Life on the Trail

Gil Hanse keeps on truckin’ from the boardroom to the bulldozer

There’s a pickup truck parked in the driveway of Pinehurst’s most famous house. It’s a foggy morning in the Sand Hills—good ghost weather, if there is such a thing—a fitting time to talk about the man who still lingers posthumously in every corner of America’s most idyllic golf village. And the man who currently resides in his house.

In the swing state of North Carolina, the truck is something of a campaign vehicle, although it looks better suited for removing stumps than delivering stump speeches. Its owner, Gil Hanse, is not officially a politician, but the title keeps coming up when people talk about him. Don’t let the word scare you; the prolific golf-course architect is a politician mostly in the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington way: earnest, idealistic and scrupulous. Hanse has the demeanor of a small-town mayor, but he also possesses the foresight, restraint and networking skills to steer through the highly politicized world of private clubs, professional tours, Donald Trump and the International Olympic Committee. Navigating that atmosphere of pitches, proposals, revisions and execution is a job his friend and colleague Brad Faxon calls “as politically challenging as trying to run a government.”

The critical acclaim his work has received has put Hanse’s approval rating at an all-time high. But he wisely demurs when asked about it.

“I think I basically do all that other stuff to support my bulldozer habit,” Hanse says.

Gil sitting on a bulldozer. Photo by Christian Hafer.

His Dodge is adorned with bumper stickers about the issues Hanse believes in most. There’s the lissome fire-dancer logo of the Dave Matthews Band and the jovial, colorful marching bears any Grateful Dead fan will recognize. Sandwiched between them is the slashing, jagged emblem of the exclusive Fishers Island Club, a Seth Raynor gem that embodies Hanse’s favorite things about golf course architecture. Good luck finding another truck with that combination of stickers or another person in the golf industry who can float so effortlessly between the groups they represent. Hanse is able to convince blue bloods around the world that he’s the man to be trusted with blowing up and rebuilding their most valuable assets, while simultaneously maintaining a connection to the counterculture that delights in nothing more than getting under their skin.

Inside the house, Hanse’s wife, Tracey, is applauding a bit of work her husband has just finished for Pinehurst. “The thing that was genius about that project—” 

Hanse cringes and politely stops her in her tracks. “Don’t say genius,” he winces. 

He’s measured and wary about how things sound in print and gravitates toward modesty rather than ego strokes.

Still, Hanse is an expert talker, networker and presenter who has a firm grasp on golf’s history while playing a crucial role in shaping its future. But being out in the field is where he’s happiest, pointing out nuances and Easter eggs in his designs that players might not even notice until their 10th, 20th or 100th time around.

A Merion Golf Club member summed up a recent restoration presentation by Hanse thusly: “He just gives off this ‘Aw, shucks, I really don’t know what I’m talking about’ kind of impression, but you walk away thinking he’s the best speaker you’ve ever heard.”

Tall and spry for 55, Hanse is tremendous company, knowledgeable but measured on nearly every golf topic. He wears a touch of gray in his hair and a mischievous grin on his face. The whole act is polished, professional and approachable. In fact, there’s only one chink in his armor, one crack in his smooth veneer.

“Cart paths. I hate cart paths. I just absolutely abhor them,” he says emphatically. “That’s probably the most unfortunate aspect of American golf. I’m a big believer that unless you need a cart to play golf from a physical standpoint, you should be walking. The course is intended to be felt through your feet; it’s intended to be observed and absorbed at 3 miles an hour and not 40 miles an hour.”

Today, the truck and its insignia are parked in the driveway of his new, albeit temporary, residence: Dornoch Cottage in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The house occupies the space between Midland Road and the third green of course No. 2, the resort’s crown jewel. The “cottage”—a cozy misnomer for the stately residence—was built by Donald Ross, the visionary who constructed the course it overlooks. Ross was Scottish-born, but he’s a George Washington figure in local lore.

The morning fog shrouds Pinehurst’s most illustrious residence in a haze and only a few tall, skinny pines obstruct Hanse’s view of the state’s most famous course.

