Golden Gil

Traditional golf courses focus first and foremost on the player and his or her experiences on the course. – Gil Hanse

One of the the most insanely difficult golf courses I ever played was designed by Gil Hanse. Inniscrone Golf Club was built as a private club intended for single digit handicaps. It opened in 1998, as golf was enjoying its apex in popularity. It hosted the Exelon Invitational, a one day PGA charity event, where Jim Furyk and KJ Choi showed up. In the heyday of difficult meant awesome, Inniscrone enjoyed a lofty reputation as one of the toughest in the area. Only the best, most highly skilled, legitimate golfers need apply.

Some would say it succeeded in accomplishing the wishes of the client a little too much. Inniscrone asked a lot of difficult to impossible questions and perhaps its members began to ask themselves why would they subject themselves to such a test day in and day out. Eventually, the course was sold and turned into an upscale public course. It was at this point we were able to see Inniscrone for ourselves.

I reviewed the course several years ago and outlined how the course evolved, along with my feelings for it, here: https://golfadelphia.com/2012/10/24/inniscrone/. My first round there, as a beginning golfer nonetheless, was a survival test. Extremely narrow tree lined fairways, lots of blind shots, greens that would absolutely reject shots with joy; I simply never experienced anything quite like it. It felt like the course wanted you to fail. I wasn’t alone and as the place began to lose rounds, they began to soften it. Too little too late and for a while, the future of Inniscrone was unclear. The municipal township finally took control of the course and needed it to appeal to the everyday golfer. Eventually, there were things done that altered the identity of the place, all to simply sustain itself. It still remains an interesting play, but is no where near the original design. The age of difficulty has passed and now most of us are looking for something else in a round.

This was one of Gil’s first designs.

Hanse admits that he may have done too much at Inniscrone but in terms of giving what they client asked for, he succeeded in spades. I always found it unique and fascinating, no matter how badly I was getting beat up. It wasn’t minimalist, it wasn’t homage to Golden Age and it certainly wasn’t easy and fun — it always felt like a course by someone comfortable with his own style, different from anything else out there.

Inniscrone

Quirky, often leaning towards challenging, yet overall very intelligent, Gil Hanse courses are full of personality, each similar in how they assert themselves. There seems to always be a couple times during the round at his courses where you may find yourself wondering what the f is going on. Jim Wagner of Hanse Design has said that is intentional; they occasionally do a few things to keep you guessing. Perfection is not something they’re after and that’s part of the intelligence.

Gil’s a local product and we have a good deal of his courses here. In my review of Applebrook, I wrote that I see Hanse as the Quentin Tarantino of golf course architecture; limitlessly brilliant, but is prone to try and do too much, as if this will be the only opportunity to showcase what they know so they need to figure out a way to put everything out there.  Tarantino has his movies where he tries to wow the audience with every cinematographic concept he came up with while Hanse has some courses with the similar issue.  When that brilliance is tempered, focused, coordinated – orchestrated; the work is so much more memorable.  By the time Applebrook came around, Hanse’s work seemed a lot more fluid and focused.

His popularity and fame sky rocketed when he was selected to design the 2016 Summer Olympics course in Rio. While he was generally seen as a dark horse pick, it came as no surprise to me he was selected. Excellent in his ability to articulate and explain, his ideas were likely out of the box from the other presentations and with golf returning to the Games for the first time in decades, asserting a unique identity was probably a key mission for the committee. Gil was certainly well established by then, his portfolio a diverse one. Rustic Canyon, Boston Golf Club – – Castle Stuart; his resume was certainly another key component. Gil has shown an ability to thrive in a vareity of natural landscapes and deliver what the clientele is after.

