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.
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
Q: Would anybody in the area
who plays golf know the name? Are
these are high profile people?
Q: They don’t want to ever be
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Q: You mentioned the trend of
softening courses. Is that going on
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