shot?  What is the problem they need to solve? Because a lot of them don’t get on the green in regulation.  So, if that third shot, that recovery option, is so difficult the golfer has no hope and does not remain "engaged" in the round of golf – that is a word Mark used an awful lot – that course is probably too difficult.


Q: That’s an interesting point.  Who do you design for?  Are you thinking about the way your as a 10 or 12 handicap would play it, or the way Tiger would play it?


A: A lot of it has to do with the client.  Who are we building the golf course for?  If we are building it for the PGA Tour, like restoring TPC Boston, you have to think about that level of golf.  If we are building a club for a client who says, "I want a course that challenges my buddies, who are all single-"digit handicaps, you think of it that way.  If you are designing an average membership course or a public course, you think of a wider range, more along my skill level, or lack thereof.  As Mark said, you have to keep them engaged, not hopeless, not in their pocket. 


Favorite Philadelphia Courses


Q:  What are your favorite courses in Philadelphia and why?


A:  Merion and Pine Valley would be the two.  Beyond those, I would say Gulph Mills.  I just think the green complexes there are outstanding.  And I say this with no disrespect to anybody: I think it is the perfect members course.  That doesn’t mean it is a bad golf course; that means it is perfectly suited to members play.  Not to long, still very interesting shots to play.  And I just love the whole feel of the place.


And I love to play at Applebrook, to pick one of ours.   It’s a  great walking course, and the other two designs  (Inniscrone, French Creek) didn’t have that option.  Every time I play at Applebrook, I always have a good time and notice some things that we did that I think are interesting.


Q: Those are all private courses.  How well played are you among daily fee courses?


A:  Not very well.  I have played Cobbs Creek and here at Glen Mills, which I really love.  I think there are lots of interesting holes and thoughtful shots.  Where else have I played?  Well, Inniscrone is now daily fee.


Q: How bout Lederach?


A: I have not gone up there.  I would like to see one of Kelly’s (Blake Moran) courses because I think he probably does a lot of interesting things.  I have always made the observation that the architects who are doing interesting stuff are probably the ones who shouldn’t or can’t afford it at this stage of their careers.  It should probably be the guys who are well established, like (Tom) Fazio and Rees (Jones).  Those are the guys who should be taking all the chances .  I admire Kelly from what I understand the work that he has done. 


Q: You haven’t played anything else?  What about Ravens Claw, Wyncote?


A: Nope. I need to play golf more.  I love Cobbs Creek.


Cobbs Creek Restoration


Q: Where does the prospect of a restoration stand?  You are involved in that restoration, right?


A: We are involved. There are some promising signs.  But as with anything where you deal with a municipality, you have to wait and be patient. In particular there are  a lot of issues with the stream and the creek, and the city is undergoing a federally-mandated program for storm water control.  Cobbs Creek obviously plays a large part in that in there the water will go.  So we have to wait for that whole scenario to play before we can determine what we can do with the golf course.


A: I know that one of the biggest questions was where was the money going to come from for this project.  Has the money been found?


Q: I believe so; I can’t say with certainty, but there is a private donor who wants to remain anonymous who I believe has stepped up and committed to the funding once the project goes.


A: Is this a single person?


Q: Yes, a person who loves golf.  Actually, there are two people.


Q: Would anybody in the area who plays golf know the name?  Are these are high profile people?


A: Yes


Q: They don’t want to ever be known?


A: I think they want to see the project come to fruition before their involvement is known.


Q: Is Donald Trump one of them, because he played the course a lot when he was a student at the Wharton School at Penn?


A: No.


Q: How big a renovation or restoration would it be?  Would you do all of it?


A: We have offered our pro bono serveries to this point.  It is the right thing to do for Philadelphia golf.


Q: How extensive would the restoration be?


A: Right now the discussion is to take it all the way back.  Most of, if not all of the original design, including some holes that have been lost over time.  We would attempt to reclaim them. 


Q: Realistically, how much could you reclaim?


A: I think we could reclaim almost all of them.  The problematic one is the one where the driving range is now on City Line Avenue.  We would have to create a new driving range facility and move that over.  There is a lot of discussion about sort of moving pieces and parts in combination with Karakung to possibly create a tournament-worthy golf course, whether that is for a USGA event or a Champions Tour.  I don’t think you could get the length necessary for a regular tour event.  There are just a lot of moving parts right now and until we get the answers from the city on the storm water control, we don’t know which way it is going to go.


Q: What is the city’s position on this?  Do it if you can pay for it; just don’t hand us a bill for it?


A: I think that is pretty consistent, yeah.


Q: This biggest issue for Cobbs Creek has always been conditioning.  Can you get this restoration done, then keep it in decent condition?


A: I think so.  Billy Casper Golf has said they will be willing to step up to the plate, given additional revenues.  Now, whether that is in the form of some sort of trust fund or through increased revenues from outside play, sort of the Bethpage model, where you charge outsiders, if it gets a degree of notoriety.  I think it would be some kind of combination of funding.


Q: What about green fees at Cobbs Creek?  When I was at the Inquirer, I used to get angry emails from the regulars whenever they raised green fees even a little.  Can you do this without chasing away the old-time regulars?