Gil and Jim don’t really fit into a particular style. While Doak and Coore could be considered minimalist over anything else, the same isn’t true for Hanse. His courses run the gamut, rich with personality and character. Some times this feels a bit too contrived. Some times it comes out fantastic. Courses should embrace their imperfections but it’s an entirely different matter when those imperfections are intentional or thought up. But Gil is malleable so when it was suggested that the areas around the greens simply be turned into greens themselves at Streamsong Black, Gil felt it was a great idea even though not initially contemplated. And it worked out well enough. Again, Gil has the uncanny ability to deliver what the client is after. His website emphasizes the individuality of each course, each one unique and different, never being repetitive. Individuality is a very apt description for his courses. Each of them certainly have that. In one form or another.

Perhaps this individuality is expressed more harmoniously and with more direction when performing their restoration and renovation work. In fact, some of his earliest work included restorations at Ridgewood and Fisher’s Island in 1995, Creek Club in 1997, Plainfield in 1999 and Quaker Ridge in 2002. Then there was Los Angeles Country Club North in 2006. This project was widely acclaimed as remarkable and received even more publicity when it hosted the Walker Cup in 2017. Gil even sat in on some of the broadcast (he does this often at other tourneys), bringing insight into the design and how the players are handling it. The talks started as early as 2009 in having LACC host it, just a few seasons removed from his work. Now, LACC North is hosting the US Open in 2023, which was negotiated starting in 2014.

LACC North

In 2007, a year after LACC North was completed, Hanse and Brad Faxon re-designed TPC Boston, which then began to host a leg of the FedEx Playoffs. Castle Stuart was completed in 2009, which then went on to host the Scottish Open four times since 2011. Work was then started at Brookline in 2009, with proposed changes drafted in 2015, when it was announced it would host the 2022 U.S. Open. In 2013, it was announced Winged Foot West would host the 2020 U.S. Open. Hanse performed restoration work there in 2016, as well as Winged Foot East in 2014.

To recap, The US Open will be at courses that Hanse worked on in 2020, 2022 and 2023. Three of the next four.

With the 2028 US Open and beyond not yet announced, that seven to eight year window is now there for the next few venues. Some of the courses with Hanse work that could be chosen include:

  • Merion East, where Hanse completed renovations in 2019; and
  • Oakland Hills, where Hanse started work in 2015 and it’s been ongoing.
  • Perhaps a repeat with LACC North or Winged Foot West.

In looking at the PGA Championship, Aronimink is set to host in 2026. Hanse completed his work there in 2017-18, where it then hosted one of the FedEx playoff events in 2018. In 2027, PGA Frisco will host. Oh, you never heard of it? That’s because it’s not built yet. Hanse started working on it this year. It’s already scheduled to host in 2027 and 2034 (15 years from now, by the way). The Olympic Club will host in 2028, Hanse started his work there in 2016. Baltrusol Lower will host in 2029, Hanse started work there in 2018. Southern Hills will host “TBD,” Hanse completed his work there this year.

From 2026 through 2029, four years in a row, the PGA Championship will be at a course Hanse worked on. Depending on when Southern Hills is scheduled, it could be five years in a row. And then PGA Frisco will host a second time a decade and a half from now. So six future venues are already slated for courses with Hanse work.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll sum it up this way:

U.S. Open

  • Winged Foot West, 2020
  • Brookline, 2022
  • LACC North, 2023

PGA Championship

  • Aronimink, 2026
  • PGA Frisco, 2027
  • Olympic Club, 2028
  • Baltrusol Lower, 2029
  • PGA Frisco, 2034
  • Southern Hills, TBD

Ryder Cup

  • PGA Frisco, 2040 (tentative)

Olympics

  • The Olympic Golf Course, 2016

PGA Tournaments

  • TPC Boston
  • Castle Stuart
  • Doral Blue Monster
  • Aroniminck
  • Colonial
  • Ridgewood
  • Plainfield

It’s fairly clear that Hanse’s renovation and restoration is in heavy demand. It can certainly be said that his work has become a calling card for hosting majors.

