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Gil Hanse on Tokyo Golf Club

28 January, 2011

Gil Hanse on Tokyo Golf Club

Tokyo Golf Club committee member, Mr Ito, interviews Gil Hanse.

What do you personally consider important in your design of new courses and renovation of existing courses?

There are many important factors that we consider important in the design of our new courses, however, the most important factor is the potential for the site/property to yield an exceptional golf course. Within this factor the most important elements are topography, soils, natural vegetation, and views/vistas. Almost every great golf course is built on ground that has interesting and varied topography that is ideally suited for golf. If the topography is too similar throughout the site, the holes can become boring and predictable. We prefer topography that has both subtle and sharp slopes, gentle and steep rises, and would preferably have less than 100 feet of elevation change so that the course can be easily walked. If the roll of the ground is good, having sandy soil is even better. The advantages that occur with sandy soils manifest themselves in many ways, from drainage, to turfgrass selection, and they also provide us with the opportunity to create very natural looking sand hazards. The ability for firm and fast conditions due to well drained soils also allows us to build the ground game into our designs, which creates much more interesting and fun golf shots. While all golf courses by the same architect look somewhat the same, having good native vegetation on hand to tie the golf course into, creates a look and feel that is distinct to that particular landscape.

We prefer to build courses that blend gently into their surrounds and the use of native vegetation helps us greatly in this effort. The final piece to the property puzzle is the view from the golf course. Obviously having a dramatic piece of property with ocean/water, mountain, or city views can be the ingredient that makes a great golf course a “world class” golf course. Golfers love to look at their surrounds while playing golf, and part of the beauty of the game is the sense of being out in nature. This sense is heightened when the surrounding landscape can be brought into the golf course and can help to add to the drama of the course by focusing the golfer on distant landscapes while they play the golf hole. This concept is not dissimilar from the Japanese garden concept of the “borrowed landscape”, wherein the immediate landscape is made much more dramatic and expansive by using long distance views as if they were part of the course itself. Our final criteria for the selection of golf course projects is, “Will we have fun doing the project?”. If the site can provide for exceptional golf, we need to make sure that the owner/client is someone with whom we would like to work, and that the process of getting to and living on site will be comfortable and interesting. We spend so much time on site that we need to make sure that these arrangements are satisfactory, otherwise it will lead to frustration, which does not lead to good design work.

In the renovation of existing courses, the potential for improvement and the history of the design and the club are the most important factors for us. We need to believe that we can significantly improve the golf course, and that the membership will be supportive of these changes before we take on any renovation projects. We also believe very strongly that the golf course should have a strong tradition either in the course or in the architect who originally designed the course. Having these strong traditions or history allows us to research the design of the course and to implement or restore many of the interesting features from the original design. It also allows us to immerse ourselves in the style of that particular course or architect and learn from their example. This ultimately makes us better golf course architects when we work on our original projects. The strong potential for improvement and the great traditions of Tokyo Golf Club are what led us to pursue the commission at TGC, and we hope that our philosophies are evident in our work on the Asaka greens.

How do you see the current trends in golf course designs and what is the background for such trends?
Unfortunately all of the current trends in golf course design are being influenced by the poor economic climate around the world. The construction of new courses in the United States has basically shut down with the economic crisis. As an example, 2010 will be the third year in a row where more golf courses have been closed than have been opened in the United States. In 2000, 400 new golf courses opened in the United States compared to only 34 in 2009, no matter what industry you are in that is a dramatic downturn. As a result most American golf course architects are looking to Asia (primarily China and South Korea) for new golf course projects, the inclusion of golf in the Olympics will only help the global need for golf courses. With the exception of these Asian courses, the trend is now developing to build courses that are more efficient, cost effective, and natural as a way to keep down the investment costs and make the courses potentially profitable. Too many courses were developed on an unrealistic financial model and these courses have hurt the game of golf.

Why are so many courses being renovated today?
I believe it is primarily for two reasons; the first has to deal with technology and the second with investment in the course as an asset. Many of the older courses that we love were developed in an era when the golf ball and club technology was not as active as it is today. As a result, many fairway bunkers are in need of relocation, and the creation of back tees can help to keep a course challenging for every level of golfer. We are also seeing that the maintenance of golf courses is performed at such a high level, that in particular, putting greens are being modified to reflect the challenges inherent in the modern putting speeds. However, I believe that the reason why most golf clubs are renovating their courses is an economic reason. Clubs, even the top clubs, are finding themselves in a climate where they have to compete for members (due to the fact that the economy is not great, and participation in golf is declining or flat). This competition can sometimes be won through reputation alone, however, most clubs are finding that investment in their primary asset (the golf course) is the only way to secure the future of the club. If Club A is competing with Club B next door for members, and Club B has just renovated their facilities, chances are that prospective members are going to find that Club B is a more attractive choice. If Club A does nothing to make up this deficit, they will eventually find themselves fighting to survive, and they will have to invest significantly more to do it in the future.

We are finding that even the top clubs in the United States are having to face this reality, as their waiting lists have evaporated and people are looking to be smart with their discretionary income when they join a club. The final economic reason for all these renovations is that existing members have cut back on travel due to the economy and they are playing more rounds of golf at their home club. As a result, they see investment in the club as a positive and are happy to enjoy the upgraded facilities with their free time.

How have Colt/Alison courses fared in the US and how are they being viewed by the golfing world?
As with the work of any great golf course architects, the work of Colt and Alison is held in the highest esteem in the United States. Up until 30 years ago there was very little appreciation for the genius of the golf course architects of the Golden Age (1910 – 1939). This has thankfully changed and the protection and restoration of their work is a key part of current golf course architecture. In the United States, Colt and Alison did not complete a great number of courses, however, in their native Britain their work is enjoying a great deal of appreciation and a renaissance of interest in their great golf courses. One of the greatest pleasures of our work at Tokyo Golf Club was to be able to study the influence that Colt and Alison had on Ohtani, and to restore some of the elements and soul of their design work to the Asaka green complexes. While they are not in a pure sense a restoration of their work, I believe wholeheartedly that the green complexes are of a kindred spirit with the great work that Alison completed in Japan.

Gil Hanse was named Golf Magazine's 2009 Architect of the Year and he was a design partner at Renaissance Golf Design before setting up his own design company in 1992.


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