One of the great upsets in golf last year was the awarding of the Rio 2016 Olympic golf course design contract to the relatively unheralded American architect Gil Hanse. In winning the job Hanse beat a host of big-name celebrity designers, such as Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Greg Norman and Peter Thomson, as well as fellow minimalist and former mentor Tom Doak. Key tenets of the Hanse proposal included a commitment to relocate his family to Brazil during construction and a Sandbelt-inspired design style. Interestingly, until January neither Hanse nor his design partner Jim Wagner had ever been to Australia. We caught up with both men during a week-long study tour of the best courses in Melbourne, to discuss the project in Rio and their impressions of golf in Australia.
The full interview is featured here on Planet Golf, with select excerpts published in this month’s Australian Golf Digest Magazine.
Darius Oliver – Why Australia as the inspiration for the Rio course? Had you always wanted to do something in the Sandbelt style or did the site in Brazil remind you of what Australian courses might be like?
Gil Hanse – I think it was a little bit of both. We’d always looked at photos of the Sandbelt courses and thought it would be great to try to build something along those lines. Since there was no real style of golf in Brazil, or no culture of golf in Brazil, and people want to understand and visualise what the course might look like, and given the sandy nature of the site, we thought that it might work out to be a good fit. Plus the vegetation is somewhat similar.
I don’t want to say that we are building the golf culture in Brazil, but it will be the most recognizable course in Brazil and if what we do there helps to promote a more traditional look and feel for a golf course then I think that’s a good thing. What we’ve seen on this trip to Melbourne is just the embodiment of that.
DO – How has what you’ve seen differed from what you expected to see?
GH – I haven’t seen any kangaroos or koalas yet.
Jim Wagner – and we haven’t had any vanilla slice!
JW – I was pleasantly surprised with Kingston Heath. The overall look is great and it really matches what we are dealing with on a good portion of the ground in Rio. Ours is a relatively flat site and the way Kingston Heath has been handled on a flat site, and what we have to work with, I thought that was really cool.
DO – So it’s more about the style of Sandbelt golf - the vegetation, bunkers, how holes were built etc rather than trying to emulate specific holes or courses?
GH – I don’t think we will focus on any strategies or holes that we’ve seen here and try to replicate that. It’s more the presentation of the golf course and the wide fairways, the nice playing corridors and the transition areas. From what we’ve seen, the Victoria Golf Club has the best transition from maintained golf course into sandy looking areas. We will be doing something similar in Rio.
JW – Another aspect to coming here was getting inspiration, architecturally and in terms of simple features on the ground. You look at the tees at Kingston Heath, for example, they are just really cool low-profile tees. We’ve always talked about wanting to build free-form tees that just sit on the ground but when you look at the way they are handled at Kingston Heath you just go, wow this is great and if we can take just a piece of this with us and build it down in Rio it’s going to be tremendous.
Each place we’ve gone we’ve taken something - Victoria with the sandy areas and then you look at Royal Melbourne with the bunkering on the diagonals, it’s just really cool stuff to get inspiration and pick a little of the Sandbelt golf courses.
DO – Should it surprise that you needed to come down to Australia to seek inspiration for your South American project?
GH – I think Pine Valley has had the biggest impression on us aesthetically, but we can’t take the pine trees and northeastern US vegetation down to Rio, just because of the climate. So I think the combination of your climate, the sandy nature of our site and the gently rolling ground worked out well. But you could look at sections of Cypress Point and that native, sandy scrub and probably even make the case on our site that because we have low dune ridges we might look more like Cypress Point than we would the Sandbelt courses in some areas.
Any discussion of great golf courses in the world you focus on Great Britain, the United States and Australia. It’s not one above the other, they are all part of that discussion and it’s been one of the biggest holes in our education as golf architects that we’d never come here or had the opportunity to come to Australia. So I think it was always our desire to use that style in Rio, but it’s also been a great excuse to come and fill that really large hole in our education.
DO – Is there anything you’ve seen here in Melbourne that you think could be useful for American courses?
