When Gil Hanse began his career as a course architect, engineering was more valued than artistry. “If one waterfall was good, five waterfalls were better,” Hanse says. “Building golf courses had become less about creating great playing grounds than about creating something that people would want to see in their backyard.” Thirty years later, at 49, Hanse is at the forefront of a movement that values a fairway that blends in with its natural environment instead of bulldozing it. “On a course designed for walking, you appreciate the land underfoot – feel its ups and downs, its ebbs and flows,” Hanse says. “It allows you to appreciate the beauty of the environment you’re in.”
When Hanse was growing up on Long Island in the early 1970s, his grandfather belonged to Southward Ho, constructed a half-century before by one of the greatest golf designers of his day, A.W. Tillinghast. “I became fascinated by the beauty and the nuance of golf landscapes,” Hanse says. “No other sport varied so dramatically depending on the quality of the surrounds.” Hanse isn’t the only course designer advocating for this aesthetic, but few are in such high demand. He is currently building the course in Brazil that will host golf’s 2016 return to the Olympics after more than a century’s absence from the Games.
Hanse says minimalist design is also better for the player. When you play one of his courses, imagination is rewarded. You learn to play the ground game, bounding your ball over humps and hollows that buck with the land. It requires brains and brawn. “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Will I find my ball?'” Hanse says. “It should be, ‘How should I best advance it?’
“The hope is to make our courses fit into the landscape and give them a sense of place,” Hanse continues. “If the holes first and foremost take advantage of the natural terrain to create an interesting challenge, that’s always the goal. If we can also arrange them so that they take advantage of the views, that is as good as it gets.”