After a 112-year absence, golf will make its triumphant return to the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro later this week. Cornell alumnus Gil Hanse MLA ’89 was tapped to create this golf course of a lifetime, with a design that could impact Olympic courses for years to come.
Hanse’s firm, Gil Hanse Golf Course Design, was selected to design the course in 2012, beating out many of the world’s top golf course designers.
After winning the competition, Hanse relocated his family to the Olympic city in order to be on site during the design and construction process. After work on the course began, it took approximately 20 months to complete, with a process that included the planting of 85,000 indigenous plants, according to Hanse.
The firm was allotted a large plot of land, situated at the Reserva de Marapendi in Barra da Tijuca, which features a sandy former mining site to the north and a dense wooded area to the south. With its coastal feel, the site is reminiscent of courses outside Melbourne, Australia, according to Hanse.
“Like every course we build, we’ve tried to make this course just look like it belongs on the property where it sits,” Hanse told GolfDigest.
Golf.com referred to the course — which plays, 7,100 yards for men and just under 6,250 for women — as “environmentally friendly and gorgeous.” The website also called it “the most dynamic playing field in these Games.” In partnership with Hanse, GolfDigest provided an in-depth, hole-by-hole look at the course.
“We wanted a progression through the landscapes and a change in direction because the wind should be a significant factor during the Olympic games,” Hanse said.
A common criticism of Olympic facilities as a whole has been their abandoned appearance, with some suggesting the areas will simply collect dust following the games’ end. Hanse and the International Olympic Committee will attempt to avoid this fate by converting their course into Rio de Janeiro’s first public golf course, in the hopes of promoting the game in Brazil.
The unpopularity of golf in Brazil, among other factors, has brought about a handful of obstacles for Hanse and his team.
“The biggest challenge inside, within the gates, was overcoming a lack of understanding for how to build a golf course in Brazil also and the lack of resources at the start of the project to build the course efficiently,” Hanse said in an interview with Reuters in July.
Preparation for the Rio Olympics has been plagued by countless challenges in the past few years, resulting in many top athletes deciding to skip the games entirely. Among them are famous pro golfers Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth. Citing concerns ranging from the Zika virus to exhaustion from the PGA season, the men’s Olympic field is considerably less star-studded than many of the tour’s opens.
While Hanse admitted the firm is “disappointed” that several top male players withdrew from the events, he’s quick to point out the depth of talent in the women’s field.
“The compelling story is the women,” Hanse said to Reuters. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re not getting the best players in the world.’ Well, you are with the women’s players. As of right now we have all the women top players, it’s an amazing showcase for them and the women’s game.”
According to the Cornell Alumni Magazine, Hanse graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Denver. While golf course design had long been an on-the-side hobby, Hanse originally wanted to pursue a career in city and regional planning.
A pivotal decision to work at a country club instead of a congressional office after graduating from Denver altered Hanse’s career path, propelling him toward landscape architecture. He enrolled in Cornell’s landscape architecture master’s program and has continued to draw on the expertise from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences throughout his career.
Like Hanse, many successful golf course designers have passed through Cornell’s halls. The most famous is Robert Trent Jones, who designed the University’s course in Ithaca, as well as over 400 courses over the world. Hanse’s mentor, Tom Doak ’82 — a finalist in the Olympic course design competition— has written four books on course design and designed several golf courses considered among the best in the world, according to Golf Magazine.
The men will tee off on Hanse’s course on August 11, and competition continues until August 14. The women will play from August 17-20.