Architect Gil Hanse returns The Olympic Club’s Lake Course to its original glory

By |  November 29, 2023 0 Comments
(Photo: The Olympic Club)

(Photo used with the permission of The Olympic Club)

When Troy Flanagan arrived in San Francisco in 2014 to take the helm as the director of golf maintenance of The Olympic Club, he figured the club’s courses were pretty much set. After all, the Lake Course had recently hosted a successful U.S. Open, won by Webb Simpson in 2012.

But, a few years later, a discussion started at the club that the time might be right to do some freshening up of the old courses. At first, it centered around the club’s practice facilities and the Ocean Course, the sandy, occasionally unstable 18-hole companion to the Lake Course.

Photo:Hole 3, a 247-yard par 3 with a view of the city and Lake Merced. (Photo: The Olympic Club)

Hole 3, a 247-yard par 3 with a view of the city and Lake Merced. (Photo used with the permission of The Olympic Club)

Then, the club took a long look in the mirror: the 2028 PGA Championship, the 2030 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 2033 Ryder Cup were all scheduled to be played at The Olympic — all on the Lake Course (the 2025 U.S. Amateur will be played on both the Lake Course and the Ocean Course.)

To do the job on the Lake Course, Olympic called in Hanse Golf Design and its leader, Gil Hanse.

“We knew an awful lot about how great the Lake Course was, and the (early) conversation really centered around the practice facilities and the Ocean Course changes,” Hanse recalls. “But also, the process was very clearly defined that we have major championships coming here, and a very clear window of when this work can get done.”

“I think in the end, it was by far the best decision,” Flanagan says of re-centering the focus on the Lake Course. “I wasn’t really sure how much change the Lake Course would need to go through. But when you listen to Gil talk about what this course used to be in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and where it had gone to, the light bulb really did go off. All of a sudden, you could see the vision, even before he did it.”

Fun for members, a challenge for pros

The architectural history of the Lake Course, in Hanse’s own words, is “convoluted.” William Watson originally designed the course in 1924, then, in 1927, Superintendent Sam Whiting, completed a redesign after the property incurred significant storm damage. The course saw another significant redesign from Robert Trent Jones Sr. in anticipation of the 1955 U.S. Open.

Over the next 50 years, greens shrunk, trees grew, views of the city disappeared, fairways narrowed and bunkers were removed.

“Since the ’50s, you could say the course lost its way from its original design,” Flanagan says. “Gil helped us see that this course used to be way different. The greens used to be bigger, the greens used to be the high point and everything fed off the greens, down the hills, the bunkers and everything. He helped bring that philosophy back.”

Hanse not only wanted to take the course back to its original look but also make it challenging for the highest-level golfers, and still playable for members.

“You’ll notice wider fairways, particularly in the driving zones where members hit it. Greens became pinched off, (but now) members can run balls onto the greens,” Hanse says. “The combination of these things … we hopefully have created a course where members get excited about playing it, and we still feel very confident that when the best players in the world show up, they’ll also have a challenge.”

A steep learning curve

In November of 2022, Hanse and his team began expanding greens, while Total Turf started moving dirt. Olympic also brought in Heritage Links for the irrigation installation. Flanagan and his team were involved throughout, monitoring the greens as they grew 35 percent in size.

“I’ve got eight managers who all have turf degrees, so they all helped out however we needed them on the project,” Flanagan says. “(The greens) were all lasered before and then put back the same way, and they all got to experience this.”

For Lake Course superintendent Kyle Moore, a native of Kansas City, the experience was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and a major learning experience.

The renovation of the Lake Course began November 2022 and was complete by September 2023, despite difficult weather. (Photo: The Olympic Club)

The renovation of the Lake Course began in November 2022 and was complete by September 2023, despite difficult weather. (Photo used with the permission of The Olympic Club)

“The early stages were toughest because of the learning curve,” he says. “It took me a minute to see how fast construction moves. Those guys just fly, and keeping up with them was the hardest part. But it was cool to see the step-by-step process. I’ve been on this course for six years, staring at the same greens complexes … and then watching them move soil around in the same area, not even necessarily bringing in more material … and they’re able to change the look and the feel of the greens complex. It was pretty cool.”

One thing that was not cool was the weather that winter — Flanagan calls it “the worst winter you could imagine.” Heavy rains washed away a lot of work and took out nearly 200 trees.

“We were getting ungodly amounts of rain and losing a bunch of trees, and those days were pretty crazy,” Moore says. “You’re out here and getting five inches of rain in the day and trying to salvage all the work that had been done and the days weren’t fun. I think those are probably the days where I’ll be like, ‘Man, that was crazy.’”

Still, the most memorable part for Moore was watching Gil Hanse achieve a new vision for the course.

“When he’s out here, it’s really cool just watching him. He will tell you what he’s planning on doing, and then a couple hours later you look at it and it’s exactly what he said,” Moore says. “He’s just got the eye for it. He would just give it one shot. And that’s pretty much all we needed each time.”

Photo:(Photo: The Olympic Club)

(Photo used with the permission of The Olympic Club)

A true partnership

While it may look easy to the outsider, Hanse says it’s not always easy from his perspective. He recalls his work on No. 7, where, unlike other areas of the course, he created a new hole. A short par four, Hanse changed the orientation from a straightforward tee shot, to a tee at 7 o’clock and a green at 1 o’clock, with a bunker making for a fun risk/reward hole.

During the work on No. 7, Hanse’s sand pro wasn’t working well, causing him to become flustered. He got off the machine to take a step back and look at his work when Flanagan approached him. He asked Flanagan, ‘What do you think?’

“Troy said, ‘It’s amazing — it looks like you didn’t even try.’” Hanse laughs. “He said, ‘No, no, no … like you didn’t try too hard to make something different that doesn’t fit in at Olympic.’ I said, ‘Thanks.’ Now I tell people, the highest compliment that I’ll ever get is ‘it looks like I didn’t try.’”

Hanse heaps praise upon the crew at Olympic and calls his work with them “a true partnership in every way.”

“(Flanagan’s) team, Kyle (Moore) and Jared (Kief) and all the guys in the maintenance team there have been phenomenal to work with,” Hanse says. “You get to work with some of the best superintendents in the world when you get to work at clubs like Olympic. You get to learn and pull stuff out of their brains, as to what they know about the golf course and the inside information that comes with that. I like to tap into that knowledge … the crew has a tremendous amount of talent.”

As for the results, the course has time to fill in before the 2025 U.S. Amateur arrives. But more immediately, at the grand reopening in October, Club President Jim Murphy says membership was thrilled with the results.

“Once the project started and we saw Gil’s plans, there was a great degree of anticipation,” he says. “The feedback from members, I would characterize as a great deal of jubilation. This is a fantastic course. It will only get better as it matures.”

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About the Author: Seth Jones

Seth Jones, a 25-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at

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