Gil Hanse on the Rio Olympic Golf Course

I mean, how long did Gil Hanse, the game’s stealthiest architectural craftsman, actually think he could maintain a career cruise under the radar with a portfolio of originals like Castle Stuart, Boston Golf Club, and Rustic Canyon in the ground and a TPC in Beijing plus a 27-hole reinvention of the muni for Mike Keiser in Bandon on his drawing board? And those deft revitalizations of classic outposts like Plainfield, Ridgewood, Fishers Island, Los Angeles Country Club, and The Country Club in Brookline? And that reconceiving of TPC Boston? And his renewal plans for Doral’s Blue Monster—for Trump, no less? Did he really think no one would notice?

If Hanse, a tall 2-iron with an easy laugh, wasn’t about to blow his own cover—or his own horn, for that matter, he’s just not the type—sooner or later someone, something, somewhere was bound to do it for him, and if blow it you must, you might as well just blow the doors off.

Heard anything of late about a new golf course planned for Rio?

How can you hide the winner of the most spirited competition for the most coveted commission for a golfing ground since Mother Nature aced out all comers at St. Andrews? You can’t. So when Hanse and design associates Jim Wagner and Amy Alcott were tapped in March—over Nicklaus, Player, Norman, et al—to sculpt the 18 holes anointed to host the game’s 2016 return to the Olympics for the first time in more than a century, the jig, at last, was up. His decidedly low profile was instantaneously, well, en-Hansed. The spotlight was blazing. The game’s quietest architect was—suddenly—burning in its heat.

And at 48, almost two decades after hanging out his own shingle, Gil Hanse was ready for his close-up.

On one level, he had a solid reality check in place. “I’ve told the kids, ‘Hey, if I’m acting differently, give me a hard time.’”

On another, his well-earned sense of confidence lent perspective. If Hanse is shy, he’s not naive. “I am quietly ambitious,” he readily admits. “It’s not like I’m totally disinterested in this attention, and I’m not totally uncomfortable with it, either. But I’d rather let the work speak for itself.”

It speaks volumes. So does the speaker.

“It makes you believe in fate,” Hanse is telling me a week after the Olympics announcement. He’s in the middle of a story that has nothing to do with the Olympics and everything to do with the unexpected steps that can shift the path of a future. And a pair of red sneakers.

It was back in the late ’80s, and Hanse, a graduate student in landscape architecture at Cornell, was scouring the British Isles courtesy of a fellowship that had sent him across The Pond for a year’s immersion in golf courses. One day, he and his wife Tracey—they’d met as undergrads at the University of Denver—were driving around Fife when they saw a sign for Crail, home of the seventh-oldest golf society in the universe and a course designed by Old Tom Morris.

Hanse knew nothing about the place, but the Old Masters fascinated him, as they still do, so they pulled in, and—in his golfingly inappropriate jeans and red footwear—he walked into the pro shop, introduced himself, and asked if he might have a walk around.

The strangest thing happened. When he returned, head pro Graeme Lennie, for no apparent reason, offered Hanse a look at his golf library, filled with weathered classics like Wethered and Simpson’s The Architectural Side of Golf and Darwin’s Golf Courses of the British Isles. These were valuable editions; Hanse knew of them, certainly, but had never held them in his hands. If he wanted to read them, Lennie told him, he’d have to come back. Hanse did—again and again.

He returned to the States, finished at Cornell, got his legs under him working for Tom Doak, and shortly after the two completed Stonewall, north of Philadelphia, in the early ’90s, Hanse went out on his own, settling himself and his growing family in the area. For a young architect, the move made sense; he had a calling card nearby to show prospective clients and he was surrounded in every direction by living masterpieces honed by Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, Hugh Wilson, George Thomas, and William Flynn. (Eventually, he’d know them all intimately enough to restore their work while barely leaving a fingerprint.)

One day, the phone rang. It was Lennie. Crail had decided to build a second golf course adjacent to Old Tom’s. Would Young Gil like to submit a proposal? He did, and got the job—Craighead Links, his first solo design, and just the third course in the game’s cradle then crafted by an American. Doors began to open.

“And I still think,” says Hanse, “what if he’d said, ‘Beat it. You’re in jeans and Chuck Taylors’? What if he hadn’t invited me back? It was the springboard to go forward.”

