Hanse hoping to showcase Rio's unique landscape

March 08, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

DORAL, Fla. -- Gil Hanse, best-known for designing golf courses that emphasize playability, was selected Wednesday over a field of better-known competitors to build the golf course in Rio de Janeiro that will host golf's return to the Olympic Games in 2016.

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It came as something of a surprise that Hanse's company won the bidding over Nicklaus Design, Greg Norman Golf Course Design, Gary Player Design, Hawtree Ltd., Robert Trent Jones II, Renaissance Golf and Thomson-Perret Golf Course Architects. But not to those familiar with Hanse's work and philosophy.

Hanse, 48, who studied his craft at Cornell, is a self-effacing man who prefers deflecting the spotlight to his business partner, Jim Wagner, and to other members of his design team. His much-acclaimed design philosophy -- which focuses on preserving and protecting the integrity of the land, maximizing the natural characteristics of the terrain and minimizing human impact on the landscape during construction -- is not dissimilar to that of Tom Doak, a mentor and fellow Cornell graduate, and also to that the team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.

"It important to us not to have our golf courses in Scotland look like a golf course in California and a golf course in Rio not look like a course in Boston," said Hanse, whose Castle Stuart course near Aberdeen, Scotland, is generally regarded as his best.

"But from a design standpoint we're always trying to build fun and interesting. If a golf course is interesting, and you can figure out ways to get around it and it's fun, and at the end of the day you think, 'OK, that was a good time,' then we've succeeded."

Hanse's lack of any interest in self-promotion is somewhat unusual in the ego-driven and highly competitive golf course design business. Colleagues and friends are quick to point out that Hanse you see is the real deal, as was PGA TOUR star Phil Mickelson, an admirer of the architect's work.

"I'm a big fan of Gil Hanse," Mickelson said. "I think he's one of the best architects in the business. He understands how to make a golf course playable for the average player but challenging for the good player. He does it better than probably anyone, Crenshaw and Coore maybe being the exception.

"For him to get the Olympic job, I give the Olympic Committee a real credit, a lot of credit because, it would have been easier to go with a big name. And instead, they went with the best. I thought that was pretty cool."

Hanse's reputation is based on a slimmer portfolio than those of his competitors for the Olympic project. He has completed just nine golf courses from scratch along with numerous course renovations done as collaborative efforts with a variety of co-designers. One such project, the 2007 renovation of the TPC Boston, which he did with PGA TOUR player Brad Faxon, has been widely acclaimed. He will collaborate with Amy Alcott for the Olympic design.

Geoff Shackelord, course architect and author, collaborated in 2002 with Hanse on the design and building of Rustic Canyon, an acclaimed municipal layout near the Simi Valley some 45 miles from Los Angeles. Because Hanse is not averse to working in conjunction with other architects, Shackelford compared him favorably with the giants of golf course architecture, Alister Mackenzie, A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross.

"He knows how to solicit opinions and ideas from other architects -- including the ones who were bidding against him for this job -- and then edit the ideas and take the best ones without hurting anyone's feeling," Shackelford said. "That's a skill and a unique talent."

And one that Hanse will need as he moves forward with a job that is likely to generate many suggestions from a variety of officials with interest in the project.

"We really want this to be something the Brazilians are proud of," said Hanse, who will move with his wife Tracy and two young daughters to Rio de Janeiro for the construction phase of the project, sometime after the groundbreaking scheduled for October, in order to get the course up and running by mid-2014.