One thing Hanse has learned from his years on the road is the value of a home base. When he takes on a large project, he and Tracey will pack up and move to the location—putting down roots, no matter how temporary. Having a comfortable place for dinner every night brings a sense of normalcy to nomadic days away from their home in the Philadelphia suburbs. When he was awarded the job to renovate Pinehurst’s No. 4 course, the resort asked if he’d like to make Dornoch Cottage—the house where Ross spent his golden years—his base.

“This is going to sound trite,” Hanse says, “but when they invited us to move in here, I almost started crying.”

Like Hanse, the house itself has a built-in sense of compromise. Ross and his second wife, Florence Blackington, wanted it to feel modestly Scottish from the front (the name an homage to Ross’ home at Royal Dornoch), but undeniably Southern from the back, with a wall-to-wall porch and elegant white columns. Before meeting Blackington, Ross had been developing the land along Midland Road to be sold off as housing lots. The story goes that when Blackington inquired about purchasing one of the plots, Ross’ counter offer was a lunch date. They were married in 1924 and Ross had just the place to build their new home; he knew the third and fifth greens of No. 2 were about to be moved, which would create a larger backyard.

Locals talk about Ross like he’s still wandering the pines, his impact on the community reaching far beyond his legendary course designs. People say he would often leave the lights on in his study at all hours of the night to signal to the locals just how hard he was working on making their town better (even if he may or may not have been snoozing in the adjacent guest room). Many suggest that part of the reason No. 2 originally had so much wire grass planted was because Ross served as the town’s golfsmith. When players tried to hit from the sturdy grasses and cracked a hickory shaft, there was only one person in town to remedy the problem.

“I think he was a little craftier than people realized,” says one Pinehurst historian, who noted the slings and arrows of living in a small hamlet while asking to stay anonymous.

Hanse was a double major at the University of Denver; it’s no surprise that someone who coupled political science and history degrees turned out to be a nut for studying and research. For a golf-obsessed history buff, there may be no better place in America than Pinehurst. But that history creates its own sort of tension.

As modern golf meccas like Bandon Dunes, Cabot Cliffs and Streamsong cement themselves into the purist canon, drawing in the game’s architecture diehards with their golf-first, minimalist approach, Pinehurst is left searching for ways to maintain market share. Tom Pashley, Pinehurst’s general manager, has heard the deserved praise for Pinehurst’s competitors and has a friendly go-to rebuttal when he’s spending time with their leadership.

“Whenever they get too excited, I’ll say, ‘I wonder what Ben Hogan would have thought of Bandon Dunes,’” he says with a big wink of playful sarcasm. “‘I mean, I’m sure he would have thought it was pretty good. But here’s what he had to say about Pinehurst in his own words when he was here for the North & South in 1940.’”

The danger with this history is overreliance. But Pashley and the resort brass have no interest in turning Pinehurst into Colonial Williamsburg. Instead, they are trying to bridge its history into forward-thinking ideas. It’s a process that started with the celebrated restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2011. The decision to restore the lush green course to Ross’ sandy, scruffy original was not taken lightly. No. 2 is the biggest, most visible part  of Pinehurst’s identity, and people revere it as such.

Another local legend at Pinehurst—one that has been romanticized with each telling—involves an evening walk Coore took during the restoration process. As he crested a hill, an old stranger appeared out of the mist. The architect introduced himself and was given a simple message in return: “I know who you are,” the man said. “This town depends on this golf course being great. So don’t fuck it up.”

Since the restoration, No. 2 has hosted a historic U.S. Open doubleheader (men’s and women’s in back-to-back weeks) and has been a mainstay of the various top 100 lists. Despite the expansion of fairways to their original width and the removal of dense rough, only three players finished under par at the U.S. Open. Michelle Wie was the only player under par at the Women’s Open.

“It’s strategically more compelling than ever—and a whole lot more fun, too,” Bradley S. Klein wrote in Golfweek when the course reopened. “Golf here used to be about the greens and surrounds. Now it’s about every shot.”

