When Gil Hanse was hired to renovate the golf course at The Country Club, he knew there were some corners of the historic property that were better left alone.
"Vardon's bunker on 17. That was the one thing that was untouchable," he said on Monday while visiting the site of three U.S. Opens, the 1999 Ryder Cup and a half-dozen men's and women's U.S. Amateur championships. "But it's always been our formula to be respectful of the original architect's vision. That's been the keystone of the success that we've had with these restoration projects."
The Vardon bunker's signature victim was six-time British Open champion Harry Vardon, who found it during the 1913 U.S. Open playoff. American Francis Ouimet, a former caddy who grew up across the street, birdied the hole to essentially clinch a victory that obliterated the notion that golf was a game for wealthy Europeans.
But the bunker, a large sand trap along the left side of the 17th fairway only about 180 yards from the tee, has long since passed from golf hazard to historic relic.
"Obviously, for the modern game, that bunker's misplaced," Hanse said. "It doesn't come into play for a championship golfer. So our challenge was: How do we add something down the line from that, without taking away from the integrity of that bunker?"
Under Hanse's guidance, The Country Club added about 100 bunkers in spots that will that are more likely to challenge today's big-hitters — even the teens and 20-somethings who will be playing in the U.S. Amateur next August on the 100th anniversary of Ouimet's seminal win. The renovation also led to the removal of hundreds of trees to allow for better grass-growing and cosmetics; a few hundred trees have also been planted.
"We had to look at this great, classic golf course to figure out: How do we update it without taking away the character, the beauty and the tradition of it?" Hanse said.
Hanse's next stop will pose a different challenge: He is leaving next week for Rio de Janeiro to oversee construction of the course that will be used in the 2016 Olympics. That one is being built from scratch, for an event with little history in a country with even less golf tradition.
To create a course that looked like it fit in — even though there was no template for what a Brazilian golf course would look like — Hanse turned to the sandy Australian courses like Kingston Heath, outside of Melbourne.
"Our goal is to move the amount of earth you need to make something interesting but mask it so that it looks natural. Therefore it feels, in theory, traditional," Hanse said. "We're really not honoring any traditions for that course. But we're hoping that our presentation honors the tradition of building natural golf courses."
Building new and updating a traditional course both have their advantages, Hanse said.
"When you have the opportunity to build something from scratch, that's your own idea ... we have a lot of fun with that," he said. "But we're quite capable and ready to turn our focus to something like this, where it's more of a preservation and restoration mode. And I think we learn a ton from soaking up what the original architect did."
The U.S. Open returned to The Country Club on the 50th anniversary of Ouimet's victory, with Julius Boros beating Arnold Palmer and Jacky Cupit in a playoff. On the 75th anniversary, in 1988, Curtis Strange won a playoff against Nick Faldo.
When the Ryder Cup was held at the course in 1999, the Americans came back from a 10-6 deficit on the final day in what has come to be known as the "Battle of Brookline." Justin Leonard helped the United States clinch with a 45-foot putt on the 17th green — the same hole that was pivotal in Ouimet's win.
Hanse kept his hands off that green, too.
"With any course we work on, you just want to get a good champion. You want to have good competition and identify a really good champion," Hanse said. "This club has always hosted great championships, exciting finishes."