The last architect with this apparent pinache was Rees. And just like Rees, Hanse is very astute at giving the client what they want, as well as knowing what the USGA and PGA are looking for in their venues. Just like back in the age of Rees, the sheer number of courses vying to gain more relevance, notoriety, perhaps a climb in the rankings, are now turning to Gil to give them what he’s given at least seven courses in the 2020’s. It’s possible more than half of the U.S. Opens and PGA Championships next decade are on courses with Hanse’s work. Not even Rees was given a course to build that automatically will host two majors, sight unseen. The momentum continues. Gil with the golden touch. Golden Gil.

That Hanse Is So Hot Right Now

We’re undertaking a restoration of the South Course at Oakland Hills. Donald Ross did the original, of course, and it was Robert Trent Jones who did the renovation that created “The Monster” Ben Hogan conquered in winning the 1951 U.S. Open. Rees Jones later revised his father’s work. The plan is to restore kind of a hybrid of the Ross and Jones designs, the best elements of each. The course will be closed for nearly two years beginning in 2019, but when we’re finished, without a doubt it will be a Monster again, albeit one a little different than the one Hogan brought to its knees.” – Gil Hanse

Hybrid restoration is a great term. Restoration that Moves us Forward https://golfadelphia.com/2019/05/18/restoration-that-moves-us-forward/gets into this more, but Hanse’s approach to these projects is refreshingly individualistic, taking all of the great components from the course, whether original or not, and striving for the best course possible. Some times this means restoring more of the original, some times it means a little more selection from its evolutionary stages. Some times it means a re-design. Hanse has cracked the code so to speak on what is needed for these courses to be considered as a major venue. And it’s not just about returning the course to its “orginal intent.”

Gil is doing the same as Robert Trent Jones, Rees, Pete Dye and so on have done in their respective times; ensuring these courses yield interesting professional tournaments where the one playing the best wins. Hanse has an all-encompassing approach and willingness to consider just about any design concept for the sake of the course. There is no formula or uniform style. By including restoration concepts and nodding to the recent newfound fascination with the Golden Age, yet not really shunning the modern design work done to these courses before him, Hanse is able to ensure the “best course possible” product is delivered. He gives the courses, as well as governing bodies, an out for any changes made in the past while returning some part of the course back to the style of the original architect. A level headed approach with no ego, all for the sake of the course and the intended purpose of the changes.

In most cases, courses want to change to stay relevant. I look at it as an arms race. One course does it, gets recognized, gets to host tournaments, moves up in the rankings, moves back to the fore front of discussion and becomes the belle of the ball again. Another course follows suit. And so so on. Those that don’t get or feel left behind. That has remained constant since the days of RTJ. What has changed throughout the decades is simply the way in which the courses are worked on. Improvement, enhancement, re-design, renovation, now restoration. Even though the approach to these changes has been different, there are three key similarities evident in all of them; an increase in difficulty, an increase in length and greens that are fast as hell. Hanse included.

It’s human nature to emulate what’s perceived as good. Truth be told, nobody ever left a member-guest crowing about how wonderfully slow the greens were. – Gil Hanse

At LACC North, Hanse worked with Geoff Shackleford, a George Thomas biographer who helped Hanse build Rustic Canyon, to essentially restore the course in many ways to Thomas’ original design. The course had become overgrown in pursuit of the coveted lush look and feel of Augusta, so Hanse and Shackleford worked to peel back most of these efforts. The first phase of the work was re-working bunkers, some times even uncovering old ones and restoring features. This work seemed to earn the trust of most of the membership, so a second phase focused on removing trees, re-routing fairways such as tying the fairways of the Tenth and Sixteenth together, increasing the size of the greens to their original size and shape, restoring the position of the Second and Eighth greens and bringing back the old short par 3 Seventeenth, abandoned in the 1920’s that can now be played as an additional hole. The work also allowed the course to return to Thomas’ design intention of playing short loops about the course. Now, you can play 10-16-9, 10-16-17-18, 1-2-17-18, 1-2-9 and of course 1-18.

