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Add Hanse to list of best traditional course designers

David R. HollandBy David R. Holland,

MOORPARK, Calif. - They strive to protect and preserve the integrity of the land, to maximize what was laid before their eyes and minimize their own impact when constructing golf courses.

Keeping the natural character of the site is paramount and they study the history of golf back to its roots in Scotland and Ireland.

It's called minimalism and put the name of Gil Hanse on the list with Ben Crenshaw, Bill Coore and Tom Doak -- America's current champions of traditional golf-course architecture.

In fact, Hanse's contribution is so key to traditional golf he became only the third American architect to build a course in Scotland, when he layed out Craighead Golf Links, which opened in 1998.

And Hanse's new Rustic Canyon Golf Course, 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, is minimalism's latest trophy. The course was named America's Best New Affordable Course for 2002 by Golf Digest. Green fees are $35 weekdays and $45 on weekends on this retro, lay-of-the-land municipal.

Rustic Canyon sits at the base of Happy Camp Canyon, a hiker's paradise, bumped up against the Santa Susana Mountains, near the 118 Freeway and Moorpark College. Golfers enjoy a fairly flat walk through the first nine, viewing holes that follow the natural terrain and through an area defined by a dry wash that Hanse incorporates into the strategy.

The back nine climbs into the base of the mountains, across barrancas and wild areas, uses the 240 feet of elevation change and is a tougher score. The fringes of the layout include prickly-pear cactus, scrub sage and oak trees growing in sandy soil.

Once the purists or lovers of minimalism play the course they echo this about Rustic Canyon: "Why can't more architects build golf courses like this? Why can't more courses today be this affordable?"

Rustic Canyon, a 6,906-yard, par-72, is affordable because minimalism can also remove unneeded construction costs, like pushing the earth around with a bulldozer creating rolling, artificial fairways when they are naturally flat or building man-made mounds along the fairway boundaries. At Rustic Canyon only 17,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved and the price tag was just over $3 million.

Hanse, a Pennsylvania-based Doak protégé, appreciates the loyal following of the traditionalists and affirms that Rustic Canyon's success was a group effort. He invited Los Angeles-based golf writer-historian Geoff Shackelford to join the team along with associate Jim Wagner, a landscape architect, who directed the daily on-site construction and shaped the bunkers. All three are listed as the "architect".

Hanse, too, likes to mount the bulldozer and shape greens and bunkers, doing it by feel and not from blueprints or drawings.

Shackelford is a young journalist who played golf and graduated from nearby Pepperdine. He has hole-by-hole descriptions of Rustic Canyon on his web site, www.GeoffShackelford.com, and has written eight books including in-depth studies and writing about Riviera Country Club.

Traditional versus non-traditional?

"It's such a subjective field. Am I right just because I design traditional courses?" Hanse pondered. "Is someone who designs non-traditional golf courses wrong? I would hate to see every golf course the same style. I hope the field is big enough where there is quantity, quality and diversity. I would hate to have traditional, minimalist design become the trend, then Doak and Crenshaw, Coore and my firm would all be on the same bandwagon. "

So can Hanse have fun playing a non-traditional golf course?

"Sure, anytime I'm playing I'm having fun because I love the game," Hanse said. "I might get a little bored by a non-traditional golf course, especially in cases where I don't really have to think about the next shot."

Tony Ristola, a scratch golfer and a young, emerging golf-course architect based in Europe, has played Rustic Canyon four times. (Check out www.agolfarchitect.com).

"Rustic Canyon is the most interesting course I have played in a long time," Ristola said. "Think about this -- one prominent architect was taken to the site and passed on it because it was too boring. Rustic Canyon has a great variety of holes across the board with wide fairways. This allows the average guy to get around and have fun, but that width disguises the best line of attack for the average and expert player. Unlike most modern courses, this one is not figured out on your first trip around. Not everything is in your face, defined, contained and easy to decipher. In fact, I cannot see this course ever becoming boring because the greens alone simply prevent it."

Minimalism also means maximizing strategy and creating options in choosing green sites and hazards. The green complexes are downright awesome at Rustic Canyon. Huge tightly mowed areas encircle the greens creating thought-provoking mental aspects. Do you putt or chip?

