Gil & Christine

A Guinness, a bulldozer and a conversation between two architects that goes far beyond the original plan
Gil Hanse Christine Fraser

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Those with even a passing interest in golf course architecture know Gil Hanse.

But who will be the next Hanse or Bill Coore or Tom Doak? Christine Fraser is a name to watch. This rising talent grew up on her family’s course in Ontario, Canada, spent time working on some U.K. classics with Martin Hawtree’s well-respected firm and is looking to take her unique perspective to even bigger stages. When we got them together on a Zoom call, Fraser showed up in a Rolling Stones T-shirt with a Guinness. Hanse was in a bulldozer on a job site. What transpired was a candid conversation between one architect who has climbed the mountain and another ready to make her ascent.

(Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Christine Fraser I am curious about your journey. I’m a little nervous, and I want to be really vulnerable in this space, so I want to ask you: What were your vulnerabilities when you were a young architect, and how did you manage those? What tools did you use to get some confidence?

Gil Hanse Well, first off, anybody who’s wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt is OK with me. Don’t be nervous at all. [Laughs.]I think a lot of my nervousness came from when the decision needed to be made about whether I was going to stay with Tom Doak’s firm—whether we were going to form a partnership or whether I was going to strike out on my own. [My daughter] Chelsea was probably about 3 years old, and [my son] Tyler was just born when we decided. That was the most vulnerable time: How do you make the right decision for your family? How do you know that you’re doing the right thing and we’re not all going to be starving in six months?

Professionally, I felt like I had been pretty well prepared from Cornell [University] and from my time with the Hawtrees and then Doak. There were a few of the founders at Stonewall [Golf Club], which was the last project that Tom and I worked on together, who were encouraging and said, “Listen, we’ll help you find work around Philadelphia.” That’s why we moved there.

I think the vulnerability was really more along the lines of the family decision and understanding that, in the long run, it was not going to have an impact on just one person. It was four people. That was really the most difficult part of the decision.

cf Because of the nature of the industry that we’re in, do you find it difficult to manage your travel time and balance it with your family? How do you navigate that part of it?

gh I don’t know whether it was serendipity or divine intervention, but when the kids were young, nobody knew who I was, so it was a lot easier to manage where things were going and the workload we could take on. As we became more of a known quantity, and then when the [2016] Olympic course [in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil] happened, the kids were teenagers, and they didn’t want to talk to me anyway. [Laughs.]

It was still important that I was present in their lives, and I was, but as our kids got older, I had a little more flexibility. Now that we’re empty-nesters, Tracey and I joke that we visit our home more than we live there. We have decided to have this time on the road together and enjoy this part of our lives. 

Sometimes people are there, but they’re not present. That [presence] was always really important to Tracey and me. If you ask any of my kids, I hope they would say that’s the right answer.

cf That’s really nice. What does Tracey do when you’re in the dozer?

gh She loves to hike. She paints, she explores. People say, “Does your wife work?” I say, “Yes, she works extremely hard raising three kids.” I’m really happy that now, at this point in our lives, she’s able to explore her interests and has the time to go ahead and do them.

cf Part of why I feel so connected to you, even though this is our first time meeting, is because of our shared connection with Martin Hawtree. We have such a similar path leading up to our careers in golf architecture: both [of us] have master’s degrees in landscape architecture, then going over [to] the U.K. and hooking up with the Hawtrees, then doing some work for a golf construction company before getting into architecture.

For me, I spent five years in the firm with Martin, working very closely with him. Those were my formative years in terms of growing my trade and learning how to become an artist in this medium. He really taught me that. I think the exposure he gave me to all of these wonderful golf courses, like Lahinch—links, parkland, heathland—was really what directed my aesthetic preference, as well as my strategic preference and the emphasis on form and function that links golf really gives us.

Gil Hanse Christine Fraser

Where I try to focus is on how we invite people to the game and retain them through this inclusive idea.

gh I had a much shorter stint—about six months. [Martin’s father] Fred Hawtree was still with us at that point. He was writing his book, Colt & Co., and I was actually doing research and going to Sunningdale and Wentworth trying to figure out when Colt was there and what he did. Similar to you, it gave me exposure to a lot of places I may not have otherwise seen.

As for my time in their office, I don’t want this to sound wrong, because I really learned a ton from them, [but] it almost crystallized my belief in the methodology of working in the field and getting on equipment and building things. I’d worked for Doak on his first course at High Point, and that contrasted with the Hawtree office, where you’re preparing intricate plans and sending them out for a contractor to build. It allowed me to compare apples to oranges and say, “At the end of the day, if I can get an opportunity doing it the way Tom does it, that’s really the way I would prefer to go forward as opposed to the way that Martin did it.”

