Building a golf course: 2016 Rio course designer Gil Hanse sounds off
May 17, 2014
With golf season teeing off in the High Country we started to wonder where golf courses come from and who decides things like hole placement and course length. It turns out, it's a lot more complicated that than just planting the right grass and poking 18 holes in the ground. Well, sort of.
"There's no requirements," professional golf course designer Gil Hanse told the Daily. "It's more of a feel of what you need. There's really no standard."
Hanse's company, Hanse Golf Course Design, is the design firm tasked with the monumental undertaking of creating the 2016 Olympic golf course out of what started as an essentially vacant lot of sand in Rio de Janeiro. Hanse's firm also recently redesigned the famed Blue Monster course at Trump National Doral, in Miami, site of the annual World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship and owned by real estate mogul Donald Trump.
'REALLY? PEOPLE DESIGN THOSE?'
Hanse took time between trips to Dubai to work on another course he's designing for Trump and from his work on the Rio Olympic course to chat with the Daily about what goes into designing a golf course.
While he initially described it rather simply, the process of creating a course is in reality quite complex. Similar to designing a building, it requires blueprints and an elaborate planning process.
Hanse said it's funny, "Most people you ask who aren't golfers are like, 'Really? People design those? They don't just appear?' "
Before he got in to the business, his own thought process may not have been that far off.
For the University of Denver graduate, it started as a hobby, doodling golf hole designs on pieces of paper.
"I just never really thought there was a career there," he said.
When he was a teenager his grandfather introduced him to the game. Something about the beauty of the landscape struck a chord with him. But it wasn't until a chance encounter with a fellow graduate student at Cornel that he discovered golf course architecture as a field of study.
"It was one of those things where I got really lucky," he said. He had been looking at city and regional planning prior to switching his academic focus to landscape architecture.
As to his approach when planning a course, Hanse said it starts with the natural landscape.
"Our goal is always to maximize the natural potential of a site. Some sites have that." Others — like the one in Dubai — do not. "We have to shape every square inch of it to give it some interest and some character."
But even in Dubai he said he went out to the nearby dessert to study dune formations to incorporate into his design.
"It's always important to make our courses look like they belong there," he said.
From there it's about figuring out the best set of holes to place on that landscape.
"The thing we like to focus on is if there's variety in the yardages on the golf course," he said. That means having a blend of longer par-5 holes interspersed with shorter par 3s and intermediate par 4s. Generally the total par for the course will add up to somewhere between 70 and 72.
But perhaps the biggest challenge when designing a course is creating one that works for all ability levels.
"The most difficult thing for any golf course architect to do is (decide) how do you make it playable for a 30 handicapper and challenging for Phil Mickelson."
The trick is in the width of the fairways and the placement of sand traps and other hazards.
"You make golf courses playable for everybody, but to score on those golf courses that's where you really have to pay attention to angles and strategy," Hanse explained.
To accomplish that involves having a hazard placed in such a manner that a less experienced golfer can play it safe short of the hazard and a more experienced one can try to get over it.
Hanse said the Masters course at Augusta National Golf Club, in Augusta, Ga., is a prime example of catering to all skill levels.
"Augusta National is imminently playable for every level of golfer," Hanse said. It has wide fairways off the tee, but as you approach a hole that's where the challenges come into play, in terms of avoiding hazards and approaching with the proper angles.
"I think width is really the key criteria. You have to make sure you give people room to get off the tee. Once you have width then within those corridors you can start to make the challenge more appropriate to different skill levels."
All of those features have been incorporated into his design for the Olympic course in Rio. Hanse said he designed the course to incorporate local vegetation and topography with minimal landscape shaping. Like other courses played by pros, it is designed to be opened to the public following the Olympics. And while the delays in construction — due largely to holdups caused by property ownership conflicts — have been widely publicized, Hanse said the course is close to being back on track. The Associated Press recently reported that his firm was able to get irrigation lines up and running — a big step in getting the grass planted and ready.
An extended Q&A with Hanse regarding course design and his work in Rio will run later this month in the summer edition of High Country Golf Magazine — set to publish May 24 and distributed throughout the summer.
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