LACC North is now one of the more purer Golden Age courses and the closest Thomas design to its original intent. It’s a sophisticated, intelligent restoration that rejuvenated the genius of Thomas, the Captain.

The work is widely celebrated and rightly so. The return of so many original features, as well as the return of quirk and originality, resonated. Yet even with such a focus on restoration to original intent, Hanse admits the modern game was accounted for. Hydronics were installed under every green, drainage adjustments were made and a more uniform type of Bermuda rough was installed, amongst other irrigation and aesthetic upgrades. Moreover, the course was lengthened. The Third tee was lengthened 30 yards. Even at the Eighth, where the hole was shortened to get more in line with the original design, a new back tee was installed. Hanse commented that restoring in this age of “high tech equipment,” he made changes to the barranca on that hole, adding more challenge and intrigue, creating a risk reward par 5 in the likeness of the Thirteenth at Augusta.

Longer, more difficult and likening it to Augusta.

This in no way takes anything way from the masterful restoration and it’s certainly a much more intriguing course now, but demonsrates that even a project touted as producing possibly the most pure Golden Age course in America is anchored to certain age old concepts to accomodate the modern game and tournaments that other designers have been criticized for. More importantly, however, LACC North shows brilliantly you can have both; even a course focusing on original design intent can remain just as challenging and intriguing considering today’s technology. It’s not one or the other.

More local for him, Aronimink was another project billed as restoring back to original intent. While Aronimink had hosted a couple PGA events in 2010-11, it had been named as the host of the PGA Championship and LPGA Championship thereafter, so Hanse was brought in to get it ready. Hanse brought in Jaeger Kovich to assist with the restoration, which again involved examining aerial photos of the course. Much of the project then focused on the bunkers. 100 bunkers were added, mainly since the course started out with 190 and had 74 pre-project. Greens were also enlarged, restoring back to original size and shape. Trees were removed. Fairways widened. Also, the course was lengthened. In fact, the original back tees are now the middle tees. The term, “sympathetic restoration” was used by the Hanse team here, to explain how the course was restored while still being mindful of modern day. If a hole was meant to be a long par 4, Hanse would take liberties to make sure it remained a long par 4 by today’s standards. While the course began with only eight or nine trees, Hanse simply reduced the number of trees, conceding they weren’t getting back to that type of originality. Again, Hanse is recognizing the property has evolved and is deeming what makes sense to restore and what doesn’t. Sympathetic restoration.

Aronimink

Southern Hills has always strived to be a major championship venue. It looked to RTJ to make changes ahead of the 1958 US Open. He lengthened the course, added bunkers and narrowed fairways. The course continued down the path of modern modifications to accomodate tournament play until 2000, when Keith Foster widened fairways, removed trees, restored greens and short grass areas. Tiger won the 2007 PGA Chapiomship there in eight under, shooting a 63 the second round. A major has not been played there since.

A Perry Maxwell masterpiece that largely typifies the minimalism and strategy he was known for, Hanse was brought on in 2015. Making decisions on when to invoke restoration or his own design, Hanse went with original intent when it ramped up challenge and went with his own when it didn’t for the most part. The greens are now shaped to repel from the perimeter since Gil noticed that on the greens from aerials he looked at. He compromised on the bunkers, settling for the random edges Maxwell preferred, yet settled for more polished shaping reminiscent of RTJ. He also moved bunkers to accomodate his lengthening, or inserted bunkers on his own (just like RTJ did). Gil also moved the greens at the Sixth, Seventh and Fourteenth, at least in one case moving it back close to 50 yards against a creek. Hydronics were installed. Gil has stated that firm greens is what makes the pros think, explaining hydronics makes controlling speed of the greens much easier. Read hydronics helps bring about fast as hell greens.