One of the great things about Martin is he’s so humble and genuine and just a wonderful man. I look to two people in this industry that I’ve tried to draw from behaviorally: Bill Coore and Martin Hawtree. If I can ever be in a parallel with those guys where people think of me in that light, I think that that’s a very successful path to take, because they are true gentlemen.

cf When I moved back to Canada, I didn’t really know how I was going to fit into the golf design establishment that was so strong in North America. [The] COVID [pandemic] allowed me to take the time to figure out how I was going to differentiate myself, how I was going to put value to my name and offer a service that perhaps wasn’t at the forefront of everyone else’s business. I found that I have had some experiences and perspective that other architects may not have had, like playing the forward tees or a lack of [women’s] washrooms on a golf course.

Where I try to focus is on how we invite people to the game and retain them through this inclusive idea. Translating that into architecture is still a process for me. I don’t necessarily have the answers, but I’m trying to fill those gaps. When I step on a golf course, I’m trying to experience it from a slower-swing-speed perspective and trying to understand how people navigate the golf course if they can’t get the ball in the air, or how a beginner would feel.

It’s a lot of intuition. In terms of translating that to architecture, there are basic foundations that we already have in terms of tee elevation size, grading, shade, allowing the grass to grow on the forward tees just as well as it does in the back tees. The foundations are there. It’s just applying it to the people who aren’t often considered first.

gh In original designs, we spent a ton of time on it. We work hard to accommodate every group of golfer. I think it’s important to give players of all skill levels ways to get around the golf course. It’s hard. We obviously can’t control everything, but at least there’s width and opportunities [to get around the course].

One thing that I would love to see become more standardized and accepted, because it ultimately comes down to a numbers game: You’ve got a back tee and you generally want to start the fairway anywhere from 150 to 170 [yards] from there. Well, that will frequently put the perfect place for a forward tee in the fairway. So how do you do it without the tee looking and feeling like it’s an afterthought? We frequently will build them flat and put markers out there, but we hear all the time, “Oh, it feels like that’s not part of the course. It’s not a real tee.” We’d love to try and put the forward tees, all things being equal, on similar angles for the rest of the tees out there, because if that’s the preferred angle, you’d like to give that to every golfer. But sometimes that spot winds up in the fairway. That’s something we’ve struggled with: How does that become accepted from a numbers perspective?

When we’re dealing with the restorations on a lot of the older courses, we’ve tried hard to get the message across—and I won’t say with 100% success—that you’re a member of a club, and you have, therefore, a vested interest in the success of the club. In theory, growing the game means being open to attracting new golfers, to attracting juniors and women to play the game and therefore sustain the club and have a viable membership. Why would you ever try to do anything to dissuade them from playing or enjoying the game? Unfortunately, we run into some issues with people who don’t want forward tees or new forward tees.

The slower swing speed really requires, say, 4,600, 4,700 yards from the forward tees. We’d love to build those tees. Men have traditionally always had at least two, if not three, sets of tees, and women have always been relegated to one. Why does that happen? Because when the tees were placed, they were placed by committees. Who were on the committees? Men.

What we’ve talked about is that there should be sets of tees that distinguish between the playability levels of women, but also [that] senior men should be playing way forward from where they’re playing right now. I’m getting close to being a senior man myself, so I can say this: They are the most stubborn, egotistical group of golfers out there. [Laughs.] They just don’t want to give up and move forward. Well, if we have a forward set of tees which is great for juniors and beginning women golfers, and we’ve got a set of tees just for senior men, they will feel comfortable moving up. It gets them to a place where they actually play a more enjoyable game. That seems to be gaining some traction, and I think could be an important balance going forward for courses we’re trying to restore.

Why would you ever try to do anything to dissuade [new golfers] from playing or enjoying the game?

cf How much of your time is spent educating clients, committees, boards and members on the benefits of investing in these types of golfers?

gh We talk a lot about it. I hear so often, “Only 5% of the members play those back tees,” or “Only 10% of the members play the forward tees.” I’m like, “Yes, but they’re still members.”We shouldn’t penalize people for their abilities or the way they play the game. We should encourage them to have a challenge that’s commensurate with the way they play. So why would we not want to invest in that? For people who are reasonably inclined, they tend to go, “OK, I get that.” People who are not reasonably inclined, we’ve probably lost them when we walk through the door anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.

cf [Laughs.] Right! So, what were some of your biggest influences to get to those philosophies?

gh There were two books that were incredibly influential for me. One was The World Atlas of Golf. It had all those drawings of places that I had never seen, like Royal Dornoch and Royal County Down, and had all those wonderful maps, almost a bird’s-eye view. I studied that and would frequently put a piece of tracing paper over the top of those and just draw shapes and lay them out.

The other was The Golf Courses of the British Isles by Bernard Darwin, because of the paintings by Harry Rountree. They weren’t photographic images; they were blurred and the light was magnificent and the colors were muted and understated and there was a light wash over the landscape that was just spectacular.

When I started to explore and study real courses, the year I spent in Great Britain had the greatest influence on me—seeing all those courses and trying to make sense of how every diverse landscape created interest and character and strategy. I learned that it was really less the architect’s hand on the land and more the land itself that provided the character.

