Architect Gil Hanse’s Olympic Golf Course

The Malvern, Pa., native was tapped to design for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Malvern’s own Gil Hanse has stamped his international golf course design passport with another impressive entry: the 2016 Summer Olympics course in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Hanse has delivered a first-of-its-kind Olympic golf track, despite the host nation’s political and financial uncertainty surrounding the course from its inception, which caused numerous false starts and delays.

Local golfers are already familiar with his design, renovations and repair touches at area courses, including Applebrook, French Creek, Inniscrone, Merion, Cobbs Creek, Gulph Mills and Paxon Hollow. On the national stage, he has worked on many design and renovation projects of note (TPC Boston, Winged Foot), and he survived working for Donald Trump on the Blue Monster course at Doral. He’s currently building the Black course at Streamsong Resort in Florida. 

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I caught up with Hanse to talk Olympics, the impact of the Zika virus on course progress, what international and local courses the Olympic design reminds him of, why he likes living on the Main Line, and more.

JF: It seems like the buildup to the Olympics and the new golf course in Rio has been forever, with so many obstacles in your way, from local government delays to real-estate red tape. All of that has added to the pressure and worry that the course wouldn’t get built on time. What’s the vibe now?

GH: Definitely excitement. I was down there a few weeks ago, and it really hit home that we are now just a few months away from the Olympics, not years. The golf course looks great. [Golf course superintendent] Neil Cleverly has done a super job of getting the course ready. It is in pristine shape and greened up nicely, so we can now focus on the details—bunker edging, the native roughs, etc. It’s great to see.

Gil Hanse

JF: Does the course have an official name yet, or a logo?

GH: No. I guess because there are contractual issues with anything that uses the Olympic name or logo, they haven’t ironed out that detail yet, but I’m sure they will by the time the Games start.

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JF: Brazil is a soccer-crazy country, and your course is only the second public golf course there. What was the local reaction to building a golf course as part of the Olympic infrastructure?

GH: The local reaction was, I would say, indifference. No one really knew where the course was going to be, and we were operating behind the walls, so to speak—not a lot of people knew what was being built. It was built kind of quietly, due to the land dispute.

JF: What was the hardest part of the whole process?

GH: The hardest part was we were not initially afforded the resources we needed. The developer didn’t give us the equipment or the manpower, so we spun our wheels for nine months before being fully funded and operational as a golf-course project.

JF: Has there been an impact due to Zika virus concerns?

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GH: There are a few man-made lakes on the property that we use for watering, so there’s quite a bit of transfer, and we have to be vigilant in keeping it moving, which hasn’t been an issue so far. The water hazards are constantly being churned, so even though there are some big bodies of water, they don’t get the chance to be stagnant. We get asked about it quite a bit since it’s a big health concern. But, for us, it hasn’t been much of an issue.

JF: You’ve been asked to help with how the course will be laid out for actual play at the Games—an honor not usually bestowed upon the architect. It’s like writing a screenplay and then getting to help direct the movie.

GH: That’s a good analogy. Yes, it’s an amazing honor. I’m not sure if I’ll be a final decision-maker—more of a sounding board, since the course is new and never hosted a tournament of any kind before. Hopefully, I can be a good resource, and I’ll be glad to help any way I can.

JF: So what aspect of the course will challenge the best men’s and women’s players?

GH: Ultimately, the wind will be the critical factor. If the wind blows like it can (August is a windy month), it will affect the scores. If the wind lies down, it’s a pretty wide course, so there could be some low numbers. Much like links golf, the wind will have the biggest say in what the scores will be. 

JF: Is there a signature hole—one that will wow those watching at home?

GH: Not one hole particularly, but a series of holes. We set up the final three finishing holes for dramatic effect and pacing: a drivable par 4, a short par 3, and a reachable par 5. We expect some pretty dramatic shifts on those holes and hopefully a positive change in the leaderboard—lots of birdies and even eagles. We wanted the potential drama of someone making eagle to win the Olympic gold, rather than losing on a bogey. For lots of viewers, this may be their first time watching golf, since it’s part of the Olympics, so we wanted the potential for excitement.

JF: Does this course have elements that can be found in your other designs?

GH: There’s lots of short-grass in play—lots of short grass connections between green and tee like we used at Applebrook. Visually there is a parallel to the Australian sandbelt courses like Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath. 

It’s a unique, sand-based site with a variety of different sands: bright white, brown and orange. Whatever sand was native to a given hole, that’s what we used. On the same hole, you’ll even see different sand in each of the bunkers. Players will have to gauge the sands and how the ball comes out of each type. We weren’t trying to prove a point or make the course more difficult. If golf is serious about sustainability, why spend time and money to bring in outside sand and move it around just to conform to some type of aesthetic standard?

JF: Speaking of a sandy site, how is the new Black course coming at Streamsong in Florida?

GH: It’s coming along nicely—six holes are grassed, and the next four are almost ready. We are really excited about building next to the Tom Doak and Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw courses there—those are guys I respect the most in the business. We’re anticipating it will be ready for play in the fall of 2017. We’re very happy with it.

JF: I heard a good Gil Hanse story from Sean Palmer, former assistant pro at Merion who’s now at the Union League Golf Club at Torresdale. He said that, when you were renovating some of the bunkers at Merion, you walked the course with him and, at one point, asked where most of the members hit their tee shots on that hole. When he showed you, you took out spray paint and marked the location for a bunker. That sounds downright diabolical—any truth to it?

GH: Ah, the 16th hole … yes!

JF: Your work takes you around the world to some exotic locations. What makes the Main Line so appealing?

GH: Well, it’s where we started. All three kids have been raised here and went through a variety of schools. That was a critical component with a family—that we had some great public and private schools in the area. We live in an old, converted barn in Malvern and love the history and charm of the area. We’ve lived here for 23 years, so no place feels quite like this. It’s home.

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