Gil Hanse and Company Tamed the Texas Prairie to Build the East Course at PGA Frisco
By Matt Adams
At this stage of their careers, nearly 30 years in, you could understand if course architect Gil Hanse and his partner Jim Wagner didn’t want to get their hands dirty anymore. To them, though… Well, that’s the best part of the job.
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It’s true: Despite a portfolio of internationally acclaimed designs and near-legendary status in the industry, Hanse and Wagner are still more comfortable in the cab of a bulldozer than they are in a plush office. So when their firm was tapped to plan and build the much-ballyhooed East Course at the PGA of America’s new Frisco, Texas, complex – the course that will one day host tournaments like the PGA Championship, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship – the duo couldn’t wait to play in the North Texas soil and see what they could create.
They first identified which of the property’s natural elements they wanted to emphasize. Panther Creek, which also features prominently in Beau Welling’s neighboring West Course, made the list, as did the area’s numerous hills, dry gullies, and mesquites. From there they had to come up with hole layouts that incorporated those attributes without being derivative of ones golfers have played elsewhere. That’s when they hopped on their heavy machinery and started experimenting.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say with every push of the bulldozer there’s the potential that something will change or I’ll see something differently,” Hanse admits. “I’ll say ‘well, this could go that way,’ or it might spark an image where I say ‘hey, the ninth green at Southern Hills does this, so maybe we could do this.’ When you’re in command of the equipment you can basically take it any which way you want. We always arrive on-site with a fairly clear set of goals, certainly the routing, and conceptually a really good idea of where we start each hole, but where we finish changes every single time.”
The results are distinctive, especially the East Course’s long Par-3 13th hole, which has a dramatic drop off on the left side of the green, unlike anything Hanse and Wagner had ever built before. Then there are holes 10, 11, and 12, which were raised from the Panther Creek floodplain and accentuated with wetlands, and the eighth hole, on which Hanse and Wagner cut another sharp drop, leaving exposed shale for added character.
As far as how the course plays, golfers can expect to be tested. For starters, it’s the longest course Hanse and Wagner have ever created. But in an era when top touring pros can hit the ball a mile, length alone isn’t enough to protect par.
“Jim and I like to think about the mental challenges,” says Hanse. “Is there a way to make a golfer at the highest level feel slightly uncomfortable with what they’re looking at? We believe to challenge that type of player you have to make them a little uncomfortable.”
To achieve that Hanse and Wagner purposely designed the course so that the fierce Texas wind would be a factor, as would the oftentimes-firm fairways and greens.
“If you have firm conditions it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen,” Hanse continues. “Is the ball going to bounce twice and check? Is it going to bounce three times and check? Is it not going to check at all? Those are the types of questions we wanted to put into players’ minds.”
Still, Hanse – the man who helped shape the thing with his own two hands -- believes that once people play the East Course they’ll realize it’s not nearly as frightening as it first appears.
“If players are thoughtful with how they approach our course, with selecting the right tees and thinking about the right ways to play golf holes, they’ll certainly find ways to get around without too much difficulty,” he promises. “I’m hopeful that we’ve struck the right balance where it’ll be challenging every time a major championship comes to town, but also something that will be enjoyed by everyone else who plays it.”