The gamble was a success, and it freed up the Pinehurst management to continue mining the resort’s past for innovation. Out of that came a new putting course and the Cradle, a nine-hole, 789-yard short course for players of all ages and abilities. The course sits on the same land where Dr. Leroy Culver built the first nine sandy holes at Pinehurst in 1898.

Hanse was commissioned to design and build the short course, which features wall-to-wall short grass, wild slopes and endless options for how to play each shot. The Cradle costs around $50 to play, with unlimited replays, and is free for children under 18 with a paid adult. On a Saturday morning in spring, the course was packed with guests of all ages while a crew was busy laying cable for outdoor speakers to play music during rounds.

“I know a lot of this stuff feels blown over when you read it in print,” Hanse says of the Cradle, “but it was honestly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

Pinehurst’s transformation is taking place one hole at a time. The success of No. 2 and the Cradle has made the resort’s other courses—once the epitome of American paint-by-numbers golf—feel somewhat outdated. The pleat-heavy photos of the 1980s that line the clubhouse walls are starting to feel closer to the sepia-toned images from Ross’ time than today. There’s a painting of the technicolor fifth hole at No. 2 hanging in Dornoch Cottage that’s unrecognizable from the hole visitors hack it around now.

The resort has set its sights on a similar elevation of the dramatic No. 4 course, whose original 1919 Ross routing wound across one of the boldest parts of the property. When it came time to find an architect, the choice was easy.

No. 4 has lived a curious life. During the lean times of the Great Depression, resources were allocated to keep No. 2 looking sharp, and as a result No. 4 slowly atrophied. As it floated between shut down and barely operational, parts of it were used as a cow pasture and an archery course. Targets were set at varying distances and participants even developed a golf-ish scoring system, according to a history of the course published by Golf Club Atlas. 

As the post-war boom brought visitors back to the resort, golf at No. 4 again became a mainstay. The Jones family stepped in to do some significant work (Robert Trent in 1973; Rees in 1982). In 1999, Tom Fazio gave the course a total remodel, adding a shotgun blast of pot bunkers and some long, sandy waste areas as a self-described homage to Ross. In these remodels, the landforms, ridges and green complexes had been shifted and softened significantly from the 1919 version. Part of that routing now has houses on top of original greens and fairways. Sections of it became parts of No. 2. All of which is to say that a full restoration of the Ross original is not happening. Instead, Hanse is aiming to recreate the landscape of No. 4—to put the ridges and valleys back in their original places—and design a new course on what is arguably the best land on the property.

“After all those renovations, No. 4 had the flattest greens ever, which took away the golf shot value of the place,” says one caddie who has looped countless rounds on the Fazio redesign and will remain nameless in order to keep doing so. “Angles didn’t matter. It was just ‘hit the fairway and hit the green,’ which a lot of people thought was good golf.…In a way, I’m glad they messed it up, so Gil can come in and build it how it should have been.”

That’s the confidence people at Pinehurst have in Hanse. His thoughts on the course are more modest, and during a walking tour of the in-progress renovation it was already easy to see his design characteristics taking shape. The fairways will be wider and the challenge will work backward from the green complexes. 

From ground level of the sandy construction site, Hanse points out his favorite nuances, particularly the visual trickery of approach shots. There’s an infinity green that would scare any player into taking a club less, a deceptive ridge that makes a green look like it begins a good 40 yards before it actually does. Hanse knows that rangefinders have made many of these design riddles much easier to solve, but he believes strongly that these little details are what make courses infinitely replayable. Besides, it’s fun to mess with people. His Grateful Dead belt and Jerry Garcia hat are suddenly more noticable.

“Our goal is never to build a tribute course or a course that’s our attempt at building the greens like Donald Ross would have,” Hanse says. “Why would we? The best example of his work is sitting right next to us. We’re only destined to fail if that’s what we’re attempting to do.”

Hanse’s grandfather was a small-town mayor in the village where Gil grew up in New York.

