Thursday, March 8, 2012

Gil Hanse wins Rio.

Gil Hanse and Tom Doak at The Creek Club, 1989
 - a 'classic' image too good not to borrow from Masa Nishijima's blog.
You know, we have worked really hard at this for a long period of time, and that means -- and don't get me wrong. I love what we do and we are very fortunate and very blessed, but sometimes when you're choking back dust and you've been on a bulldozer for 12 hours and it's 90 degrees and all you want is a beer, you know, sometimes you think, oh, man, this is a little bit hard. I think Jim and I can reflect back on a lot of those times. You know, this is a nice reward for that dedication and effort I think that we put into what we do.

- Gil Hanse, following yesterday's announcement that Hanse Golf Course Design has been awarded the job of creating the Olympic golf course at Rio de Janeiro, for the 2016 Summer Games.

I was anticipating the announcement of the winner of the design competition for the Olympic golf course at Rio with a lot of bias. I wanted Gil Hanse win. I've admired Gil, and his work for nearly two decades now.

Back when I was a teenager obsessed with golf architecture, it was all about what Tom Doak and Gil Hanse were up to; they worked together back then. I read all of Tom's writings, and made special trips to see their new golf course designs and restorative-based work on classic courses. Tom and Gil were up-and-comers then, but their philosophy on golf and approach to course architecture gave me a strong sense that things were changing for the better. It's taken awhile but yesterday's announcement confirms that sense I had, two decades ago.

I think many of us - particularly from my generation of golf architecture fanatics - looked at this incredibly important commission at Rio as a potential "game changer". As architecture critic Brad Klein puts it, the selection of Hanse as designer of the Olympic course "is a powerful step in the emergence of a more naturalistic, more traditionalist and ecologically sensitive approach to golf and golf course design".

One of the wonderful things about Gil's architecture is that it isn't so much about building individual holes and doling out penalty for errant shots. It's about creating - in some cases simply preserving - interesting, beautiful landscapes that fit with, and are senstive to the environment. In many ways, the golf then simply takes care of itself.

I first talked with Gil back in 1998 when I was a whippersnapper on my club's Green committee. We were looking for a golf architect to assist with restoring Donald Ross' original design at Essex Golf and Country Club, in Windsor, Ontario. In my mind, there were only two candidates - Tom Doak and Gil Hanse (who had set-up his own shop by then). Although both had done some very interesting work by that time, they were relatively unknown. We ended up hiring Doak, and his then-associate Bruce Hepner. But I stayed in touch with Gil; and, he's always been accommodating and very encouraging to me. More than being a very talented golf course designer and builder, Gil's a great person; so is his partner, Jim Wagner.

I met Jim once, on-site during construction of French Creek Golf Club, near their home base in Philadelphia. I watched as Jim shaped a bunker, using a 'chunking' technique he's perfected, which involves taking big, gnarly pieces of native sod and stacking them irregularly on the edge of a bunker to get a beautifully natural, eroded look. Gil and Jim have created some of the most attractive bunkers ever imagined.

Their most recent work is really, really sharp - Boston Golf Club and Castle Stuart, which garnered rave reviews from the world's best golfers during last year's Scottish Open. PGA Tour players have also raved about their renovation at TPC Boston - originally a comparatively mundane "Arnold Palmer design" that Hanse and Wagner have transformed into a course that, in Hanse's own words, "now looks like it belongs in New England". Plainfield and Ridgewood - where they've restored classic designs by Ross and A.W. Tillinghast - have also hosted PGA Tour events in recent years. But it's Los Angeles Country Club's North course that's, perhaps, their crowning achievement in the field of classic restoration. Working in collaboration with George Thomas' biographer and Los Angeles native, Geoff Shackelford, Hanse and Wagner restored what is arguably the most complex golf course design in history, at LACC -  George Thomas' "courses within a course concept", and some of the most artistic bunkers ever made.

The powers that be at Rio have made a very wise decision. I'm absolutely thrilled for Gil and Jim, knowing that the Olympic golf course at Rio will be everything we expect it to be... including a catalyst that (should) positively effect people's understanding of golf and course architecture worldwide.

1 comment:

  1. Right on Jeff. It's very early days, and one doesn't want to get carried away, but this could be a very positive decision for the future of the game.