Keeping Score

WTGN 1-on-1: Gil Hanse
Rustic Canyon Golf Course’s par-3 sixth hole features dry river wash that golf course architect Gil Hanse incorporated into the design. (Photo: Geoff Shackelford).

Gil Hanse, founder of Hanse Golf Course Design, has carefully crafted a reputation for creating “courses that are simple and elegant in appearance, yet sophisticated in strategy and design,” according to his firm’s website. The most notable of his designs with partner Jim Wagner is the Rio 2016 Olympic Golf Course. Since 1998, Hanse has designed more than a dozen courses throughout the United States, including Rustic Canyon Golf Course, a Moorpark, Calif., public access course that opened in 2002. 

Where To Golf Next publisher Alex Miceli and Hanse sat down recently to discuss designing courses that are fun, such as Rustic Canyon, and that have the Hanse touch.

WHERE TO GOLF NEXT: In your mind is there a difference between a good course or a fun course?

GIL HANSE: Well, I don't think there's any difference between good and fun. With a golf course that has some width, you could hit the ball and find it and hit it again. I think that's always critical in any element of design. The scale of property at Rustic Canyon lends itself to having wide playing corridors because it was a big landscape.

[At Rustic Canyon] we had the dry wash and the barranca that runs through the middle — and which was environmentally protected, so we had to stay away from it. But we also tried to utilize it and figure out ways where we could make it an interesting part of play, ala Riviera or L.A. Country Club, both of which are George Thomas designs. With [golf journalist] Geoff Shackelford being one of our course designers, he had a lot of knowledge of Thomas and the way he built golf courses on Southern California landscapes. 

We utilized the barranca as an interesting hazard instead of a penal one that you're constantly having to play over and over and over. We mixed it up, sometimes it's lateral, sometimes it's cross, sometimes it's not even in play or it's so far out of play. And then build interesting and thoughtful strategies so that while it's still playable for the clear majority of golfers out there, there's enough strategy and interest in it, through the setup, that it becomes challenging to play, if that was the desire. 

WTGN: Can you talk about how you incorporated angles from the vast fairways into to the green complexes?

GH: In our minds, the number one desire of golf course architecture is to make a golf course that is playable for everyone — within reason, obviously. To score on that golf course, the level of precision ramps up dramatically, based on the setup.

Augusta [National] is the perfect example. It's very playable, wide off the tee. You're probably not going to lose many golf balls except maybe down in Rae's Creek, and the greens are big. A lot of contour, but fun to putt.

To score at Augusta — you see it every April — the level of precision is ramped up because you have got to come in from the proper angles. That means you must hit the proper half of the fairway, instead of just hitting the fairway. You have all the slopes and contours in the fairway, and then to score at Augusta you have got to hit it to the proper quarter or third of the green. So, we hope to design a golf course in that sort of mold that is playable. But if you really are trying to score and focus out there, especially at Rustic Canyon with the wind, your level of precision must be a lot tighter than just the average guy like myself going out there to play. 

WTGN; If a person said ‘That's a Gil Hanse golf course,’ what would be the main characteristic of a Gil Hanse golf course?

GH: I think we're most proud of the fact that we moved literally teaspoons of dirt. I think we moved a total of 17 thousand cubic yards on the entire job. So, I think that we did the best we could to find the golf holes instead of creating them. And I think that's something that goes from property to property with us.  

I think that we are always looking to find golf holes with natural contours and natural vegetation versus manufacturing golf holes — if the land allows you to do that. I think that that would be something that's consistent throughout our golf courses. The strategy and the character needs to feel like it belongs in its natural context. Rustic Canyon has similar design concept theories to Boston Golf Club, but it looks and feels completely different because Boston Golf Club looks like it belongs in New England and Rustic Canyon looks like it belongs in Southern California. If you maximize the contours and the topography on the site for golf holes and then you keep in place or emphasize the native vegetation, then you give a fresh look to a golf course that, at its core and concept. is probably somewhat similar to the others that we have built. 

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