We are sitting in what Hanse smilingly refers to as the world headquarters of Hanse Golf Course Design, a one-room office about the size of a small putting green with a desk, a computer, and a drawing table in a renovated old barn in the Philadelphia suburb of Malvern. It’s a room filled with stories. The floor is made of red oak milled from trees taken down to build Boston Golf Club. Original designs by heroes Colt & Alison and Flynn highlight one wall; featured on another is a pencil sketch of the 11th hole at Applebrook, a Hanse design just up the road, drawn by son Tyler. A routing of Castle Stuart, signed by Hanse and developer Mark Parsinen, sits above the entryway, which opens onto an enclosed porch that opens into the rest of the house, which is telling. Hanse has worked hard to keep family—elder daughter Chelsea just finished her first year at law school, Tyler is studying to be a chef, Caley attends high school—in place above the peripatetic demands of his peripatetic calling.

Growing up mostly on Long Island, Hanse himself had a less than idyllic family life, relying on sports, politics, and an affinity for the land for his equilibrium. All, significantly, converged for him around his grandfather, the mayor of Babylon in Suffolk County. “He was as big a role model as I ever had,” says Hanse. “He was a humble, self-effacing man. He was kind to others and took time to listen.” The two went to Mets games together, greeted constituents together, and when Hanse reached his late teens, they started playing golf together. Hanse took to the game quickly. Its playing fields intrigued him most of all.

That he would one day mold them himself was not originally on his to-do list—a life in politics was—but a seed took root, held on, and matured through college (where he doodled golf holes in his notebooks), grad school, and his year overseas. He fell hard at first sight for the expanse, the openness, and the aesthetics of the Old Course, and his imagination was sparked by its myriad strategic options. Playing there was fun—fun—and why wasn’t the game like that everywhere? Fun and interesting golf became his ideal.

At the same time, while interning for Hawtree & Son—one of his Olympic rivals, as was Doak—he realized what wasn’t fun: plotting courses on paper and then handing them off to contractors to realize. “Drawings can’t translate passion or feel,” he insists. “That can only be done in the field.”

Which is why he embraced the then-burgeoning minimalist wing of design, why he’d rather coax his courses from the landscape one or two at a time—drawing plans by hand, captaining his own bulldozer, carving his bunkers, and hand-shaping his own greens.

“It’s more a reflection of methodology and commitment to each project,” he explains. “Minimalism—and I’m proud of the tag—is a reflection of the school of architects [Coore & Crenshaw, Doak, and himself on the prow] who are also builders. It’s an extension of Pete Dye. We don’t see ourselves as just planners.”

But minimalism is more than that, too. It’s building in a way that tries to make it look like man’s hand was never involved, that the lay of the land has lain that way forever and a golf course just happens to have passed through. It’s building in a sustainable way long before sustainability became chic. All are Hanse’s calling cards.

“The American style has been a more manicured, artificial presentation of the game,” he says. “Our hope is that the game we present is not like that.” He likes frayed edges, courses that merge into their surroundings, features that look as if they belong.

But not every piece of land gives you that, and inside every real minimalist is an earth-mover rumbling to break free. “Who’s better qualified to do maximalist work?” he asks. “We spend all of our time fixated on natural features, how they look, how they can be interpreted into a golf course. We have a pretty good sense of how to integrate them, how to make things look natural and random.”

The challenge of the Olympics course in a nutshell.

It’s no easy assignment being asked to create a stage that will stand front and center to test the premier men and premier women for two weeks of 2016, then spend the rest of its life being maintained at reasonable costs as it tries to lure a non-golfing nation to the charms of the game through its aesthetics, variety, and enjoyability. It’s even more challenging if the land on which the course will sit has none of what he calls “those wonderful crevices and nooks and crannies.”

“It’s a blank canvas,” he says. “People don’t realize how accurate a description that is.” All the more fun to raise it from nothing. Have bulldozer, will travel.

Hanse will move on down to Rio in the fall, with Tracey and Caley following in January. That he was set to make that kind of commitment—family and all—helped seal the deal for him. “If I can convince a 15-year-old girl to move to Rio when most 15-year-olds won’t listen to anything, that was about as powerful a statement as we could make, but that’s the commitment we have to this project.”

Until he’s done, everything else moves back. Bandon will wait, so will Doral, where he’ll overhaul the Dick Wilson layout to better meet the demands of the annual WGC event. And then?

“Who knows where this goes,” he muses. “It will hopefully put us in a different class, allow us to be more selective, and maybe lead us to jobs nobody would have considered us for before.”

Even recognition has its advantages.

Jeff Silverman writes for several national publications. His next book, Merion: The Championship Story, awaits its final chapter—in June.