Architect and Rolex testimonee Gil Hanse recalls the formative months of his career in Scotland in the 1980s and tells Dan Murphy that what he saw still serve him as guiding principles to this day
Gil Hanse is perhaps best known in Britain for his work alongside Mark Parsinen designing four-time Scottish Open venue Castle Stuart Golf Links.
His company, Hanse Golf Course Design, was founded in 1993 and he was joined two years later by partner Jim Wagner. Together they have designed and restored courses around the world, including the Rio 2016 Olympic course.
However, Hanse’s career actually began in Fife, in 1987, when he spent a long summer living in Scotland while on a scholarship from Cornell University.
“My wife and I came to Scotland and spent six months living in Lower Largo, outside St Andrews, and had the opportunity to use that as a base to set out and study from,” Hanse explains. “I can’t remember how many golf courses I visited – probably around 60 or 70.
“It is without question the most important experience that I have ever had. Working for Tom Doak from a practical standpoint has helped me significantly to figure out how to be a golf course architect.
“But the time that I was able to spend in Great Britain, and in particular Scotland, was the foundation of what I believe in golf.”
How did you spend that time in Scotland?
My day would start off playing golf and then going to have lunch, meeting the secretary and learning about the history of the club or the course. In the afternoon, I would go take notes.
I have these notebooks still in my office as this was well before computers or iPads. I would hand-draw notes of golf holes, of what I liked and what I saw, and what I thought was interesting. It was basically the catalogue for when I started my own company, and we were able to do original golf courses. It became what I referred to.
When I say it is the foundation for what I believe in golf course architecture, it is first and foremost that golf courses were found instead of created. The architects had great land to work with – it was never easy but they had a good landscape to work with.
Ultimately what they did was they found the golf holes, and they allowed the natural features to dictate the strategy. They put the bunkers in the natural upslopes and they utilised the grounds. The obscured visibility – where you play through a landscape, and in it and over it – has always been something that impacts me.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with sites that have good natural character and to exhaust those natural opportunities. The old designers exhausted every possible character, and they did it in such creative and unique ways.
The other thing about Scottish golf is there is never any mention of fairness. Golf is not fair, and architecture shouldn’t be, but what has happened, and primarily the influence has been my own country, is that architecture has been watered down to a certain degree.
People are always seeking something fair, but when you go to places like Prestwick or North Berwick, you will see things that you would never expect. Those are the courses that I always reference because they push the boundaries of golf architecture. If we were to design a golf hole like the 13th at North Berwick, we would put a wall in front of the green.
What was the first Scottish course that you saw?
The Old Course. We were students and we caught a charter jet that landed at Stansted, because we couldn’t afford to fly to Heathrow. We rented a car and we drove all the way to St Andrews. It was August so it was still light and we parked the car and walked down, saw the starter, and asked him how I get on the golf course. He looked at me and asked me, as a student, ‘Where are your clubs?’ I said, ‘Well, they are in the car. He told me to go and get them, and he let me just go out there and play. It was just that introduction to walk out onto the 1st tee and, without time to really think, somebody is saying, ‘On you go.’
Can you remember your initial thoughts – was it what you were expecting?
Obviously we had seen photos of it, but I think the scale of the 1st and 18th fairways, and the flatness of it, and the vastness of how it comes out of the town was a surprise.
I knew how it was set up but I did not understand the scale and perspective of it. I think that is still the most nerve-wracking tee shot in golf except for maybe the 1st tee at Merion where people are eating lunch while you are teeing off. With all the history and the clubhouse right behind you, and people milling about with over 100 yards to hit into, it is still nerve-wracking.
As I got into the golf course, it started to feel like more of what I was expecting from the 2nd green on.
What are your views on The Old Course now? It is not necessarily typical of links golf in Scotland…
No, and one of the great things about links golf in Scotland is that there are different sizes, shapes and forms. It is one of those things with those lower, more rumply dunes you see – that’s something we did at Castle Stuart with Mark Parsinen. We went down to the Old Course and we studied and we looked – the Old Course and Dornoch were the two most significant influences on what we did.
