On Wednesday, 3-7-2012, Gil Hanse was named architect of the Olympic golf course in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. We don’t have an interview with Hanse as yet, but we have a few with gentlemen who have worked with him. The first is with George Bahto, himself a golf course architect and restorer, from New Jersey.
1. How did you come to golf? Young or middle age? As a player or something else?
My dream growing up was to be a baseball player. Out of high school I signed a minor league contract with the (then) Philadelphia Athletics and played a couple of years in the minors before enlisting in the U S Navy (for 4 years) during the Korean War. I was 21 years old at the time and figured by the time I got out of the service (at 25) the baseball dream would not happen. I was in Naval Aviation for four years – went to school for 18 months then was on flight crew for two and a half years. During that time I switched my athletic focus to golf. Not too many golfers on the courses at the time so I had a fairly empty course most of the time and practiced a lot. By the time I was discharged I was a single digit player – the transition from baseball to golf was easy for me.
2. What drew you to golf course architecture? Experiences as a youth? A mentor? Something else?
Well, I caddied occasionally for my father as a kid – but that was a chore – pretty crazy game, I thought. Little did I know that my three different “home” courses after I was discharged were designed by the same architect, Charles Banks, the disciple of the great Charles Blair Macdonald. I was more concerned with playing in those days but there seems something similar to those three courses. My last course, The Knoll, was where I played most of my golf and in the middle 1980’s the clubhouse burned to the ground – we were devastated. Lost were the original artwork, the original framed blueprint aside from other memorabilia. I went to the USGA Golf Museum here in New Jersey to see
what they had about our course. Much to my dismay I was told I would have to leaf through the old magazines in the library to find any material. Oh my, the time I spent in that library – and to think most of it is on line now.
During the research process I would periodically tell the members at The Knoll about how the third hole, our Redan, was a copy of a famous hole in Scotland; and that we have versions of holes from the Old Course, etc.. or our impossible 13th hole was from France, built in 1888. I explained the theory of Macdonald’s “famous-hole” concept to
them and it caught their interest. “Gee, George why not write a book about the Knoll and explain all this to the full membership.” Me? – with no writing experience, just a high school graduate (who once cut my senior class for 35 straight days before getting caught – hah) – are you kidding.
Well, the town of Parsippany, who owns the course, thought it would be a good idea, gave me an editor and “we were off to the races” – writing a book called The Legend of The Knoll. The Knoll is an interesting story, a course founded by thirty millionaires during the Roaring Twenties who lost the course just a few years after it was built because of
the Great Depression of 1929. The course remained virtual original and untouched for many years by various ownership’s – neglect would be a better description. It was private for many years and finally went public in the 1970’s and it was then that I could afford to join this marvelous original course. A number of people encouraged me to continue the research and soon it brought to the surface the fascinating story of Seth Raynor and Charles Blair Macdonald. Raynor was intriguing to me. He was reticent, to put it mildly, wrote down little – just let his 90-plus courses speak for him. He built 90-plus courses
many of which he never was credited for building. There was virtually no information available about Raynor so I decided to start visiting his courses – usually the most elite courses in their area due to the fact most of these were private clubs founded by founders of Macdonald’s National Golf Links.
From then on more and more information rose to the surface and a profile on Raynor began to develop. Well, you can’t talk about Seth Raynor without speaking about Charles Blair Macdonald in the same breath, so more research! I gained great access to the information at The National – a museum unto itself. After that all doors opened for me (after I promised not to talk about their social histories – hah).
3. What design elements do you like on a golf course (staggered tees versus runway tees); blind shots versus complete views; cross bunkers versus parallel hazards, etc.
What I appreciate most in golf course architectures are a number of things that really tie together a total theme; wide fairways, strong strategic bunkering incorporating fast and firm conditions and large greens which enable architects to affect interesting internal undulations.
Allow me explain in detail.
The equipment makers and the powers to be have all but destroyed so many of the great classic courses by allowing length to be the major factor during a tournament. Also, our “instant- success” – “short attention span” attitude is partially at fault as well – we have little patience for details; “details” in golf, to me, has a lot to do with strategy through the course as well as on the greens..
We have allowed our game to be a succumbed by the soft greens we play on so many courses – we want to see our golf shots react like the shots of the professional golfers – we want shots to land, hold and even spin back like the pros.
The single most important tool courses have today to curb the ultra-low scores on the tour is to firm up the greens. With firmer greens (along with the new groove modifications) even the professionals cannot play darts to the pins. With the groove change and firmer greens, even the pros, have to vary their approach shots.
Back on the tee, to me, wider fairways compound the average golfer’s target – “so much room! I’ll be in the fairway, even if I am somewhat off-line.” The opposite is true on well designed courses. The architect can cleverly afford you a false sense of security with wide fairways, leaving the golfer with awkward approaches to the green if in the wrong area – not so with narrow fairway with “defined lines of play.”
Further, wide fairways allow sufficient room for cleverly positioned fairway hazards along the play to the green. Narrow fairways most often use rough for golf course strategy.