Southern Hills

History is repeating itself. Hanse is honest and upfront in that his restorations are not simply turning back the clock. Hybrid restoration, sympathetic restoration, championship restoration, 75% restoration/25% me; he is candid that there are a number of reasons why restoring completely just doesn’t make sense. He is articulate and persuasive in his dialogue about his work, which helps many more understand his vision. Yet, his work includes inevitably changing the design of the course. Much of the criticsim aimed at Rees and others of his era are that their changes to classic courses irreparably damaged the character of those courses just to make them more challening for major tournaments. While those of that era focused on challenging accuracy and length by narrowing and tightening, there was simply no further to go in that direction. A new direction was necessary, for the sake of the game but most importantly, for the sake of the design industry. The new frontier seems to be making the fairways and greens so firm that randomness begins to take over. We saw that work extraodinarily well at the recent President’s Cup at Royal Melbourne, while Trinity Forest shows what happens when there’s too much ground for the pros to work with despite the speed.

Gil is doing great work. He’s explaining why he’s doing what he’s doing, is approachable and certainly intelligent. He likely realizes length is integral so long as the ball remains unchecked and that each course needs to be penal to some extent in order to fittingly challenge the pros. While fairways are wider, acceptable or preferred landing areas are not. In place of rough are bunkers, fast contours or short grass areas. In place of small fast greens are larger, faster greens. But what’s different is that nod to the past. In eras past, there was a feeling that changes to these courses were improving them as a way to keep stride with the rise in technology. It was a progressive, well intentioned movement, viewing uniformity and perfection as the path to enlightenment. Golf was a cash cow, so understandably priorities were different. Once the market corrected, the industry needed to adjust and transform in order to thrive. Now, the movement is geared towards acknowledging and revering those of the Golden Age while using the modern era designers as an excuse to work on the courses. The approach is different but the concept is the same. While restoration and classic design tenets are favored nowadays in large part because of their lower sustainability costs, I don’t think Perry Maxwell is rolling around in his grave, wishing hydronics were put in all his greens. 

The 2020’s are shaping up to be the decade of Golden Gil. Every course and design and project, it’s all spectacular and he can do no wrong. Heaps and heaps of praise. This will continue and as golfers, it’s a great thing for us. I enjoy his courses and look forward to it all. Yet at some point, things will change. They will need to. Some new idea, or concept, or renovation, which will start all of this over again. Maybe it’ll have something to do with changes in the ball or equipment, environmental considerations, business trends, or simply a shift in public opinion. When it does and someone else becomes the go to guy, I only hope we all remember and appreciate the artistry behind Gil’s work. I hope it’s not ridiculed, as a way to advance the industry, as a kind of scape goat. I hope we still learn from him, even then.

I think it’s sad and unfortunate about Rees. For those who view him as an arch nemesis to course architecture, for those who refuse to play his courses for whatever misguided philsophical position, for those that think all three Jones have the same design philosophy and course types, for those that fail to see a version of Rees is right before us yet thinking that we’re now so enlightened things will turn out differently. I’m glad Gil isn’t one of these. I’m glad he sees value and insight in all those decades Rees did exactly what Gil is doing now. As Gil started back in the age of difficulty is best with courses like Inniscrone, he was able to evolve to what is trending now. Ironically, Rees evolved as well but it’s more convenient for many to ignore that change.  

Hanse is moving down to Frisco, Texas after the holidays to oversee construction of that course. 2 PGA Championships and possibly a Ryder Cup, a lot is on the line. He has said that Perry Maxwell will be a large influence. He now refers to Southern Hills as a true restoration. At any rate, the Maxwell features at Frisco will include, according to Hanse, who admits he has not visited all the Maxwell courses yet has worked on two of them, deep bunkers and smaller greens. It also includes a course stretching to over 7,600 yards, a 611 yard par 5 Eighteenth and spectator mounds. It also appears Gil is slated to design a second course at Querencia, the upper crust housing development in Mexico where Tom Fazio designed the first course in 2000. Again, the more things change the more they’re the same. Instead of pretending we’re in anything but another cyclical era of design, let us embrace and appreciate it all to truly become enlightened and make it so.

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