Architect Gil Hanse and partner Jim Wagner are frequently in the news these days. They were responsible for “major” renovations at both Southern Hills, prior to the PGA Championship, and The Country Club prior to the U.S. Open. But the versatility of their skills might best be displayed, this year, by virtue of their renovation work here at Lake Merced Golf Club, just south of San Francisco.
Starting in October 2021, Hanse Golf Design has collaborated with course builder Heritage Links on a comprehensive, nuanced, hybrid restoration of this Alister MacKenzie original, restoring many of the 18 holes but also creating several new ones in homage to what Wagner calls “the MacKenzie vibe.” In all, HGD and Heritage rebuilt all 18 greens, created a 36,000 square foot Himalayas-style putting course, new short-game practice areas, turf research nursery, refurbished 150,000 square feet of bunkering, restored then expanded all 18 tee complexes, moved the practice facility from one end of the property to the other, and installed a two-wire irrigation system using flexible, no-leak HDPE piping.
According to Heritage Links Vice President Oscar Rodriguez, the final four greens were seeded on June 15, right on schedule — meaning the course will reopen on schedule in the middle of October 2022.
“This job was a total blow up,” says Wagner, though he acknowledged a substantial wrinkle. “The club wanted a restoration and we did have great photography from the 1930s. At 1, 4, 5, 10 and 13, for example, we were able to put the holes back as Mackenzie created them. But we couldn’t do that everywhere. The property had undergone too much radical change through the years.”
The first design at Lake Merced dates to 1922, and that work is attributed to Willie Lock. MacKenzie arrived in the late 1920s, when he put his estimable stamp on this topographically diverse routing south of John Daly Boulevard (no, not that one: the road and city were named for John Donald Daly, a prominent, early 20th century banker). MacKenzie was himself a prominent Bay Area presence during the roaring ’20s. He designed both Cypress Point and Pasatiempo, among other West Coast venues, at this time.
In the 1960s, construction of Interstate 280 resulted in Lake Merced losing portions of its property, a fate that similarly befell the A.W. Tillinghast design at San Francisco Golf Club, around five city blocks to the north. Lake Merced responded by moving its clubhouse from the north end of the property to the southeast corner. It also authorized a major rerouting managed by architect Robert Muir Graves and resulting in many new holes that boast no MacKenzie lineage at all.
In short, during 2021-22, Hanse Golf Design and Heritage Links restored those holes that could be restored. Elsewhere they substantially rerouted again, creating several new holes in the MacKenzie style that will be maintained by superintendent Matt Dachowski and team.
“This is one of the reasons why people hire Gil and Jim: Nothing is ever cookie-cutter with them. They exhibit so much creativity in the field,” Rodriguez says, noting that Houston-based Heritage Links, a Lexicon, Inc. Company, has worked quite a bit with HGD, including at Southern Hills and PGA Frisco.
“To be honest, we love working with Gil and Jim, but we essentially take their vision and build it. We make it functional — from a sustainability standpoint, with the understanding that a superintendent will have to grow grass there and maintain it,” Rodriguez adds. “We focus on the practicalities. The new practice range, for example, was moved to the north end of the property. We did that first, so members would always have a place to practice when we’re tearing up and growing in their golf course. The pump house remains on the south end, so we had to feed irrigation all the way across the property to make that work.
“But I have to say, it is amazing to watch these guys work. I mean, Jim and Gil are on a bulldozer shaping all these greens themselves. The members see that from sidelines and they are ecstatic about it. One day it looks like a bomb went off. Then, a few weeks later, they say, ‘Oh, THAT’s what they were doing.'”
Most restorations do not involve so much earth moving, though some do. Another Hanse/Heritage renovation collaboration, at Doral’s Blue Monster in south Florida, moved 125,000 cubic yards of dirt, a total enabled by the excavation of ponds and canals. Rodriquez reports that some 75,000 cubic yards were moved at Lake Merced, and “that’s still a lot, for a renovation,” he says. Of course, that total was inflated by the creation of two golf holes — the par-4 10th and par-3 16th holes — in the Mackenzie style.
“Sixteen was an attempt to achieve that vibe,” Wagner says. “It plays over the beginning of a barranca, to a green on this little ridge that sits across the expanse. Very much like you would see at Pasatiempo. At the same time, that green is set right beside the green at 13, which is a hole we restored using great old photos that really showed everything, the unique green setting tucked into that hillside. So, that was daunting, to create a new green in the MacKenzie style that sits beside a restored original.”
What does creating/mimicking the MacKenzie style/vibe actually mean?
“It’s the size, scale, look and placement of the bunkering mainly,” Wagner says, “with edging that reminds a lot of people of cloud formations. But it’s also the way they sit in the landscape: down into the green, while some float above grade. When you put that look into a landscape with vegetation, like Cypress trees, it just screams MacKenzie! The greens here are actually sort of simple compared to some others, but they work well in this setting.”
Wagner, for one, doesn’t quite buy Rodriguez’ assertion about Heritage simply building someone else’s design, with an eye solely on functionality and sustainability.
“We’re very fortunate to have worked several project with Heritage Links,” Wagner says. “Everyone saw Southern Hills and the restoration there — and all the love it got from the players. That was Perry Maxwell. Then, to turn around and adapt to the MacKenzie style? It shows what they’re all about … getting egos out of the way and working as a team to get that vibe we’re trying to achieve. They really showed off their versatility.”