It was Sunday afternoon, January 29, 2012, the start of a week in which architect Gil Hanse would land a career-making commission, the contract to design and build a course that would host the golf competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics. In a few hours, Hanse would catch an overnight flight to Rio de Janeiro to make a presentation to the panel charged with selecting from among eight finalists. Hanse was at his home in the suburb of Malvern, Philadelphia, in a bit of a tizzy. He couldn’t find his passport. He’d checked his suitcase, his office, throughout his house. He’d double-checked, triple-checked, then dumped the contents of his briefcase onto the floor. Panic set in. The biggest opportunity of his life, and he’d be turned away at the airport.

His wife, Tracey, calmly placed a few phone calls, then informed him of a change in plans. He would head to New York City in the morning, obtain a replacement passport and catch a flight to Rio from there. On the road by 4.30am, Hanse was almost the first in line at the New York passport office in SoHo at 7am. Three hours later, he had a new passport in hand.

But there was still the visa issue. He rushed to the Brazilian consulate in Midtown Manhattan, where his office assistant, Andrea Lynch, was holding him a place in line. Luckily, the ambassador in charge was a golf fan. Hanse was escorted to his office, where they talked golf, and within an hour, Hanse had a visa.

He headed to John F. Kennedy International Airport to catch his overnight flight to Rio, praying there would be no delay. The plane took off on time. Hanse slept fitfully and reached his hotel at 11.30am, just enough time to shower, dress, grab a sandwich and rush to the main conference room where he and his presentation colleagues, LPGA Hall of Famer Amy Alcott and environmentalist Owen Larkin, would make their joint presentation. Hanse was still on edge as he entered the room, barely acknowledging well-wishers. He was led to the side of a
U-shape table where place cards indicated the seating arrangements. Hanse looked down at his. It read, “Gil Hansen.”

He laughed out loud. The tension was broken. He relaxed as he settled into his pitch. Hanse, of course, got the job. But that’s how close he came to not even being considered.

Or was it? There are those among the organisations of the seven other golf-design firms that competed for the Olympic tender who believe that Hanse was secretly the four-judge panel’s choice from the outset, and had he not made his appointed time, he would have been allowed an interview at a later date, just to maintain the appearance of an objective competition.

But there are also those who are certain that Hanse was the darkest of dark horses and was a compromise pick after the panel had deadlocked over support of two other candidates. Both opinions, we will find, are wrong.

the 11th hole will be  446 metres for the men and 384m for the women  in golf’s olympic return.
The 11th hole will be 446 metres for the men and 384m for the women in golf’s Olympic return.

The Field

If one had been handicapping the field at the start of the presentations, even money would have been placed on the two architects generating the most buzz, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak.

Nicklaus, arguably the greatest player of all time and a highly successful course architect of global impact, was teaming with Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, arguably the game’s greatest female player, who has a modest course-design business. The pairing made perfect sense because the two had campaigned together for inclusion of golf in the Olympics, a decision made by the International Olympic Committee in October 2009, the same session at which it awarded the 2016 Games to Rio.

Word of the Nicklaus-Sorenstam union caused some rivals to sign up a prominent female partner. Greg Norman joined with Lorena Ochoa of Mexico. Fellow Australian Peter Thomson enlisted his country’s greatest female star, Karrie Webb. Robert Trent Jones Jr made overtures to a young Brazilian LPGA player, but when that fizzled, he teamed with a veteran male professional golfer from Brazil, Mario Gonzalez. Alcott, who had met Hanse during his remodelling of Los Angeles Country Club, called him and offered to team up. Hanse agreed to have her serve as a consultant but insisted on bidding for the job solely in his name.

Doak, with an international reputation from layouts such as Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, was reluctant to enter the competition. But he was persuaded to do so by his longtime friend, Brazilian financier Arminio Fraga, who would be one of the four judges. Doak sent in his application and, upon hearing he’d been selected as a finalist from 29 applicants, announced the news in his 2011 Christmas card, which featured a photo of Rio’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue.

When the eight finalists visited Rio on December 11 for their only formal opportunity to inspect the proposed site, some were miffed that NBC/Golf Channel television cameras seemed to focus on Doak (and, by association, on Hanse, Doak’s former design associate, who walked some portions of the land with Doak).

