Earning His Reputation Overseas Malvern Architect Gil Hanse Is Designing A Course Not Far From Storied St. Andrews.

Posted: March 30, 1997

Gil Hanse is a gifted local artist whose work is on display at several spots in the Philadelphia suburbs. But you won't find his canvasses hanging in a gallery. His work requires a lot more space. Gil Hanse designs and renovates golf courses.

Among the places where Hanse has worked are Waynesborough Country Club, Downingtown Country Club, and Merion's famed East Course. Soon, Rolling Green Golf Club will be added to the list.

Hanse and fellow architect Tom Doak designed the highly regarded young course Stonewall, in Elverson. His own firm, Hanse Golf Course Design Inc., will undertake extensive renovation work at Lancaster Country Club this summer and next. The firm has been hired to design and build a new course in Avondale called Inniscrone. Hanse Design continues to do work in metropolitan New York, as well as on Long Island and Cape Cod.

But the crown jewel for Hanse lies 3,000 miles away, in golf's home, Scotland. Next spring, if the weather continues to cooperate and the grasses keep growing, play will commence on Craighead Links, an 18-hole course designed and nurtured by Hanse's company on the North Sea, just minutes from St. Andrews.

In the hundreds of years that golf has been played in Scotland, only two other American firms had been asked to design and build new courses there - Jack Nicklaus' firm and Morrish-Weiskopf. So how does a virtually unknown 33-year-old architect from Malvern, Pa., get an assignment coveted by the world's best and most famous designers?

Gil Hanse believes that the Crail Golfing Society - which was organized in 1786 - selected his firm over the two other finalists because he promised to be there for the six months it would take to build the course. But, without question, these two things also played a part: He reveres the classic, traditional tenets of golf-course architecture, which have nature dictating what should be done. And his sharp eye and keen mind are each larger than his ego.

``Gil's not a household name, and I'm not sure he ever will be, but he's doing architecture the right way,'' said Ron Whitten, the architectural editor of Golf Digest. ``It was a terrific coup for Gil to get that job [in Scotland]. He's well-schooled, well-versed, and has a lot of good ideas. He's a lot like Tom Fazio was 20 years ago; he's modest and self-effacing but driven.''

* Hanse, who grew up on Long Island and in upstate New York, was introduced to golf at about age 18.

``Some of my friends played golf, but I couldn't go out with them and embarrass myself. Luckily, my grandfather was more of an advocate of beginners. He took me out with him, bought me my first set of clubs.''

Hanse graduated from the University of Denver in 1985 after majoring in history and political science and promptly enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., thinking he would learn to design parks and public recreational facilities. During his first semester in Ithaca, he realized that the margins of his notebooks were filled with ideas for golf holes, not playgrounds.

He transferred to the Landscape Architecture Department, and during his second year, he received the department's Dreer Award, which would turn out to be a defining moment in his career. The award stipulates that the recipient study out of the country for one year, and Hanse and his wife, Tracey, headed to Britain, where he played and studied great golf courses.

``For six months, we lived in Oxford while I worked in the office of one of the oldest architectural firms,'' he said. ``It was a very, very traditional firm. They do extremely thorough plans and then send them out to contractors. They made rather infrequent site visits. This experience proved to me that this was not the way I wanted to practice architecture.''

In 1989, when Hanse received a degree from Cornell, golf was in a boom phase, and he had his pick of top American designers to work for - Tom Fazio, Arthur Hills, Mike Hurzdan, Jack Nicklaus. He chose instead to go with the most unknown architect of the lot - Tom Doak, who had also received the Dreer Award at Cornell.

``People thought I was crazy because I chose Doak,'' Hanse said. ``But he practiced architecture the way I wanted to - out in the field. I wanted to be a real hands-on type of designer. It really was the greatest thing I could have done. He taught me so much about architecture - mainly philosophy and strategy.

``I embraced the design characteristics of the great architects - Alister MacKenzie, Charles B. MacDonald, H.S. Colt, [A.W.] Tillinghast, Hugh Wilson, Toomey & Flynn [Howard C. Toomey and William S. Flynn], Dick Wilson.

``They all paid reverence to the land. They respected the site. They created unique golf holes based on what the site offered. They didn't build the same retreads over and over again, regardless of what the site was. That's why their work - Augusta National, Cypress Point, Merion, Shinnecock Hills - is so special.

``They also thoroughly understood options and how to give golfers different ways to play golf holes. Nowadays, everyone gets carried away trying to create signature holes. That's probably the term I hate the most. It seems like a lot of architects are in pursuit of an insignificant, silly goal: `If I can have that one signature hole that everyone remembers, it doesn't matter if there are 17 mediocre holes that no one remembers.' ''

* Hanse's design team includes Jim Wagner, Rodney Hine and Bill Kittleman, who recently retired as head professional at Merion.

Wagner, with a degree in landscape architecture from Penn State, prepares plans. Hine, who is based on Long Island, is the firm's technical expert, selecting grasses and testing the soil.

Kittleman, who entered the golf business in 1956, works only as a consultant to the firm, but Hanse thinks that will change. ``I believe he'll join us on a full-time basis soon and become a partner in the firm,'' he said, calling him ``our mystic and guru.''

``I always wanted to get into golf course design,'' Kittleman said by telephone recently from Cape Cod, where the firm is working on a restoration project at the Kittansett Club. ``It went along with my interest in the whole game.

Kittleman majored in architecture at Yale University, then pursued it for a year in graduate school.

``I love working outdoors, in all kinds of weather. It's all falling together for me. I'm still learning. It's one thing to criticize, it's another to sit down and create and still another to get it built, to bring it into reality. That's something I need more experience with.''

* The early on-site work at Stonewall is what brought Hanse to the Philadelphia area. Four years ago, he and his family moved here. Hanse felt that it was important to be able to show prospective clients more than just slides and photographs of his work.

As a young architect with a young firm, Hanse faces a chicken-and-egg situation: His preference is to design new courses, but he knows that there aren't many country clubs and developers willing to entrust millions of dollars and 200 acres of land to someone without a famous name or a lot of successes to show off.

So Hanse and his team have come up with other avenues. One is to develop master plans for country clubs. Another is to advise and conduct restoration and renovation.

Merion Golf Club, which wanted to give some of its famous 124 bunkers a touch-up as well as to look to its future by developing a long-range plan, has been using Hanse Design for two years.

``The key ingredient to Merion East,'' said Wilson Greenwood Jr., who is chairman of both the club's Green Committee and the Committee for the Preservation of the East Course, ``is there are no rules. But these guys were able to come in and, without rules, maintain the look and feel we were after - the natural, non-manicured, almost rustic look.

``The bunker restoration work we've seen to date - on holes 3, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 13 - has just gotten better and better and better. It's like the people who go in to restore masterpieces or frescos that were done by Leonardo da Vinci. They are tremendous artists in their own right. Gil and his crew have been able to come in and restore some things that are moving targets, unlike masterpieces. They've done a great job.''

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