We can all sit on websites and argue about strategy and risk/reward and blah blah blah, but what ultimately makes courses interesting is that unique essence of every single piece of ground that you get your hands on, whether you are creating that or whether you’re finding it. The best architects—probably [Alister] MacKenzie at the top of my list—do an amazing job of not only finding and identifying how they would work a great hole, but improving the beauty of the landscape.

I think MacKenzie was the best at that. He took what were beautiful landscapes and actually made them better. Sometimes he did it by doing nothing at all, which is the highest art form, in my opinion. Bill Coore uses the word “restraint” a lot. It’s hard for architects, myself included, when you get going with your first jobs and you go, “How do I show restraint?” You want to show the world everything—everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve absorbed. I think as you gain more experience and more confidence, you also gain more restraint, which I think is a wonderful thing.

Gil Hanse Christine Fraser

cf For me, golf has always been this safe space. It’s been a family business and become my community. It’s where I meet my friends. It’s where I spend my free time, and when I got to the point in my playing career where I wasn’t good enough to continue playing [after my collegiate career at Stetson University], I needed to find something else that could fulfill my creative urges and my drive to spend time traveling and being outside. Golf architecture is a perfect fit. It was a pretty long shot. For me to actually be able to sit in front of Gil Hanse today and call myself a golf architect is special. It’s just something you dream of.

Golf has not always been kind to people like me, but it has given me so much personally. Just to be able to serve golf in some capacity has been really special. [Pauses.] I’m sorry, I’m very emotional, but it means a lot to me and I have a lot of inspirations, and not a lot of it comes from within the golf industry. It comes from my family and people like Martin and experiences I’ve had—being able to share experiences with people and friends and family on a golf course. What inspires me is that experience that we’re able to provide people of creating community, creating environments where we can have these connections and these special moments that we’ll remember. As you said, the technical side is important, but it’s not really what gets me fired up. It’s that feeling that golf allows us to have that inspires me.

gh I believe that the most important people in our business—and the most underappreciated—are the superintendents. I benefited so much early on in my career from those relationships. Their networks are really, really strong. If you do a good job for one superintendent, he’s going to tell another superintendent, and on and on. That networking is critical. I hate people who look around the room to see if there’s somebody more important to talk to. That just drives me bonkers. Don’t ever lose track of the fact that the person you’re talking to is the most important person in the room at that point in time, and just build contacts, build relationships.

The friendships I have now with superintendents, general managers and clients are going to last my whole life. Ultimately, when I die, those relationships are not going to be in my obituary, but they’re going to be the people who hopefully come to my funeral and hopefully will be there for my family. That, in my mind, is a hell of a legacy to leave behind. Just always try to be a good people-person—be kind, be respectful and make those contacts. Especially with the golf course superintendents.

Another thing that I see that kills careers faster than anything is a poor work ethic and a sense of entitlement. We’ve had people come to work with us who say, “OK, I graduated from a landscape architecture program, so I don’t want to dig a ditch. I don’t want to strip topsoil. I want to build a golf course. I want to make decisions. I want to point my finger and tell people to do this.” That’s not how it happens. You’ve got to earn your stripes.

I’m almost 60, and I’m out here getting my ass kicked on a rock pile every day on a bulldozer because I love it, because I have passion for this. There’s nowhere else other than with my family that I’d rather be. 

For me to actually be able to sit in front of Gil Hanse today and call myself a golf architect is special.

cf I love it too. It’s the sharing of experiences, it’s creating relationships, it’s being able to travel and meet new people and experience new cultures and good art galleries and spend the day outside. It’s this constant pursuit of something that you can’t grasp. Every day is different, and it’s a constant challenge. It’s that lack of repetitiveness and the anti-routine that really keeps me excited and engaged. That’s what I love about it. Speaking of things you can never reach: Is there a project that you wouldn’t go back and change something or modify something to this day? I always feel like there is something more to get to.

gh Thankfully, not a lot. We go back and look at stuff; we make tweaks because as you’re building, it can’t be played. I can’t go out my dozer window here and hit shots. We have a good idea of how it’s going to play, but we can’t play it. Until people experience what you’re designing for, you really can’t expect that it’s going to be perfect. You have to go back and understand how it’s being used and how it’s being played. Hopefully the decisions we make are correct, but you’re always looking to make things better.

cf Have you ever had to make any big apologies along the way?

gh Great question. No, I can’t think of anything that [my partner Jim Wagner and I have had] to say sorry about. For me, it’s mostly apologies for smaller stuff that I’ve forgotten, like, “Are you getting on this call?” But as far as work is concerned, I can’t think of a single major apology we’ve had to give, which is hopefully a stat we can keep up.

cf That’s great. Keep it up!

gh Thank you. Seriously, if you ever want to come to see what we’re doing or hang out, we’re happy to have you. Hopefully our paths will cross again. 

cf I’m going to take you up on that!