If so, it’s probably because Doak was one of the few recognisable faces on the property. Nicklaus didn’t attend (citing a scheduling conflict) and instead sent a team consisting of his son Jack Jr, design associate Chris Cochran and agronomist Jon Scott. Finalists Norman and Gary Player also sent design associates. Trent Jones Jr did attend and was filmed sitting atop a sand pile sketching a proposed green on a notepad.

Peter Thomson didn’t show, but his design partner, Ross Perrett, was there and after the session was very vocal in his frustration that officials wouldn’t allow more than four hours to examine the property. He had intended to spend a week or more on the site before preparing a design. 

What Perrett and the others weren’t told was that acquisition of the land was still under negotiation, and they were lucky to have been granted four hours. In June 2011, when the Rio 2016 Olympic Organising Committee rejected the city’s two private clubs and proposed a public course be constructed for the Olympics, it struck a tentative deal with billionaire developer Pasquale Mauro. Mauro would sell the city a parcel of land in the Barra da Tijuca district of Rio (the locale of most of the Olympic facilities) and fund construction of the course in exchange for favourable zoning that would allow him to develop the surrounding land with luxury high-rise condominiums. But in December, the temperamental Mauro (whose gruff demeanour earned him the nickname “Tony Soprano”) was holding out for more favourable terms. One afternoon’s access to the site was all he granted.

All plans and support documents had to be filed in less than 30 days. The eight companies returned home to spend the holidays skipping festivities to prepare their designs and sales pitches. The original invitation to bid on the job had set out broad parameters: “a state-of-the-art championship golf course for the Olympic Games . . . a public facility catering to the emerging Rio golf market, with specific focus on youth play and programs to grow the game . . . respecting the environmental and sustainable goals of Rio 2016 . . . easily walked and conducive to speedy play . . . designed to minimise construction costs and to be efficient in its maintenance and golf operations.”

Most of the eight firms would spend at least $US 75,000 on their presentations, and two reportedly spent more than $100,000, all for a job with a set design fee of $300,000. (All these firms are accustomed to working for high-six-figure or even seven-figure fees.) Taxes to Brazil alone would take a third. Travel expenses would be reimbursed, but the winning architect had to agree to establish a subsidiary office in Rio within three months of selection and have a Brazilian partner to execute a landscaping program. Each applicant also agreed to a nondisclosure agreement – at a hefty penalty of $100,000 – about the selection process.

It’s little wonder some design firms chose not to compete. Partners Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw felt the requirement to accommodate spectator flow would compromise any design they might propose. Rees Jones, long considered “The Open Doctor” for his work on US Open venues, chose not to enter. The design firm of Hurdzan/Fry Environmental Golf Design (since split into separate companies) didn’t enter, despite the fact it already had a branch office in Brazil. Tom Fazio didn’t enter, probably just as well, as his chances would have been spoiled by Nick Faldo, who publicly proposed that Fazio prepare a routing on which he and 17 other professional golf legends would design one hole apiece. If a camel is a horse designed by committee, what do you call a golf course designed by committee? A gamble.

The finalists, according to several sources, weren’t motivated by money. Most figured the venture would be a financial loss and entered the competition with the desire to help grow golf via Olympic exposure. If that led to future design jobs in new parts of the world, well, there’s nothing wrong with that.

With no traditional rough, the challenge in Rio will be posed by bunkers, native scrub and wind.
With no traditional rough, the challenge in Rio will be posed by bunkers, native scrub and wind.

The Trials

The official presentations were made in Rio on Tuesday, January 31, and Wednesday, February 1, 2012. The four judges were Fraga, as a representative of the Rio 2016 Golf Advisory Committee; Carlos Arthur Nuzman, president of Rio 2016 as well as a member of Brazil’s first Olympic volleyball team, in 1964; Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio; and Peter Dawson, then the executive director of the R&A, and the president of the International Golf Federation (IGF), which would handle the inside-the-ropes conduct of the Olympic tournaments.

