Designed for a Champion: Q&A with Architect Gil Hanse
When The Los Angeles Country Club hosts the U.S. Open next June 15-18, it will be the third national championship venue in the past four years to have been worked on by course architects Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner and their team. Their 2010 restoration of the North Course, which included substantial contributions from Los Angeles-based author Geoff Shackelford, brought the 1920s work of architect George C. Thomas back to life. FORE asked Tom Mackin to talk with Hanse about the holes he most wants to see the world’s best players take on, what the eventual winner will have done best and the most exciting on-course discovery of his career.
Which hole will you be most interested in watching during the U.S. Open?
I think the short par-4 sixth will be really interesting, with the green totally blind from the tee. Are they going to try and drive it with such a narrow window there? Are they going to choose to hit it to the far end of the fairway, where it’s 75 yards wide, to get a good angle in with a wedge? But then you’re pushing the ball down close to the barranca and bringing a half-wedge shot into play. That hole will be fascinating to see how they take it on.
Which hole has the most tee flexibility?
Jim Wagner and I learned a lot from LACC, and one thing is that George Thomas (the original architect of the course) set up a course within the course. Like the fifth hole. There is a really difficult hole location on the front right tongue of the green, but that was meant to be played from an up tee, so the fifth has that flexibility. Three has a similar setup where you could move tees forward if you’re playing to the shorter pin. The par-3 seventh could play anywhere from 280 yards down to 200 yards, so there’s a lot of flexibility built into the course, which is part of the architecture of George Thomas. The USGA has accepted all of those things architecturally, so the flexibility is there for them to go in any kind of direction they choose to go.
Are you more interested in how the world’s best play the par-3 11th (up to 275 yards) or the par-3 15th, which played as short as 78 yards during the 2017 Walker Cup?
No. 15. Part of it is that if you put a short club in their hand, or any golfer, you’re going to be more aggressive, and the mental frustration with missing a 96- yard shot is so much higher. You almost walk onto the tee thinking it’s gotta be a birdie. You walk off with a par and you’re upset. Walk off with a bogey and you’re boiling. Whereas with a long par 3, it’s more, ‘Let me just get on the green and get out of there with my three, and if I make a four, I’m not crestfallen.’
Which hole would you most want to talk with George Thomas about?
Probably No. 6, because of how cool it is, and the fact that he did the 10th at Riviera, so picking his brain on short par 4s would be a lot of fun. I think 14 would be an interesting hole, too. Par 5s in this day and age, the expectations are to get home in two. That green is not terribly receptive to a long shot into it because of the way it’s angled, and in his mind he was protecting for a third shot. It would be interesting to talk to him about all the different angles there. If he knew there would be players going for it in two, would he have done anything different there? Because the way he defended it is almost perfect.
What will the winner have done best while navigating his way around the North Course?
It will be putting. I think those greens are so intricate. There are a lot of big slopes in them, but there are so many really subtle slopes, too. Especially if they get to the desired firmness and speed, those greens will be all those guys can handle. Otherwise it will be golfers who are thoughtful about where they place their tee shot. Driver will not always be the answer. And given those slopes and the way the ball starts moving on the fairways, it’s going to wind up in the rough. How they mentally handle that will be important.
You have referred to working on the North Course as being like an archaeological dig. What was the coolest thing you and your team uncovered?
The second and sixth greens had been changed dramatically over time. We had an excavator operator who was so good that when he was pulling away the fill on those greens, he saw the old black layer indicating the original greens. And we could actually even see outlines of old cup positions. It was incredible. We’ve never seen anything that detailed before. It gave us a high degree of confidence that we were getting things back as close as possible to the original.