A: I hope it’s a condition of this, that we are not allowed to raise the green fees.  I would hate to get involved in this and then chase away the regulars.  I think some concession needs to be made for the people who live in the city of Philadelphia and, obviously, Upper Darby is right there.


Certain concessions need to be given to people within a certain proximity.  Do you have a City of Philadelphia rate, then a 5-mile radius rate, then a 25-mile radius rate, then a rate outside of that?  I don’t know.  People who manage golf courses will figure that out, but I am very hopeful we will not impact the rates for locals.


Inniscrone GC


Q: Inniscrone, which I believe was your first solo course in this country, is either loved or not loved at all by people who play it.  When you visit that course now, what do you see that you like and what do you see that you would change now, if you could do it over?


A: Like I was saying about Kelly (Blake Moran) at Lederach, I think we took some chances – a few that worked and a few that didn’t.  We did the best we could do inheriting a routing (from Stephen Kay) that had been semi-approved by the town council.  We made some changes, some positive adjustments, within the framework we were allowed to work.


One of the things I am learning now is sort of restraint in architecture.  When you are young and you’ve got your first golf course, you almost want to throw every design idea you’ve ever had or seen into your first course, because you are really enthusiastic.  I think that also holds true for some architects when they get a really great piece of ground.  They’ve never had a canvas like that and they overload it with too much going on.   Coore & Crenshaw are the best at showing restraint; some people think they are too restrained, but I don’t. 


If I went back to Inniscrone now, with a more mature hand, there might be a few things, a few features, we would change: not as severe at the 4th green for the shot being played into there; maybe the 16th fairway, the upper fairway, you might be able to roll the ball down onto the green, as opposed to having to carry it over the bank.  There are some things we have learned that we might incorporate.  But all in all, we are quite proud of the work we did there.  Bausch Collection Photo Gallery of Inniscrone


Q: The 10th  is the most  controversial hole.  What do you think of the 10th?


A: I am fine with it.  I don’t know that there is a rule in architecture or golf that you have to hit driver off the tee.  Most of us probably can hit driver off the tee there.


When you have a routing, you are always trying to connect the pieces.  You are starting at Point A and you’re trying to get back to that point.  Sometimes, there are holes that connect the dots.  They are not obvious but they are necessary to get you there.  I think 11 and 12 are two of then strongest holes on the golf course.


So, do you sacrifice those holes to make 10 play differently? Those are the choices and you have to make as designers.  You work with maybe not the perfect site or perfect distance or the perfect hazard length.  Obviously, the wetlands couldn’t be moved.  And we talked about do we jazz up the green and put bunkers in there so it is prettier?  We decided that was maybe putting lipstick on the hole , when the carry over the wetlands is the issue.


His Start in Golf


Q: How did you get started playing golf?


A: My grandfather.  I started when I was 16 at Southward Ho Country Club on Long Island.  I lived there until I was 13 and my parents divorced and I moved upstate in the Catskill Mountains.  I would go down in the summers to see my dad, and my grandfather took me out the first time.


Q: How did you end up in Philadelphia?


A: Stonewall.  When we came here to build Stonewall, Tracey and I at the time, Chelsea was just a baby.  We moved here working for Tom Doak.  We made some friends and liked the area.  When Tom and I decided we were going to go our separate ways, he had given me co-design credit at Stonewall and I wanted to be near something that had my name on it. 


One thing that was serendipitous is that my focus has always been on historical courses. When you are a young architect cutting your teeth, not many people are will to give you the opportunity to build new courses.  So with that bias toward historical courses, the multitude of historical courses in and around Philadelphia and New York, it was a good move for us.


Industry Trends


Q: You mentioned the trend of softening courses.  Is that going on all over?


A: I think it is. People are having to rethink the game and make it more attractive to more people.  In this day an age, the time commitment and difficulty factor, people aren’t going to spend all that much time with being frustrated by golf.


Q: You see any sign that golf is going to start thinking outside the box, like 12-hole rounds, or something to make it more family-friendly or kid-friendly?


A: I hope so.  I don’t know how commercially viable that is.  I think when people think golf, they think 9 and 18 holes are sort of the only real options, and that that is real golf, that 12 or 6 holes is not "real golf." So while it is an admirable concept, I don’t know how commercially viable it is.


I think, if you have the opportunity, given a piece of property, especially for a private course,  you could have returning loops of holes, like 6, 6 and 6, so if you want to go out and knock it around after work, you can get back in an hour and a half.


Also, we do this a lot with our courses, as George Thomas did with his, we call them "sport" tees or "sprint" tees, if you want to get out and play a quick round of golf.


Q: Where do you see the health of the game?


A: Participation is flat and the population is growing, so overall I guess you could say we are losing that battle.  But I still think it is the greatest game.  I have to believe that, and I think that anybody who loves the game understands and knows it is the greatest game out there.  I can’t imagine we are going to lose that core.  So I am still bullish. I don’t know that everybody is.













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2 Comments   |   0 Pending   |   Add a Comment  
Acer3x[6/28/2011 6:13:20 AM]
Gil should really visit/play Lederach.
David P.[6/23/2011 8:49:38 PM]
Good interview. I met Gil once and he is one of the best.
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