At the last minute, Paes announced he was too busy to attend. (There was talk the politician got cold feet and wanted distance from a project that could become controversial.) He sent a substitute, urban architect Augusto Ivan, who was introduced as an environmental advisor to Paes. Several observers noticed Ivan never made eye contact with any presenter and seemed to have little interest. One, noting that he asked no questions, dubbed him “Clarence Thomas,” after the Supreme Court justice who went 10 years without asking a question. Another had the impression that Ivan didn’t understand English.

The contestants waited their turns in the lobby. Martin Hawtree had known Hanse since 1988, when the latter had travelled to England to study courses and worked for the Hawtree firm, then headed by Martin’s father, Fred. Others were meeting for the first time. Until that week, neither Norman or Player had met Doak.

The presentations were to be made in alphabetical order, but in a convoluted fashion, using not an architect’s last name, but the first letter of his firm’s name. So Gary Player Design went first on Tuesday morning. The legendary South African emphasised how he had promoted golf around the world and in Brazil through past tournament appearances. His firm’s design emulated the Olympics logo – five interlocking rings – using a series of crescent ponds across the site.

After Player came Greg Norman Golf Course Design. When Norman entered the conference room, he had to be disheartened to see Ty Votaw, the US PGA Tour’s chief marketing officer and newly appointed vice president of the IGF, sitting alongside the judges. Norman had long-standing disagreements with the US PGA Tour, dating to 1994, when he’d proposed a world golf tour, only to have the tour’s commissioner, Tim Finchem, shoot down the idea, then later appropriate it as the World Golf Championships. With a tour representative in the room, Norman likely felt his chances were diminished.

Norman’s design was unique because it filled existing lakes and created a lake next to an environmentally protected lagoon on the south edge of the site. One rival, who examined the routing, which had been left in a room unguarded, scoffed at its plethora of parallel holes and called it, “a package of sausages.”

After Tuesday lunch came Hanse Golf Course Design Inc. As with the other presentations, Hanse was limited to 45 minutes and no more than three speakers. He explained that his inspiration for his design on Rio’s sandy site were the Aussie courses found in the Melbourne Sandbelt. (Hanse had never been to Australia; he would first visit Melbourne the next year.) Alcott spoke on her grass-roots introduction to golf and her passion for growing the game, and Larkin on sustainability. To conclude, Hanse offered a short film. Former USGA executive director David Fay came on-screen and provided an enthusiastic endorsement of Hanse.

When other firms later learned of the Fay video, they cried foul. Fay was no off-the-street private citizen; he was the past joint secretary of the IGF with Peter Dawson. One observer called Fay “a thumb on the scale.” One suggested that Hanse should have been disqualified for exceeding the spirit of the three-presenter limit. “This is the Olympics,” the person said. “You have to abide by the rules in the Olympics.”

Following Hanse was Hawtree Ltd, consisting of Martin (a third-generation course architect) and his associate Marc Westenborg. Some considered Hawtree a favourite of Dawson because the two had worked together on several revisions of British Open courses. But Dawson offered no hint of favouritism. Perhaps because Hawtree was soft-spoken and mild-mannered, or that his presentation was late in the day, few recall much about it.

Thus ended the first day. The next morning, Nicklaus Design was first on the card. Jack presented an animated video of his proposed design with computer-generated flyovers of each hole. He narrated it with such authority that one would have thought the course was already built. Sorenstam followed with her vision of a women’s test, followed briefly by Scott on agronomics. At the conclusion, some of the Brazilian contingent asked Jack and Annika for their autographs. Then came Renaissance Golf Design, Doak’s firm. His focus was on Rio 2016’s stated desire to promote youth golf. Setting aside a section of the land for an academy course, he said, would gobble up so much acreage that it would be hard to create a course of championship length, say 6,900 metres. So he proposed designing two opening holes, a long par 4 and a long par 5, that would double as a nine-hole junior course. After the Olympics, those first two holes would be taken out of play and become the permanent junior course, and two other shorter holes, built elsewhere on the property, would be put into play to complete a public 18. Ed Mate of the Colorado Golf Association spoke on the junior program at the Doak-designed CommonGround Golf Club in Colorado, and Brian Schneider was introduced as the Doak associate who would be in charge of constructing the Olympic course.