GH – The thing that I’ve noticed the most are the back sides of bunkers and how important the slopes that come off the back sides of bunkers are in influencing the green contours. Most of the greens have just got a nice slope to them but what feeds in off the bunkers really sets up a lot of the undulation within the greens but even more so in the approaches. The back side of the bunkers and how they feed down into the approach and create these beautiful little hollows short of the greens, that’s something I don’t think we’ve ever really paid a ton of attention to and just how beautiful and how important that can be to the overall contouring around the green.
JW – But it’s everything else too. It continues away from the green. A lot of courses you’ll see the ends of the bunkers or the ends of the greens and things don’t link together but here you go off the backs of greens or in the approaches and everything just kind of ties together and continues to work. Behind the green, outside the green, inside the bunker, outside the bunker, down in the approach you know everything ties together, which you don’t get to see a lot especially in golf courses that are manufactured or over manufactured.
GH – So many modern architects focus on building that hole or that feature and they don’t really think about how everything ties together or blends in with the surrounds. At Royal Melbourne, the ground from tee to green is very natural and wonderful but once you get within 20 yards of the green it’s obvious they manipulated that ground to be part of the overall green complex. So it just wasn’t the green it was the approach, the green and, as Jim said, it’s over the backs of the greens and how that flows and ties in. Very often that contour flows into the next tee and there is just this chain that continuously goes which is fantastic.
DO – Have there been any surprises here, any individual holes or features that have really stood out?
GH – 16 East at Royal Melbourne has probably been the most impressive hole to me, and I mean the whole package with the shape of the green, the bunkers, the setting etc. But the 5th on the West Course is pretty damn impressive as well. Also the back of the clubhouse at Kingston Heath, with all that short cut grass, is really cool. And without having seen it, that’s pretty much the design we gave to Rio.
JW – I’m keen on the 10th at Kingston Heath and 13th at Royal Melbourne, great par threes just lying on flat ground. When it’s flat most people say there’s nothing there so you’ve got to get creative and move some dirt around. Build the green up or push the tee up, but here you’ve got two great par threes that are just sitting on relatively flat ground and are great golf holes. So I look at that for us to be able to do that and take that little piece of being able to handle flat ground with us to any other job on earth.
GH – One of the other surprises to me, was that I had no clue how good Victoria was. I mean we expected Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath to be world class but Victoria is fantastic.
DO – What lessons could other American architects learn from the Sandbelt?
GH – Simplicity. I mean the bunkering is eye-catching wow, but everything else is fairly simple and I think that’s a good thing, to learn how to be a bit more restrained. Everything just lays there nicely. The shaping’s all beautiful but you’ve got basically one cut of grass then a little bit of rough and sand and there’s not a lot of fussiness about either the maintenance or the design and I think that’s something we could all stand to pay attention to.
JW – From a maintenance standpoint everything is very practical here. We’re seeing these courses during a very dry time, but it just feels like they would evolve during the course of the year, whereas in the states everybody is so enamored about having to have the same conditions every single day. Here it’s practical. If it’s dry you have to play the golf course as dry and I’m sure during the cooler and wetter times of year you have to play it differently and that’s the way it should be.
When we go to a project, there’s always a vocabulary you develop for that project. It could be something simple like, ‘keep everything understated’. But I wonder what the vocabulary is when some of these other guys work. I mean it seems like every hole and every shot and every look needs to be like Pamela Anderson. You’ve got to have the fake boobs and the big lips and everything has to be overdone and I just don’t know what kind of words they use to describe what they’re trying to do. Bigger, bigger, bolder, bolder perhaps?
DO – How good can the Olympic course be?
JW – Hopefully at least a Top 10 in Rio!
GH – I think it has the potential to be good. The site is sand so that gives us the opportunity to do something special but it’s hard to say. Ultimately, it’s going to be judged by the competition and how that goes. It won’t be ranked or even played very much prior to the opening and if the Olympics turn out to be something special, and we get a great champion and have a wonderful competition and the players are at least appreciative, maybe not effusive, but at least appreciative of the golf course, then that’s going to set the platform for how the outside world views it. It will be interesting to have its maiden voyage be on such a major stage.