“Just watching him was the best. He always wanted to hear from people,” Hanse remembers. “We’d go to Mets games—he made me like all the bad New York teams—and he’d get into these long conversations with the ushers, but it wasn’t just small talk. He just always had time for people, no matter who it was.”

His grandfather also introduced Hanse to golf, although the idea of a career in the game never seemed realistic. When he got to the University of Denver, he considered a future in politics.

“That was one of those good ‘OK, now what?’ degrees,” Hanse says with a laugh. He wound up moving back to New York and attending grad school at Cornell. While taking a landscape-architecture class, he met a student who was in his final year studying to be a golf course architect. He decided that night to switch gears. In 1987, he served as an intern for fellow Cornell grad Tom Doak, working on High Pointe and Stonewall’s Old Course.

In 1993, he started Hanse Golf Design, which today he still calls his “intentionally small golf-design firm.” By 1995 he had been joined by Jim Wagner, who remains his partner today. Hanse is the diplomatic front man of the operation while Wagner is the irreverent operations guy. The running joke in the firm is that “Gil is the polish and Jim is the tarnish.”

There was no simple highway that led to Hanse becoming one of golf’s go-to designers. He built his reputation hole by hole. After completing a small handful of solo designs (most notably Rustic Canyon with Geoff Shackelford in 2002), Hanse and his crew broke through in 2005 with the opening of Boston Golf Club (BGC).

“That was the first time we had a new project where we really had a good piece of land and really good owners,” Hanse says. “They basically said, ‘We’re not going to tell you where the clubhouse is. We don’t care if 18 is a par 3. You guys just find the best 18 holes and give us a great walk while you’re at it.’ That’s obviously how you make a golf course reach its full potential.”

The BGC project knocked over the first domino. It helped get Hanse on the radar of Brad Faxon, who at the time was working with the PGA Tour on changes that would help bring tournament golf to TPC Boston, which has since become the home of a FedEx Cup playoff event.

“I don’t know why I always thought you had to be a great golfer in order to be a great architect,” Faxon says. “But Gil just came into these projects with such a wealth of knowledge and as a real historian of the game.”

With his work televised and validated by the professional game, more projects began pouring into Hanse’s firm. The roster of courses he’s touched through renovations, restorations and master planning would logo-whip your club’s most smug members: Los Angeles Country Club. Myopia Hunt Club. Oakland Hills. The Country Club. Essex. Plainfield. Ridgewood. Fishers. Winged Foot. Merion. Southern Hills. Aronimink. Colonial. Doral. And that’s not even saying anything of his original designs, which are starting to stack up.

As he gained more renown, Hanse was hired by Trump to redo three courses at what would be renamed Trump National Doral. That work serves as another testament to Hanse’s ability to work with nearly any type of partner; remember that in 2014 Trump watched the U.S. Open and tweeted, “I’d bet the horrible look of Pinehurst translates into poor television ratings. This is not what golf is about!” (When Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella tried to explain some of the nuance around Pinehurst’s unkempt edges and brown fairways, Trump responded, “My position on Pinehurst is correct—bad for the game, a dried-out cow pasture. You have no clue, but keep trying!”)

Hanse laughs when asked about the disconnect.

“That relationship was actually really good,” he says. “He supported everything we wanted to do and stayed out of the details. He never came out and said, ‘Move that bunker 5 feet,’ or ‘Do this, do that.’ It was always more about the landscape. It was pretty easy to work with him and we ended up building a course in Dubai as well.”

Clearly, the subject of cart paths never came up.

“It was much easier working for him than building the Olympic course,” Hanse says. “Without a doubt.”

Hanse’s momentum carried him straight into a series of dead ends in January of 2012, when he and consultant Amy Alcott beat out a who’s who of finalists for the design bid of the 2016 Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro. Nothing would put Hanse’s political skills to the test quite like the process of working closely with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Ron Whitten spelled out the stressful, nitty-gritty politics of the selection process in a 2016 Golf Digest feature. It was especially tumultuous for Hanse—from a last-second emergency trip to New York City to replace a lost passport to arriving in Rio for the presentation to find his seat reserved for “Gil Hansen.” Hanse was an underdog going up against big-name player-architects like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Greg Norman, as well as Tom Doak and Robert Trent Jones Jr. Before the meeting, Hanse pocketed the name card so no event organizers got reprimanded for the error. After he and Alcott won the bid, his wife and daughters had the card framed and hung in his office.