The first afternoon session was Robert Trent Jones II, with Trent Jones Jr, his partner Bruce Charlton and Mario Gonzalez. Their proposal was a unique reversible 18, allowing the IGF to conduct the men’s competition in one direction and the women’s in the other to spread out wear and tear of divots and ball marks. They, too, presented a computer-generated animation, showing how certain holes would look in each direction and from various TV camera angles. Dawson seemed particularly interested in the concept and asked several questions. But at the conclusion, Dawson sank a dagger into the heart of Team Jones. “Seems too complicated,” he announced.

The last of the eight was the Thomson Perrett group. Thomson, five-time Open champion, explained that the Australian firm’s plan was based on the routing of Muirfield (where he’d never won an Open), with one nine in clockwise fashion, the other anti-clockwise, both concluding at a clubhouse in the centre of the property. One observer later termed it the most technically impressive plan of the bunch. The competition thus concluded.

According to the rules, the judges would reconvene Thursday morning in a private session and announce a winner by Friday. Some camps, like those of Nicklaus and Norman, flew home. Others stuck around for two more days, anxious to hear if their man had won.

The Verdict

There were at least 15 people in the room Friday morning, but substitute judge Ivan was a no-show. Perhaps the mayor’s office hadn’t told him he needed to attend the deliberations. The other three judges sat down with Votaw, leading some to speculate that Votaw was actually a secret fourth judge. He was not, but he did participate in the discussions.

No vote was taken. Instead, the group discussed the merits and concerns of each architect’s proposed design. Fraga then tried to focus his colleagues’ attention on Doak and Hanse.

What the other judges, and most of the competitors, didn’t know was that Fraga had known Doak and Hanse since the early 1990s, when, after getting his PhD from Princeton, he lived in New Jersey and worked for a George Soros hedge fund. Fraga admired the architecture of both, but especially Doak’s. In 2010, Fraga became obsessed with the environmentally sensitive Vineyard Golf Club in Massachusetts, where Hanse was preparing a remodelling plan.

In late 2010, a year before the design competition was announced, Fraga flew Hanse and Larkin to Rio, showed them the property and asked if a sustainable, Vineyard-type course could be built upon it. They said it could.

It’s that visit (casually revealed in a 2012 interview by Larkin) that led some to conclude that Hanse was being groomed as the pick from the very beginning. But it’s a dubious argument because Fraga flew Doak down in early 2011 for a tour of the site. Nicklaus also saw the site in early 2011, as did Perrett and Trent Jones Jr. Long before the formal competition was announced, these architects and others were doing what they normally do to find work: schmoozing potential clients, in this case, the city of Rio, the Brazilian Golf Federation and Rio 2016.

But here’s more fodder for conspiracy theorists: When Hanse was making his Monday dash to New York City for a new passport and visa, he called Fraga en route. Fraga was able to grease the skids at the Brazilian consulate by informing the ambassador that a famous golf-course architect was headed his way.

On decision day, Fraga still favoured Doak, with Hanse as his fallback position. Votaw, however, didn’t think Nicklaus should be dismissed so lightly. Jack was a global ambassador to the game. His brand was known worldwide and would generate enormous interest in the Olympics and beyond, when the course would need tourist play to generate income.

It was a misguided argument in the context of the Olympics. Nuzman made it clear that Rio 2016 didn’t need a marquee name because Rio 2016 was the marquee. If you want your brand displayed at the Olympics, you pay the IOC, it doesn’t pay you.

Votaw played his last trump card. Nicklaus had privately told US PGA Tour representatives he felt so strongly about the importance of golf in the Olympics that he’d be willing to waive his design fee. Jack had not mentioned that in his presentation to the judges, so Votaw believed he should make them aware of the offer.

The offer backfired. One Brazilian thought Nicklaus was implying that Brazil needed charity. Another judge thought Nicklaus was trying to force their hand by making an offer they couldn’t refuse without facing public ridicule. How could anyone pass up an offer to have Jack Nicklaus design their course for free?

Dawson, who had seemingly supported Votaw during much of the Nicklaus discussion, abruptly turned the focus back to Doak, telling the group he didn’t particularly care for Doak’s proposed design. Taking the first two holes out of play after the Olympics made no sense – golfers who would travel to Rio in the future would want to play the Olympic Golf Course, not some variation or substitute.