"The inspiration for the mowed-out chipping areas was based on our belief that interest in the short game aspects of a course make for interesting golf," Hanse said. "Tightly mown areas can be a great aspect of play on a course due to the complexities that they offer to recovery play. The average golfer can just putt or chip away, making it a bit easier to handle, while the accomplished player may find the play a bit more difficult due to the complexities of the options that exist. Do they putt, chip, flop, bump and run, carry the ball?

"When a good player is faced with one option (a lob wedge out of rough) they have the skill and confidence to execute the shot required. However, if you give them choices, there may be a shred of doubt in their mind as to whether they made the right choice, and that makes the shot more difficult to execute. Courses that influenced us in this direction are Pinehurst No. 2, Augusta, and Royal Melbourne," Hanse said.

How does Hanse continue to create new holes and come up with fresh ideas?

"I think the key is to expose yourself to as many good golf courses as you can," Hanse said. "Doak preaches this. You must study the old classics, explore the characteristics and try to keep the ideas you get from them fresh. There are enough combinations out there to keep things with a new twist and sometimes you create a good hole out of just plain luck.

"You can also start with a concept, start shaping and start pushing dirt and if something just doesn't look right you can change your vision. I think Coore, Crenshaw and Doak extend their visions by being involved throughout the construction. If you limit yourself to the drawing board, you are limiting your possibility for a more creative processes," Hanse said.

What courses peak Hanse's interest?

"C.B. Macdonald's National Golf Links of America would be at the top of the list followed by Cypress Point, The Old Course and North Berwick," he said. "One's that wouldn't be on most lists include Merion, Crystal Downs and Shinnecock Hills. Recent courses built that I think will stand the test of time are Sand Hills in Nebraska (Coore, Crenshaw) and Pacific Dunes in Oregon (Doak)."

Hanse's favorite classic designers include Alister MacKenzie and A.W. Tillinghast.

"MacKenzie was the first to package the whole deal and elevated the art of golf-course architecture. He worked on some great sites and built beautiful golf courses that included strategy. Tillinghast was bold and not afraid to take a chance."

Hanse says Rustic Canyon was very close to being a "great site" and he is currently working on The Boston Golf Club, a layout tentatively set to open in 2005. "It will be a walking only golf course with a full caddy program and no carts or cart paths," Hanse said.

Hanse's company, project philosophy

Hanse Golf Course Design Inc. was founded in 1993 and is dedicated to being small with personal interest in the design and construction of each project. This commitment to a limited number of design projects with a maximum amount of personal attention has been important to its success.

Hanse was a Design Partner in Doak's Renaissance Golf Design, based out of Traverse City, Michigan. And he also followed Doak to Cornell, where both won the prestigious William Frederick Dreer Award, which allowed him to spend a year in Great Britain studying the earliest examples of golf-course architecture.

While in Britain, Hanse interned with the firm of Hawtree and Son, the oldest continuously practicing golf-course architectural firm in the world. Through these experiences Hanse formed his philosophies on golf-course architecture, basing them strongly on the traditions and history of golf-course design.

Rustic Canyon Golf Course
15100 Happy Canyon Road
Moorpark, CA 93021
Phone: (805) 530-0221

Other Hanse designs

South Fork Country Club,
Long Island, New York
Tallgrass Golf Club,
Long Island, New York
Craighead Links,
Crail, Fife, Scotland
The Capstone Club,
Brookwood, Alabama
Inniscrone Golf Club,
Avondale, Pennsylvania
Applebrook Golf Club,
Malvern, Pennsylvania

Hanse Golf Course Design, Inc.
131 Grubb Road
Malvern, PA 19355
Phone: (610) 651-2977
Fax: (610) 651-2982
Web site: www.hansegolfdesign.com
E-mail: contact@hansegolfdesign.com

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Smaller Golf Courses

    Duane S. Peterson wrote on: Feb 6, 2016

    Question: Why can't today's Architects design smaller non-traditional golf courses for the average golfer?
    Answer: Blind tradition has no frame of reference.