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Designing a Golf Course for the 2016 Summer Olympics

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Designing a Golf Course for the 2016 Summer Olympics
Gil Hanse and Amy Alcott talk about the process of creating an Olympic golf course

By Matt McKay

After all the weirdness, delays and political and legal maneuvering, Gil Hanse and Amy Alcott can finally say, yes, the golf course for the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is completed. And when the players tee off on it, it will be the first time since 1904 that golf is played as part of the Summer Olympics.

But another result of constructing this course is that Hanse and Alcott may have helped promote a trend for the future of golf course design.

Hanse, founder and president of Hanse Golf Course Design, together with consultation from Alcott, brought the Olympic golf course to life after three years of building, maneuvering, hurdle jumping and standing on the sidelines for extended periods. The Grateful Dead’s trip may have been longer and stranger, but Hanse could hardly imagine the Brazilian experience being any more interesting.

“It was the most interesting job we’ve ever been involved with. Not because of the stakes and what was riding on it, which we freely accepted. We were quite happy to take on that task,” Hanse says of the project in the Reserva de Marapendi, in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca zone. “But the reality did not match the process that was described in the interview. So we had to make up a lot of stuff on the fly and adjust to a lot of things that we did not expect to happen.”

As he and his team were going through the bidding process, Hanse knew they would have to bring a very special presentation to the Olympic Committee. He knew they were probably the least well known among the bidders, and he had gotten wind of architectural partnerships being formed by Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam as well as Greg Norman and Lorena Ochoa. He thought it made sense for his bid to include strong input from a female professional, too.

Hanse had already struck up a friendship with Alcott during his time at Los Angeles Country Club when Alcott lived nearby, and he thought of her as someone “great, very cool, very easy to get along with.”  

He called Amy and asked her if she would be interested. Hanse Golf Design would be the lead on the project and Alcott would work as a consultant whose focus was to help the team create a golf course on which women would compete at the highest level. “Amy is so sweet and really doesn’t have a huge ego,” Hanse says. “And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s great, that’s fine. I don’t need equal billing on the design, I just want to be part of the process.’”

Alcott’s value to the team became apparent at the presentation.

“We gave a great presentation. We felt like we hit it on all cylinders,” Alcott says. “They told us they were going to come up with a decision in February and we didn’t hear anything until March. [Gil] called me up from Doral 10 minutes before he was going into the press conference and he was screaming, ‘Amy can you believe it? We won it. We won the whole thing!’ And I was just ecstatic.”

Hanse says Alcott was equally helpful in the interview phase. “She came down to Rio as part of our team. And she’s just so folksy and approachable, and she told these wonderful stories about how she learned to play as a child hitting into soup cans, and just genuinely how this golf course and the academy could be part of growing the legacy of the sport in Brazil.”

In terms of the construction of the course, Hanse says Alcott’s input included general ideas about raising up the bunkers and putting them in small clusters, an idea ultimately executed in different areas on the course. Hanse notes that their biggest innovation, tweak or design gamble came in their placement of landing areas.

“One of the critical things that’s going to be interesting, to see if we got this right, is putting the men and women on the same golf course back-to-back. You want them to have similar shot patterns,” Hanse says. “So when a man hits driver-7-iron, he’s going to be in a certain area. When the women hit driver-7-iron, their landing area is probably going to have to be 20-25 yards farther forward. Well, how do you bunker that landing area?”

What they came up with was a shorter set of hazards that would challenge most of the men and the women who hit shorter, and then a longer set of hazards to challenge the longer ladies and the Bubba Watsons of the world, the bigger-hitting men.

“I think it’s an interesting concept that we’ve stretched the landing area and stretched the strategy so that it works for both, and Amy was really helpful with that whole process,” Hanse says.

With designers such as Hanse soliciting female professional input, and the game of golf attempting to reach out to all underexposed demographics, is the male-female design team a trend for the future?

Hanse says he has certainly seen its value. “I think there are obviously different perspectives on the game that men and women bring to it, and having a woman’s perspective was very helpful.” 

Alcott hopes it is because she’s ready to design more. The design bug bit her hard when she assisted Casey O’Callaghan with the redesign of Indian Canyons Golf Resort in Palm Springs, California, and she also consulted with Hanse on the renovation of Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, New Jersey. Alcott says she still gets letters from players who appreciate Indian Canyon’s playability for the female player. And she believes if the girls are having a good time and a good play, it’s likely the men are, too.

“I want to do more, more remodeling and more new courses, because I feel like I have a good eye for what makes a great golf course and what makes a playable golf course,” Alcott says. “People don’t want to be beat up when they go play. I think there’s been a part of the game that’s just been ‘Tigerized.’ So many courses are just too long and they’ve taken a lot of wedges out of the game.”

Alcott is excited to see how the Rio course plays out in Olympic competition. She’s particularly fond of the finishing holes, starting with No. 16, a short par 4 with personality traits of Riviera’s No. 10, with out-of-bounds dropping off to the left. That’s followed by a relatively short par 3, and then No. 18, a medium-length par 4. They create the opportunity for birdies and the promise of high-intensity action coming down the stretch.

And when the competition is over and the smoke clears, what does Alcott hope players will say about the course?

“I would hope it tested every shot in their bag,” she says. “That it was tough, that the course was a difficult one but fair. And that they enjoyed the walk.”
Matt McKay is a contributing writer to Desert Golf & Tennis