Given sufficient room architects can plan a course that is challenging for the crack golfer while still designing a course that is fun to play for the average golfer.
Larger greens afford the designer the opportunity to build greens with interesting internal contours and large greens segmented into what essentially are greens-within-greens. The golfer, again with that false sense of security I spoke of before, falsely believes large greens are easier to hit and make the putting easier. He will be in for a surprise.
4. Your book on Charles Blair Macdonald is recognized as a critical volume…how did it come about? Can you discuss the process by which you completed the book?
Since there were so many clubs and so many interesting stories, I just continued researching, then one day I got call from Sleeping Bear Press in Michigan. It seems the publisher saw one of my drawings on Tom Doak’s desk while visiting – Sleeping Bear published a couple of Tom’s books. Tom told him “this dry cleaner” from New Jersey is gathering up information on a book about Macdonald. (Tom and I have been friends for a long time). It was great not having to look for a publisher for a book and after “signing up” with Sleeping Bear the pressure increased about “when will the book be
completed?” Well, it went on for a while and, yes, the book finally got completed and seemed to go over quite well. Actually I think we are almost sold out now.
5. Are there other books in the works? Don’t give away any secrets if projects are currently in limbo.
Here again, we continue. The original book was supposed to have included all the Seth Raynor courses as well as what is in the book, The Evangelist of Golf – the Macdonald courses. I’m dealing with nearly on hundred courses aside from bio material, photos and drawings. The text and drawings would have been cut down a lot and much of the important text would not have made it. I rebelled. The book would have been so heavy you wouldn’t have been able to pick it up. They sent one of the representative over to my house to take a look at my material and we then decided there was enough for two books – even three – one totally on The National. I think I could even do one on Lido. I’m having a great time working on courses – I’ll get to finish the “Raynor” book one day soon. The story of Raynor must be told!
Course projects? Even in this economy there still is plenty going on for me. We are continuing updating the successful project we did for the Sleepy Hollow club. A new Master Plan is in the works now which should raise that course to yet an even higher level. The Sleepy Hollow restoration was voted the #2 restoration in America in 2008 by Golf Digest. We’re very proud. Two years before the restoration of Essex County CC in New Jersey was elevated from #11 private course in NJ to the #3 spot – topped only by Plainfield and Pine Valley – heavy company here in New Jersey. 2009 brought more acclaim, my home course The Knoll was honored as the #1 muni course in New Jersey, that was a long 5 – 6 year project being it is a municipality course and money comes in drips and drabs. Restoring the Knoll was important to me.
6. Can you discuss current projects, either literary or in the field? If so, go ahead.
I work a lot with Gil Hanse, and we have three Master Plans hoping to be moving forward this year. I also have two of my own in the works – one in Westchester and the other in Maryland. At this point in my life I just want to work on important projects that will yield impressive results. Of course the Raynor book.
7. Discuss if you will (and as much as you comfortably can) the various folks you’ve worked with in golf. Who have been your positive (and negative, if you wish to reveal) influences.
I have been fortunate to have worked with and am still working with two of the finest young architects today; Gil Hanse and Tom Doak. Both have been great experiences and both have been absolutely positive. Gil afforded me the opportunity to design and build a course out on Long Island – Stonebridge Golf Links, a course in 1999. Something I never dreamt of doing. The course is based on the Macdonald Raynor architectural philosophies. It was a great experience. Imagine seeing your one dimensional drawing actually grow out of the ground as you envisioned it – and (hopefully) it would
afford people the opportunity to play the course for a hundred years or so? Gil and I have drawn up a number of Master Plans together and have done a couple of restoration that received national acclaim – very exciting. The, of course, a couple
of years ago I was invited to be a part of a Mike Keiser project – the building of Old Macdonald – the fourth course at the Bandon Dunes resort, It will open in June of 2010. This sort of added the icing to what I been working on for the past 15 years or so. Working with Tom and company was a wonderful experience.
8. What do you have to tell the world that it needs to hear?
The New Golden Age of Golf Architecture: I feel we are in the middle of a new bold Golf Golden Age. Many of the new courses that have been built over the past few years, the Sand Hills, Pacific Dunes that have taken golf course architecture to a new highly creative level of architecture not seen since the 1920s eras.
There are many “younger” architects today that are rising to new higher levels of design. A number of these talents learned their trade under the talented Pete Dye. Other architects have risen to more creative levels through competition – hoping to gain recognition matching the “big-names.”
For years we seemed to have built cookie-cutter upon cookie-cutter courses, regurgitating their pet design philosophies, many taking the easier route of not “taking chances.”
Frankly, that produced very boring courses, with just a few designs reaching new heights.
We have to applaud some very innovative developers assisting these newer innovative architects by purchasing and developing wonderful sites that others have long overlooked. I’m praising the Kohlers, Youngscaps and Keisers of the world who developed very remote sites where others feared failure.
Hopefully these, now, “New Golden Age Architects” have just begun their journey building their wonderful new designs.