Gil Hanse is regarded as one of the finest “minimalist” golf course architects of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He’s been entrusted with restoring of the most revered and respected course designs in the game, including Oakland Hills (Donald Ross), Baltusrol (A.W. Tillinghast), and Fishers Island (Seth Raynor). And his original designs have drawn wonderful reviews, including for Streamsong Black, Rio Olympic Course in Brazil, and an 18-hole layout for the Crail Golfing Society in Fife, Scotland.
Hanse and his longtime partner and course shaper, Jim Wagner, enjoy the luxury of picking and choosing which projects they undertake, such is the demand for his services. One of them selected is the New Course at Les Bordes Golf Club in France’s Loire Valley, 90 minutes from Paris. It is scheduled to open in July 2021, and it will join the existing New Course (Robert von Hagge design). Together with the Wild Piglet, a 10-hole short course, and the Himalayas putting course, both which Hanse designed, Les Bordes is regarded at one Continental Europe’s finest golf clubs.
I think that, with the two 18-hole golf courses and the amenities that are already in place and the ones that are coming, I can’t see how Les Bordes won’t be considered one of the finest golfing destinations in Europe or in the world. You have all the cultural attractions around you, you’ve got the food and the wine, the quality of the amenities. It will be an idyllic place to spend time even if you weren’t playing golf, and then to have these two golf courses so different and varied in their challenges and their presentation really runs the full gamut. I don’t know where else in the world you could find that sort of variety.
Can you pick out a couple of holes on the New Course that you especially like and tell us a bit about them?
The 15th hole, a short-par four, would be one of them. There’s a lot of character and interest, when we were working on it we talked through the philosophy and then Jim Wagner shaped and executed it wonderfully and added some tremendous character to it. On the front nine, I’ve always liked the sixth hole, just the way it flows through the landscape and the different breaks. Trying to be reminiscent a little bit of Tom Simpson with segmented fairways and the way the green lays so simply on the ground.
What makes the landscape at Les Bordes so special? And what makes this golf estate unique.
The diversity of the plant materials is really something we have never encountered, with the broom and the bracken and the variety of trees throughout the property and the fescue grasses. Now they’ve also introduced heather so I think that there are all these great textures there that the golf course just seems to sit amongst. That’s what makes it unique, I can’t think of another golf landscape that looks and feels like the New Course at Les Bordes. There are so many different facets to heathland courses, which you can see in the courses just north of Paris like Morfontaine and Chantilly and the course much closer to where we live in Pine Valley, and I think there are all these different elements here that will create a unique experience at Les Bordes.
How is it possible to build two completely different golf courses on the same estate?
I think it was two different philosophies as to how Robert von Hagge did the Old Course and we approached the New Course. From that perspective, a significant amount of time passed between the creation of both golf courses, and I think that lent itself to, stylistically, different courses that appear differently, because one feels more manufactured and one feels more natural. Neither one is right or wrong, they are just different and one golf course extracts a very harsh penalty for poorly played shots and the other is a little bit more forgiving. I think that is what’s going to make Les Bordes one of the most wonderful golf destinations in the world, you have two distinctly different golf courses from two different eras but the quality of both of them is equivalent in how they were created and how they are presented.
When and how was this project initiated?
The first time I went there was in June 2018. The owner and I had some mutual friends and the conversation came up that the owners were hoping to build a new golf course. The owner had said that he was really hoping to work with us on it, and that fact that we had mutual friends made that conversation easy to get initiated. Once I came to look at the property I was immediately sold on the potential of the ground, and then the hospitality that I was shown while I was there was amazing. Being able to stay on property and the wine and the food, I was treated very well.
What course would you compare the New Course at Les Bordes with?
I can’t think of a direct comparison. There are elements of a number of golf courses including a lot of the great heathland courses around London and several heathland courses around Paris. I think that Jim Wagner and I are always influenced by Pine Valley, which is very near to us here at home, and I think that some of the scale of National Golf Links is apparent out there. If you roll all of those into one, I think that’s a pretty good recipe.
What was it that attracted you about the site at Les Bordes?
The sand and the vegetation, and the reputation of the place. Obviously, we’ve heard of Les Bordes here, so the quality of the site itself and the commitment of the ownership as well, which is a big thing. When we’re considering the criteria of a project, Jim Wagner and I always ask ourselves ‘do we have the potential to do something exceptional’, and I think that, while the topography at Les Bordes is not the most outstanding we’ve ever worked with, it still has enough character to it, and the vegetation and the soil gave us the opportunity to do something exceptional. Secondly, we ask ourselves ‘are we going to have fun doing it’ and working with the ownership at Les Bordes, and if you can’t have fun in that part of the world and enjoy yourself then I think there’s something wrong with you. So I think the combination of all those really added up to that being a very attractive project for us. We’ve never built anything in Continental Europe and we wanted to make sure that our first project there was going to be something special, and Les Bordes gave us that opportunity.
What can we expect from the New Course?
You can expect fun golf in a natural, perfect setting. We were given the opportunity from the ownership to build some interesting golf holes; stylistically, it was fun for all of us to focus on Tom Simpson and some of his beautiful creations and some of his inspired designs, not that we copied him stylistically or design-wise but we were certainly influenced by him and that was a treat for us.
It’s been reported you took inspiration from Tom Simpson, what elements of his work were most relevant here and how have you blended those with your own concepts?