“They basically said, ‘If your head ever gets too big, remember that they didn’t even know your name when you went down there to do this,’” Hanse says.

Part of Hanse’s pitch to the IOC was that he would relocate to Rio de Janeiro during construction. Hanse, along with his wife and daughter, intended to move down to Brazil for a year, but after six months it was clear the project was going to be plagued by unexpected delays. Due to land-ownership disputes, environmental protests and other logistical issues, the course would take closer to two years to build and Hanse wound up commuting in for 10 to 14 days a month for much of the project. The start date was delayed by more than two months because of legal battles and it was roughly four months before Hanse and the crew started receiving paychecks. 

“At the start, we had a bulldozer that was ancient,” Hanse told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I’d run it for a half hour and it would overheat, and I’d have to let it sit for 20 to 25 minutes to cool down. We were given three trucks to move sand around the site, but they were on-road trucks, so we spent more time pulling them out of the sand than building. On a certain level, it was kind of comical because you’re like, ‘Really? This is how this is going to work out?’ We’ve been asked to build a very visible golf course, and we’re doing it with three of us and six Brazilian workers, who were all great guys but had never seen a golf course, let alone know how to build one.”

 The Olympic project tested Hanse’s even keel more than any other undertaking, but what kept him sane was the fact that there was never a need to compromise on the design of the course. To him, coming away with a course he had to apologize for was not worth the notoriety of such a high-profile endeavor.

If the selection and construction processes weren’t challenging enough, the conversation leading up to golf’s return to the Olympics was dominated not by who would be tested by Hanse’s design, but by who would even come to test it. Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and others cited the Zika virus as a reason to bypass golf’s first Olympic competition in 112 years. 

From a competitive-golf standpoint, the event proved to be a success. Players and media raved about the golf course, praising its strategic design.

“My IQ went up about 200 points after the Olympics,” Hanse says with a laugh.

Hanse has since become a household name in the relatively small world of golf course architecture. That’s led to TV appearances for Fox during its U.S. Open telecasts, working alongside Faxon, who has been so impressed by Hanse that he sponsored him for membership at Pine Valley.

His bona fides firmly established, Hanse now enjoys a longer leash creatively, which manifested itself in Streamsong’s Black Course. But pushing boundaries in golf nearly always comes with pushback. Now, a year into its life, Hanse calls the Black Course “the most misunderstood thing we’ve ever done.” 

The green complexes at Streamsong Black are a choose-your-own-adventure book. The surrounds are dramatic and undulating and they make players pick from an overwhelming number of shot options. Players have no limit on their creativity: low or high, putter or 3-wood, bump, flop or blade. In order to make these surrounds play firm and fast, they were seeded with the same grass as the greens, which tricks the average golfer into thinking they are playing greens five times larger than anything they’ve ever seen (and thereby adding many more frustrating three-putts to their round). To put minds at ease, the crew paints an outline of subtle green dots to denote where the actual green starts. 

To help the everyday resort guest understand the Black, Hanse wrote a letter to the caddie staff explaining his vision. He hoped they would use it to emphasize the ground game and explain why firm and fast conditions are a better defense for a golf course than penal rough and water hazards. He’s talked to frustrated players one on one after they’ve finished and asked them whether a three-putt from 70 yards is more fun than losing a ball in a greenside pond. He’s seen the looks when the design intent clicks for them. The people who get it seem to love it—the Black has received glowing reviews from industry publications and high-caliber players—but the number of public golfers confounded by the course has the resort considering whether to grow out the surrounds and further define where greens actually start.