JW – You could also say, from the legacy perspective, that if it can attract new players and they enjoy the game and they stay with it and continue to play and the game grows in and around Rio because of the golf course, then whether it’s ranked well or not is really irrelevant. If we can take the model of the Sandbelt golf courses, with the tight mow around the greens where you are promoting fun, interesting shots with putters, hybrids, wedges or whatever it might be and people have fun and that’s the way they learn the game of golf then I don’t know if rankings matter.
DO – Would it have made your next 18 months less stressful if the format for the tournament hadn’t been stroke play?
GH – No, we’ve never really been worried about what guys shoot on our courses. You know at Castle Stuart, TPC Boston the winners are always in the teens, or 20 under and that’s fine with us. I think really the critical part of that is having a good champion, and hopefully the medalists are all guys who are accomplished golfers and it’s not a fluky thing. But I think as long as the competition is interesting and there’s a good finish then I’m not bothered by what they shoot. And the format hasn’t been finalized yet, so there’s still a chance they might do something a little bit more creative than what they’ve proposed.
DO – Would you like it to be more creative?
GH – Yeah, absolutely.
JW – It’s a tough thing, because those guys are so good and there is also the balancing act of building it for them and for the Olympics but also building it for the people of Rio after the Games. It’s a tricky thing to do, make it interesting and competitive for the event but playable for the general public.
DO – Do you think it was more your commitment to the project and the site or your overall design philosophy and the way you build courses that swayed things in your favour?
GH – I think it’s more the way we build courses, but then again I think the thing that tipped it in our favour ultimately was our commitment to relocating there and having it be our top priority. People have said to me, ‘wow that’s a huge commitment to make’ but it’s not totally dissimilar to our other jobs. We would have been there for two weeks out of the month anyway so it saves the flying and saves me being away from the family every two weeks. Jim was at Castle Stuart more than me but between us we basically had every day covered and we would have done that same sort of thing here. Relocating to the area has given us an opportunity to experience the culture and have my family be with me as opposed to traveling back and forth.
DO – Were you surprised that the other candidates didn’t display the same commitment?
GH – No, because I don’t think any of them work that way, with the exception of Tom Doak. I think even Tom has gotten away from that model to a certain degree. I think he’s become more reliant on his associates. He’s done a great job of training them and they are all very talented and I don’t think he spends as much time as he did 20 years ago on each project. He would have been the only one out of the finalists that might have offered the same sort of thing but apparently he’s got plenty of work. I think he was quoted somewhere saying he didn’t think he could commit to just that one project.
DO – Do you think Rio will change how you guys operate?
GH – You don’t want to be foolish and not capitalize on whatever opportunities you get, especially if the competition goes well, but at the same time we don’t want to change who we are and what we do. So it’s a very fine line. I remember the very first time I ever met Ben Crenshaw was 1988 and we were chatting about architecture and he said the hardest thing is to stay small. If you achieve success the hardest thing is to keep that and stay the same. This is especially true in golf, with the vagaries of projects. Sometimes they go and sometimes they don’t, sometimes they start when they should and at other times they don’t. It’s difficult to keep the balls in the air and not over commit yet not under commit so we aren’t just sitting in Philadelphia looking at each other.
So if Rio allows us to be interviewed for other opportunities that we may not have got before that’s probably the best case scenario. We still need to be selective with those opportunities and not just grab everything because at the end of the day if Rio is successful but everything we build afterwards is worse then what have we accomplished?
JW – Along the same lines, we have to be very careful because we almost have to give more now. Even though we did it before and we’ve been doing it for a long time and we’re doing it again for Rio, the perception can’t be that we are doing anything less than our full effort on a site now. If something slides that will be a knock on our company, people will say those guys think they have gotten to the point where they don’t have to show up anymore.
DO – Would you like to build a golf course in Australia someday?
GH – Oh yeah, without a doubt we’d love to do something here. I’ve said that in other interviews, when people have asked where would your dream job be I’ve often said Australia.
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