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Making golf great (fun) again

We wander Trump International Golf Club Dubai with delighted designer Gil Hanse

You’ll struggle to find Gil Hanse happier than when he’s at the controls of an earthmover.

“That’s my office,” the critically acclaimed golf course architect says. “You can kinda get in there, put music on and just get creative. It gets back to the F word…it’s fun.”

If there is a close second on the job satisfaction scale, it’s moments like the evening last month when Hanse walked Trump International Golf Club Dubai with superintendent Ben Griffiths, chipping and putting the immaculate surfaces he envisaged when he started bulldozing his computer generated design into life in mid 2014.

To suggest the American is proud of the grassy final coat Griffiths and his team have put on his rustic, links-style layout is like suggesting the controversial character with his name on the gate has shaken up the political establishment – something of an understatement.

The 16th hole (Photo: Kevin Murray)

The 16th hole (Photo: Kevin Murray)

“When you are building and you have the superintendent on site, you talk an awful lot about the way you’d like to see it, the density of the native vegetation, how it’s going to play, firm and fast running shots etc.,” Hanse said. “And when you come back and see he was actually listening to everything we said and he nailed it, that’s a great feeling. I couldn’t be more delighted with the way it has turned out.”

For the golf geek, an audience with the genial Hanse is delightful too. Exploring the American’s design philosophy is to metaphorically stroll ancient links land and reminisce revered names.

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You learn Hanse followed Tom Doak in winning a scholarship from Cornell University to enhance his studies offshore for a year. With wife Tracey in tow, Hanse split that formative 12 months between St. Andrews and Oxford, entering notes and sketches of holes from road trips across the UK and Ireland into the smartphone of the day, a little notebook. While Harry Colt and Donald Ross have his upmost admiration, he draws his greatest inspiration from legendary Alister MacKenzie because of the doyen’s ability to find the sweet spot between “strategy and aesthetics”.

Of his modern day contemporaries, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw take some beating.

“Every time I look at their work, I am amazed at how good they are, the level of detail and the level of quality is just exceptional, every single time. They’re just relentlessly good at everything they do.”

History, as much as memberships sold and repeat green fee business, will be the ultimate judge of Hanse’s latest creation which serves as a microcosm of a lifetime devoted to the art.

He is the first to admit his generation hasn’t always got modern golf architecture right, a foolhardy obsession with “championship” course design (read difficult, lengthy layouts designed to counter the advances in ball and club technology but forgetting most amateurs still own awful swings) being the main culprit.

“I dunno what data you need to point to but there is no argument, the game isn’t growing. I think we need to take some of the responsibility of trying to promote the game, trying to make it more playable, more enjoyable,” Hanse says.

If we can build courses that are perceived to be fun and actually are fun, that’s a great accomplishment.” -Gil Hanse

It looks like mission accomplished at Trump International GC Dubai which, with no discernable rough and few bunkers, presents as eminently playable yet promises to test the short game imagination of even low markers.

It’s easy on the eye too despite being framed, rather challengingly from an aesthetics standpoint, by a mammoth real estate project. The tee boxes merge seamlessly into generous fairways which in turn take their tumbling and creased cue for ancient UK influences and look best with a touch of early morning or late afternoon shadow.

The 11th hole (Photo: Kevin Murray)

The 11th hole (Photo: Kevin Murray)

The tightly clipped Tifgrand Bermuda grasses around the Tifeagle Bermuda greens will be a lure to lovers of links golf, affording bump and run artistry which isn’t an option elsewhere in the Middle East. Better still, the layout has been designed to allow golfers to do something really novel for this region…walk when the mercury allows.

Hanse rewinds to the construction of Castle Stuart in Scotland and words of wisdom shared by co-designer Mark Parsinen.

“Mark always talked about course design from the vantage point of the third shot of the average golfer [on a par 4] and the two words he used are ‘hopeful’ and ‘engaged’,” Hanse said. “If they’re always in their pocket [for a new ball] or in a bunker or in the water and they’ve got no hope of recovery, then they are tuned out. “From that perspective, that short grass around the greens here really gives you the opportunity to feel hopeful and feel like you are going to hit a fun shot.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment Hanse has received thus far came from Craig Waddell. Trump Dubai’s Director of Golf, who reckons many holes look like they had been in play for generations rather than months. It’s a fair analysis.

To coin a phrase from U.S. President elect Trump, Hanse is on a mission to make golf great fun again. His latest creation in Dubai surely looks a step in the right direction.

(Main photo: John Marshland)

Kent Gray

Editor of Golf Digest Middle East. Has written about golf since 1989 and owned a suspect short game even longer.

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