“I know what I think,” Hanse says with that mischievous grin, “but there’s a lot that goes into it from an ownership perspective.” It’s one thing to tell a whiny 15-handicap that a hole would be more fun if they hit a better shot, but it’s a different game when the best players in the world are critiquing your work. That’s the situation Hanse found himself in at TPC Boston in 2017 when the Tour pros saw his work on the 12th hole.

As part of a renovation project, Hanse and Wagner converted the 461-yard par-4 12th into a 510-yard par 4 with a split fairway that limited the landing zone for many of the Tour’s big hitters. TPC Boston had always been regarded as a bomber’s paradise, so the philosophy was—for at least one hole—to rein everyone in to a similar landing zone and see how the approach shots varied.

The hole played as the toughest of the week in relation to par and was torched in the interview room, especially by Justin Thomas, who went on to win the event. He played the hole in 1 under par for the week, each day defiantly smoking driver down the 13th fairway.

Hanse was on site at TPC Boston to listen to the players and urged the same thing to all of them: Give it four tournament rounds before you make your judgement. Few listened.

“I thought it was a great hole before,” Thomas said before the tournament started. 

“I personally don’t think that it was a very good job redesigning it. I don’t think that there was a need to change it, and…I think the words, or the stuff that you’re hearing around, isn’t a coincidence.”

One of Hanse and Wagner’s key design principles is discovery: They strive to build golf holes that take multiple rounds to figure out and understand. By the time Wednesday practice rounds were finished, the social media echo chamber had already ruled the hole a disaster.

“It’s interesting,” Hanse says now. “There are some PGA Tour professionals who can see golf through varied lenses. But the vast majority of them see it through a very narrow prism of their own game. When something doesn’t fit their own game, it must be bad or wrong. And they’re never really pushed by the media to say, ‘Well, explain to me what you don’t like about it.’ ‘It’s awful.’ ‘OK, well, it’s awful. Then let’s move on to the next question.’”

With all the work flowing into Hanse’s firm, there’s one word that leaves him lying awake some nights inside Dornoch Cottage: overextension.

Hanse struggles with finding the balance between striking while the iron is hot—golf course architecture is hardly a recession-proof business—and maintaining artistic integrity and adequate investment in each project he puts his name on. It’s an envious position to be turning down more work than you’re taking on, especially while many young architects fight over industry scraps. Hanse is quick to point out that he does his best to refer the right people for jobs he doesn’t have the bandwidth to accept. But still, each new client squeezes more meetings and site visits into the inflexible workweek. 

On the tour of No. 4, two golf courses came up in conversation and Hanse responded, “I’ll be there next week.” The courses were in Texas and Ireland. There’s another project in Thailand inspired by the legendary Lido course, as well as restorations, renovations and new designs around the U.S. 

“What makes it hard is that I’m not a good businessperson,” he says with a laugh. “But every businessperson I’ve talked to has said, ‘This is your window; you’ve got to really just get everything you possibly can.’ It doesn’t make any sense to me, because I want to remain invested. I’m still young enough that I can get on the bulldozer—my body can handle that—and so I really almost want to go the opposite way.”

The irony of where Hanse ponders his bandwidth—in Ross’ cottage—is not lost on anyone. The Donald Ross Society’s 2018 updated list attaches Ross’ name to 464 different courses. Four hundred and sixty-four. To think that each of those children was loved, cared for and visited equally is a stretch to say the least. But Ross’ high points stand the test of time.

“Everything he did was really solid and well-routed,” Hanse says. “But when you look at the places where he really spent a ton of time—Aronimink, Seminole, Pinehurst—I think the level of character and detail are so much more bold on those courses.”

After making much of his career on fixing misguided renovations and restoring golden-age classics, Hanse is now creating his own entries in golf’s architectural canon. In typical fashion, he doesn’t criticize any of the work he’s undone. “That was right for the time,” he says.

He’s also hyperaware that as design trends change, his courses could wind up facing the bulldozers in a few decades too. But he can’t help that today. For now, he’s got more North Carolina sand to move, another stump speech to plan. The truck’s bumper stickers are still there, barely visible through the dirt.