Olympic Golf Course Designer Talks Rio, Cocktails and His Ultimate Foursome

The 2016 Rio Olympics were well played by all teams, but the standout moment for us was the thrilling 1-hole battle between Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson for the gold medal. We will forever mark that as a key moment in golf history, but even more so because our good friend Gil Hanse was in fact the man behind that incredible course at Reserva de Marapendi in Barra da Tijuca, built specifically for the 2016 Olympic games.


Our buddy Gil Hanse is the man behind that incredible course at Reserva de Marapendi in Barra da Tijuca, built specifically for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio. Hanse Golf Course Design, which was founded by Gil in 1993, impressively built the olympic course entirely on sand. For more than a decade, Gil’s company has designed courses from Scotland to New York and Los Angeles, as well as Dubai, with a new golf club set to open in 2017.


Once the Olympic games ended, we caught up with our buddy to discuss everything that went into the design, a day-in-the-life of a golf course designer and what’s in a 2-Iron – his own self-inspired cocktail.


johnnie-O: How did you start your career designing golf courses?

Gil Hanse: I worked construction for Tom Doak on his first solo design, High Pointe in Traverse City, Michigan. He had me picking rocks, digging drainage ditches, learning all of the non-glamorous parts of the job. By the end of the project he put me on a bulldozer for a couple of days to do some shaping, and I was hooked! Some of the best advice Tom ever gave me came from Pete Dye, who told him, “If you want to design golf courses, you have to first learn how to build them.” That summer was a full tutorial on the nuts and bolts of getting it done in the field.


JO: How have golf courses evolved throughout the decades?

GH: I think there was a period of time where golf courses got away from the traits that made them so wonderful. The great old courses rely on the flow of the land, the creativity of the natural contours, which inspire interesting and strategic holes that put an emphasis on the game of golf. All of that makes it fun and exasperating. For awhile, golf courses were more interested in selling real estate, creating pretty pictures, hiding cart paths and using artificial elements to make them “pretty.” I am so excited that a return to the more traditional elements of golf has been accompanying most of the recent successful designs of the present era.


JO: How did you get involved with designing the course for the Olympics?

GH: There was an open request for golf course architects from around the world to submit qualifications to design the golf course. We threw our hat in the ring and made it to the final cut with eight architects, who had to submit full plans and documents for the design and the build. From that process, which included a presentation of the design concept, we emerged as the successful firm amongst some of the biggest names in our field.


JO: Tell us about the Olympic course. What inspired you?  

GH: As with all of our designs, we were primarily inspired by the landscape on which the golf course was going to sit. We knew that the site would be sandy with great native vegetation, however, we wanted to be able to point to some type of golf course that would paint the picture in our minds and in the minds of the selection committee. Since Brazil does not have any golf course “style,” we pointed towards the courses of the Australian sandbelt. We felt that the topography, look and feel of these courses would fit perfectly on the site in Rio.


JO: How long did it take you to design the course and when were the designs put into action?

GH: We had a two-month window to design the course for our presentation, and we knew that the course could not differ substantially from the presentation if we got the job. So the routing and layout is very close from start to finish, however, the features and details of the site evolved during the two-year construction process for the course. With my partner Jim Wagner, design help from Geoff Shackelford and Amy Alcott, and our guys on the ground Neil Cameron, Kyle Franz, Ben Hillard and Ben Warren, we all contributed to making the course better in the field than it was on paper.


JO: Tell us about your average day.

GH: I am definitely a cup of coffee and read the paper to start the day kind of guy. I’m not sure if it is a tactile or a generational thing, but I still like to read the paper, not a tablet or phone, and I always start with the sports page. Then it depends where I am in the world. On a construction site, we all meet in the morning, shoot the bull and then head into our machines. My preferred ride is a Cat D-5 or John Deere 550 bulldozer. I will spend most of the day in the machine shaping but will get out to check on the guys or answer questions a couple of times before lunch. Lunch is always with the “guys,” and usually a lot of fun. We head back in the machine for the afternoon. There’s always music going! My favorites are Dave Matthews Band and Grateful Dead. Pandora has introduced me to some newer bands, like The Head and the Heart, The Lumineers, The Black Keys, The Decemberists, etc. The music keeps me moving, and the songs and mood can even affect shapes on the course. At quitting time, we all check in on each other and how the day went. Occasionally, a cold beer is a great way to finish.


JO: How and when were you introduced to the johnnie-O brand?  

GH: At the Los Angeles Country Club, I want to say in 2012. I love the cut, the relaxed fit, and I am a big fan of cotton shirts, which are so comfortable! From the moment I put one on, I was all in.


JO: What does “West Coast Prep” mean to you?  

GH: Comfortable and colorful. I have always loved “preppy” clothes, cool colors, slightly disheveled, relaxed and comfortable. “West Coast Prep” takes that to a new level, not pretentious, or stuffy at all.


JO: Who would be in your ultimate foursome?

GH: My grandfather, who introduced me to the game of golf, Alister Mackenzie, who is the greatest golf architect ever, and Theodore Roosevelt, who is fascinating!


JO: If you were going to be stuck on an island for the rest of your life with only three items, what would they be?  

GH: Matches, a fishing pole and a case of Tito’s vodka.


JO: In your opinion, where is the greatest golf course?

GH: The Old Course in St. Andrews. I love this course. It’s so playable, fun, wonderfully strategic and never plays the same way twice. It’s endlessly fascinating to study, play and admire.


JO: Tell us about the secret spots you love – anywhere in the world.  

GH: In the design world, my favorite places are the various gardens around Kyoto in Japan and Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright. They are both places where the hand of man blends in such an awesome way with nature, I always try and remind myself of these places when we are needing to artificially create golf holes that appear natural. The Isle of Skye is amazingly beautiful, Tracey, my wife, and I loved it so much that our youngest daughter’s middle name is Skye.


JO: If you had a cocktail named after you, what would it be called and what would the ingredients be?

GH: A writer once referred to my appearance as looking like a 2-iron, so I would call it a 2-Iron.  It would be a double shot of Tito’s vodka, a splash of club soda and ruby red grapefruit juice!


JO: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?  

GH: Learn how to say no, gracefully. The best advice in a quote, is by John Lassiter, “Quality is the best business plan.”