Fraga had to concede that he, too, found Doak’s design awkward, and for a moment, it appeared that after rejecting Nicklaus on the basis that marketing shouldn’t be a factor in the decision, the judges were now going to make the choice based on marketing.

But Fraga then asked, what if he could broker a deal where Doak and Hanse would collaborate on the design?

Fraga had secretly talked in advance with Hanse and Doak, separately, about such a collaboration. Hanse had indicated he would be willing but doubted that Doak would be. Doak wasn’t receptive. He’d been down that road several times, having collaborated with Nicklaus at Sebonack, for instance. The only way he would ever agree to such an arrangement was with a guarantee that he’d have the final say on every decision, and he didn’t think Hanse would agree to that. But Fraga didn’t mention any of this to his fellow judges. He simply said he thought he could convince the two that, for the good of the game, they should team up.

But why do we need Doak? Dawson asked.

Fraga conceded the point. If they couldn’t have a Doak course, at least they’d get a Hanse one. Nuzman agreed with Fraga, and without taking a formal vote, Hanse was the pick.

But no announcement was made that Friday. Instead, the contestants were notified by text and email to head home; the announcement was being postponed a month to allow the judges to first inform the IOC.

That was a bit of a smokescreen. Sources tell us the delay was because the land deal with Mauro still hadn’t been reached. Mauro had never been in favour of an architect-selection process. He didn’t consider golf architects to be artists, just employees. You hire the one who’ll work the cheapest, and then move on.

But because there had been a selection process, some were concerned Mauro would be upset the judges hadn’t given him a name like Nicklaus or Norman that would help him sell real estate. The IOC didn’t want to reveal the name until the land deal was in place. (The worst-case scenario was that Mauro would stonewall and the city would be forced to condemn the land to obtain it, something Mayor Paes absolutely wanted to avoid at all costs.)

Mauro never did sell the land to the city. Instead, after protracted negotiations, he agreed to lease the land to the city for a (surprisingly short) period of 20 years. He subsequently delayed the course-construction funds for nearly two years, at the same time starting construction on several high-rise condos overlooking the site.

On Tuesday, March 6, Hanse was at the US PGA Tour event in Miami to be formally introduced as the architect retained to remodel Doral’s famed Blue Monster Course. An NBC/Golf Channel camera crew told Hanse the choice of the Rio 2016 architect would be announced at 7.30am the next morning and asked him to be available so they could film his reaction. He was told the other designers would also be covered by camera crews. (False – no other architect was even contacted by a camera crew.)

Hanse met with technicians at 6.30am to be wired for sound. Seven-thirty came and went, then 8.30, then 9.30. (It was a precursor, Hanse later said, of the countless delays that would plague the course construction.) Behind the scenes, Mike McCarley, president of Golf Channel, was scrambling to determine the delay. He learned that Nuzman, who was to make the announcement, didn’t have Hanse’s cellphone number. McCarley relayed the number to Nuzman’s office. At 10.30am, after sitting for four hours in the Doral lobby, Hanse got the call from Gustavo Nascimento, a spokesman for Rio 2016 more fluent in English than Nuzman, informing him of his selection. It was not totally unexpected, but still an overwhelming moment.

No official notification was received by anyone at the other seven design firms. Most heard of the choice through news reports and social media.

After the announcement, the IGF issued a press release suggesting that an important factor in the selection of Hanse was his offer to relocate his family to Rio to devote his total attention to the job. It implied that no other architect made such a commitment. That was incorrect. In his presentation, Trent Jones Jr had also offered to move there.

Of the other six, only Doak was pointedly asked during his presentation if he’d be willing to relocate to Rio. Doak said that wasn’t how he operated, that his associate Schneider would be on site full-time and Doak would visit frequently during construction, remaining at the course for weeks at a time when certain tasks, like shaping the greens, required him.

Hanse did move with his wife and youngest daughter to Rio in 2013, but after the project stalled for a variety of reasons, they moved back to Pennsylvania. When construction finally started in late 2014, his shapers moved to Rio, and Hanse flew in and out.

Around Christmas 2012, some nine months after he’d been awarded the commission for the Olympic golf course, Hanse was home in Malvern.

The weather had turned bitterly cold, so he grabbed his heavy winter overcoat out of a closet, slipped it on, dug into his pocket for his gloves.

He pulled out his passport.