Maybe the old boys who live out there in St Andrews and who have played there their whole lives can unlock a lot of the mysteries but that is one of the great things of the old courses. They never play the same way again based on conditions and bounce and rolls and so on.
I was, for a while, a member of the New Club and also the St Andrews Club and played in a few competitions with people who knew the course and really understand how to play. It was really eye-opening because I thought that I knew it but I had no clue.
Architects like you, Doak, Phillips, and Coore & Crenshaw are at the forefront of a modern type of architecture that makes Championship courses extremely playable. Can you explain where that idea came from?
That’s the magic sauce. That’s what every golf architect is looking for. How do you make a golf course playable for a 24-handicap and yet challenging for a scratch golfer or professional?
I think the early architects talked a lot about it and the key is width – you just have to have room to play golf. You need to provide width for the average golfer to be able to move the ball around the golf course and then you need to be able to create angles that are relevant so that the width isn’t just 60 yards wide – for a good player it’s 25 yards wide as they need to get to the proper side of the fairway.
You need to provide a level of precision to just go out and play the golf course, literally just go play and have fun that is fairly low. But the level of precision required to score well is high. Augusta National is the perfect example of that: wide fairways, and greens that are very compartmentalised, so you need to get the right angle to access the hole location.
Once you get on the greens, you have got to be in the right corner of the greens. Mackenzie and Jones accomplished it there and all the earliest golf architects talked about it, but it can’t be done without providing enough room to actually play golf.
That’s one of the things that we talked a lot about at Castle Stuart, especially when you incorporate the wind into the design which is obviously going to blow in Scotland. It becomes an even more critical factor.
If you were compiling your own list of Scottish golf courses, which ones would be at the top?
The Old Course would be top of the list. If logistics are not a question, I would play North Berwick and Muirfield as a great day. I would play Prestwick and Western Gailes as a great day. I would play Royal Aberdeen and Cruden Bay in a day. And then I would play Castle Stuart and Dornoch as a day. That would cover, in my mind, my favourite golf courses.
What about courses that you haven’t played yet?
I’ve been fortunate to see almost everything that I would want to see. I haven’t been to Askernish and I’d love to because I’ve heard great things about it.
Which courses would provide lovely breaks between some of the big-ticket venues?
In Fife, Elie is one of my favourite places in the world to play golf. I think it’s a wonderful golf course. I think it’s great fun. I think Lossiemouth up in the north is another wonderful sort of slower, low-down-feeling golf course. Luffness New, near Muirfield, is another one of those quiet golf courses that’s good fun to get on and play.
Rolex and golf
Gil Hanse was talking to NCG Top 100s as a Rolex testimonee.
Rolex is committed to the permanent quest for excellence in all its endeavours and has been a long-term supporter of golf in its pursuit of the same. The brand’s enduring relationship with the game began more than 50 years ago, in 1967, with Arnold Palmer, joined by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Known together as The Big Three, these legendary players changed the face of golf forever, and their partnership with Rolex marked the beginning of a relationship based on a commitment to continuous improvement and unwavering precision. Since then, the affiliation between Rolex and golf has grown into one with a global reach.
Gil says: “It has been an amazing honour to be associated with Rolex this past year, who are synonymous for their support in golf for over 50 years. It’s a special relationship with Rolex, and they will gasp at this but I wear my Submariner Date watch out on the bulldozer when I am out working and it’s just part and parcel of who I am. It’s a tough watch and I put it through some paces but that’s who I am and what I do so it would be disingenuous for me to take it off.”
NCG Top 100s Scotland 2023
We have updated our NCG Top 100s Scotland ranking for 2023 – but we’re not announcing those until January so you’ll have to wait just a bit longer to see them!
Meanwhile, new events are being added to next year’s NCG Top 100s Tour every week, so make sure you get booked in before they sell out!