The scale of his bunkering was something that we really paid attention to, with clusters or rows of bunkers and that was interesting. From our perspective, it was just the way that they blended into the landscape that was amazing. Some of the green complexes that he built were fairly eccentric and so we felt that we could create a few on the golf course like that, but then he also built some greens that were simple in their presentation yet complex in their subtlety, and a lot of those things fed into what we did at Les Bordes. I know going forward, if the landscape is a good fit, we would certainly do more things in the style of Tom Simpson.
How challenging was it for you to create a new course near the one (the Old Course) that’s considered one of the best in Continental Europe?
I don’t think that we found it to be a challenge or challenging, we found it to be inspirational. It’s always nice when you come to a project and the level of quality is established through the existing golf course and the existing facilities, all of which are to a really high standard. We were excited and challenged in our creativity and what we were trying to do and hopeful that, when all is settled, Les Bordes has two golf courses that are very highly regarded, but I would be lying if I didn’t hope that ours was a little more highly regarded.
Do you feel you succeeded in your goal and why?
I do. I think that every golf architect when they are given a site hopes that the best that they can do is to maximize the characteristics of the site, and I feel that we have done that with the New Course. I feel that we have provided a great variety in the two different nines; we have captured the best of the topography on site; we have worked to enhance some of those areas through added elevation; and we have worked to create a very interesting and playable test of golf. I’m confident that, with all the work that we’ve done there, we have maximized the potential of the property and, as a golf architect when you walk away, that’s all that you can hope for.
The Wild Piglet
One of the things that golf is doing a better job on right now, and Les Bordes is certainly offering that with The Himalayas putting green and The Wild Piglet, is just fun. Fun and access and providing an easy entry point to the game. You can go out and laugh at yourself, have a good time and not worry about losing golf balls or have the pressures of playing a full-size golf course. Our attempt there was to create a very fun and playable experience, but also one where a good player could go out there and be tested with shots. In order to succeed on The Wild Piglet, you’ve got to hit some really good shots, but you’ve also got the opportunity to just go out there and bang it around and have fun. One of the things that Jim Wagner and I worked with the team on was, basically, giving everybody their own golf hole or holes, and just letting everybody have a crack at it. It was fun and I think that if you go into your own little incubator, independent of everybody around you, it gives you the opportunity to be as creative as you want. Then, ultimately, Jim and I would take a look but I don’t think that we’ve edited things very much. You have some individual expressions out there that, when put together, comprises 10 really fun, unique golf holes.
What are the characteristics of a golf course that make you want to play it again and again? What makes it recognizable?
I think that it’s fun and that there are interesting shots. It’s the ability to go out one time and then think, “okay, next time I play it I’m going to try this differently” or that you get put into a different circumstance each and every round, but that the design and the creativity within the design allows you to approach the problem solving differently each time. I think there’s that sense of the playability of the course and then there’s just the beauty of it and the presentation. I think that golf courses that have a sense of place and that feel like they belong where they’re sitting is also something that makes me want to continue to play it. I think that adds to the character and the quality of it so the way it looks, the way it feels as you walk through the landscape, and then, certainly, the way it plays and challenges you to be creative are courses that I want to keep playing over and over.
How would you describe your style as a course architect? What are the general trends? And which architect has inspired you the most?
We don’t have a style! I hope that we respond to each and every site, and that a golf course we have built at Les Bordes does not look like a golf course that we have built in southern Georgia at Ohoopee or Southern California at Rustic Canyon. I hope that every course we’ve built has a sense of place and a sense of belonging which will then, ultimately, provide unique opportunities. Through our methodology of being on-site so much, if we can capitalize on these opportunities, then each golf course should feel unique. I think our courses have some similarities in that we like wider playing corridors and interesting green complexes, and I think our bunkers are particularly attractive, but they do still blend into the native landscape and hopefully our courses change style to style depending on the site that we’re given.
What does a course architect have as a weapon, apart from the overall length, to make a golf course really challenging for professionals?
The greatest defense is firm conditions, and the opportunity to build a golf course in a place where the ball will bounce in the fairway and the greens. Professional golfers work so hard at their game and hone their craft so well so that they have a predictable outcome every time they hit a golf ball. They know when they hit their seven-iron what the outcome will be, but if the conditions are firm and they’re not sure if the ball’s going to bounce twice and check or not going to check at all, that’s the best defence and that relies on the conditions on-site and obviously Mother Nature for a tournament. But I think from an architect’s perspective, the only other challenges we can provide are mental ones where golfers maybe feel a little bit uneasy about the shot that’s in front of them because they can’t quite see everything or they can’t quite determine the best way to play the hole is. Those are the type of courses that require study, and I think those are the best examples of golf architecture.
What are the qualities of a good golf course?
I think that a good golf course should have a sense of place, a sense of belonging, it doesn’t feel that it’s been transported from somewhere else and feels like it belongs on a property, and that it is one that has a variety of ways to play it, interest in the features that have been created or that have been found in the landscape, and it has to be fun. It’s a balance between fun and interest versus difficulty, and we want to provide ways for golfers to navigate around a golf course based on their own skill level and if a golf course gives you that opportunity to map or think your way through it, then I think that’s the best an architect can do.
How much did/do you know about golf courses in France and what do you make of the architecture you have seen?
I think of the countries where I have seen golf in continental Europe, France has by far the best, most superior golf-course design. You can put Morfontaine and Chantilly and some of the other courses around Paris up against some of the best courses in the world, not just in Europe, and so I think that when you have a few anchor courses that provide those opportunities, and then you have some newer courses that have been built that aspire to do really good things, and I think they do, I feel like France has a really good golfing baseline. That allowed us to build in a country that already had expectations for quality golf, and we’re hopeful that what we’ve created adds to that.