Gil Hanse on building a major-worthy course for the Rio Olympics, his Blue Monster renovation and more

August 26, 2012

The Summer Games in London have barely ended, but architect Gil Hanse will soon be racing off to Rio to break ground on the layout he designed for golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016.

Though building a golf course is a marathon, not a sprint, deadlines are deadlines, and like an athlete in training, Hanse has times he’s trying to meet. If all goes as planned, Hanse will start turning earth in Rio in November, launching a project that will partially overlap with his renovation work on Donald Trump’s Blue Monster at Doral, which Hanse expects to begin transforming in early 2013.

A busy golf architect? In today’s economy, that sounds like an oxymoron. But with his design partner, Jim Wagner, the 49-year-old Hanse has been on an epic run. In addition to Castle Stuart, his heralded design in Scotland, Hanse’s recent credits include an overhaul of the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club; renovations at TPC Boston; tweaks of the Country Club in Brookline in preparation for the 2013 U.S. Amateur; modifications at both courses at Winged Foot, which are still unfolding; and consultation work at Fishers Island, where Hanse recently became a member.

He and Wagner have also been enlisted to design the next course at Bandon Dunes Resort, work on which Hanse hopes to begin in the fall of 2013.

But first: Brazil, which Hanse intends to make his full-time residence until the Olympic course is complete. With time flying faster than Usain Bolt, caught up with Hanse in advance of his big move to ask for a Rio update, his reflections on his recent work, and how he thinks the game will be received in a South American nation where golf is often read as a misspelling of “gol.”

So many architects these days are sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. How have you managed to stay so busy?
I like to think it’s at least partly a testament to our methodology, which is similar to that of guys like Tom Doak and Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. We’ve tried to stay small and very focused on our projects and to make a point of getting out on the bulldozer ourselves. We’ve also been fortunate to work with some clubs that have the wherewithal to hire. That has helped us stay busy even in the down economy.

How small is small? Seems like you’ve got a lot going on.
We feel that two courses at a time is pretty much the most we can handle. That’s not entirely cut-and-dried, but it’s a good measurement to go by. Our work at Doral, which will start while the Olympic course is still in construction, is a renovation. But those renovations are so extensive that it almost qualifies as a new course, so we’ll essentially have two courses going on in parallel.

You’ve worked on a number of acclaimed courses. But in winning the Olympic bid, you beat out some of the biggest names in golf. Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus. Arnold Palmer. How’d you pull off that upset?
I can only speculate because I have not been told specifically about everything that went into the decision. But I think a big factor was our commitment to moving to Brazil and being involved day-to-day, to being physically on the bulldozer as the work is getting done. I think that level of commitment went a long way towards the selection. Since we’d also done Castle Stuart and handled renovations at TPC Boston, I think there was a comfort level that we could deliver the kind of high-status course that can host a tournament as well as a functional course that will be put to good use in the future and not just doing those two weeks of the Games.

Speaking of that course, is it going to resemble any of your other designs?
I think Rustic Canyon (in Los Angeles) would be the closest. It’s set on a similarly sandy site, and, like Rustic, it feels very indigenous to the area. The intent is to make it very playable, but with enough flexibility in the design that it is able to host a major championship.

Is it hard on the water, like, say, Castle Stuart?
There’s a mangrove lagoon between us and the ocean. You can’t see the water but you can hear the waves and you can smell the salt in the air, and if you built a tower and sent Bubba Watson to the top of it, he could probably drive one onto the beach.

In terms of the surroundings, should we picture palm trees and parrots, the lushness of the tropics?
Not exactly. We’ve drawn parallels to the look of the Sandbelt courses outside Melbourne, Australia, with a lot of lower lying shrubs and bushes.

When we Americans think of Brazil, we tend to think of soccer and samba. Golf isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. How do you think the Brazilians are warming up to the game?
It’s not that there aren’t Brazilians who take the game very seriously. There are. But as a nation, they don’t really have a passion for it yet. That’s one of the words they used a lot in winning the Olympic bid in the first place: passion. Our hope is that this course will help ignite some of that for golf. Of course, the big showcase is the Olympic competition. But there’s a lot more to it than that. The plan is to have both the LPGA and PGA Tours play an event on the course in 2015, and hopefully the chance to see some of the game’s greatest players up close will inspire some interest. There will also be a teaching academy and a practice area with a short game facility. The hope is that people who are inspired by the game will then have a place to put that passion into practice.

When do expect the course to be finished?
The schedule right now calls for us to start construction this fall, and we expect it to take about 12 to 14 months. The plan would be to then have some test events, an LPGA Tour event and PGA Tour event in 2015. Before you know it, the Olympics will be here.

And you’ll be on to the next job. What’s next?
The plan is Bandon. Mike (Keiser, who owns Bandon Dunes) is still working out the land deal, and if that can get done, he and I have discussed breaking ground after we finish in Rio, so that could be as early as fall of 2013.

At which point you’ll be fluent in Portuguese.
Not sure about that. I’ve gotten to know Rio a bit, but I don’t know Brazil all that well. That’s one of the other things I’m looking forward to — the chance to see a bit more of that country.