Preview: Gil Hanse’s West Palm Golf Park
I have never been enthralled by Gil Hanse’s architecture, although my sample size is much smaller than Tom Doak or Bill Coore (even Rod Whitman, who has a third of Gil’s total golf courses). Of his new builds, I have only seen Pinehurst No. 4 and Streamsong Black.
That is not to say I do not like either of those two, because you would be mad not to have fun on both, but in my view, it just feels like he was trying too hard to separate himself from his contemporaries. At No. 4, he got unlucky with having to clean up Fazio’s mess, but some of the greens and their shapes, slopes, and strategies never made much sense in the grand scheme to me. Overcooked is what I tell architecture friends who ask for my opinion on Pinehurst Resort’s next-best.
At Black, the greens are wickedly intense and fun, but at times, the width gets out of hand to the point where it feels like you could hit it anywhere off the tee. In my view, the best golf architecture provides a bit of discomfort at times on the tee, and I just never felt that, even if I do like Black the 2nd most at the resort.
Even with my own anecdotal experiences on his golf courses, there is no denying the absolute heater Gil Hanse has been on. Les Bordes, Ohoopee, and CapRock Ranch have all opened to critical acclaim, and to be honest, they all look siiick. Rio’s Olympic course is one of my absolute favourite golf courses to play on Trackman, so I just assumed it was just the two golf courses I had seen; a small sample size, after all. Even his previous work, like Boston Golf Club looks appealing. Chock it up to not well-travelled enough to judge, which I have attempted to save my opinions from the public for that reason.
Add West Palm Golf Park in West Palm Beach, Florida to the heater stretch, which will open in April to the public.
Located conveniently close to Interstate 95 and Palm Beach International Airport (PBI), frequent visitors to the area will be quick to realize that West Palm Golf Park is the reimagined West Palm Beach Golf Course, an old 1947 Dick Wilson design.
Without diving much into the history—because really, we are all here for the new Gil Hanse vision—the golf course is municipally run, and in the late 2000s, Mark McCumber renovated the golf course, exposing the sandy terrain and removing many trees. Unfortunately, the mismanagement from the city of West Palm Beach following the renovation forced the course to close in 2018. With local investment and a refocused mission, West Palm Golf Park was born.
The new golf course is expansive over rolling terrain, some natural, some man-made from the vision of Gil, Jim, and the shapers that accompanied the project. You wouldn’t really know if you played the previous version, and even then, you would have to look hard. The work is seamlessly tied into the sandy scrub, oak trees and sabal palmetto landscape as if it was sculpted by the same geological events as Seminole, and subsequently, as Tom Coyne wrote in A Course Called America, Pine Valley.
The property itself is not the massive half pipe that Seminole is. Rather, to the east, the property is flatter, gently rolling and subtle. Closer to I-95 and the west, a lower portion provides some elevation change for the middle portion of the back nine to take advantage of. The landscapes are similar, though: sandy scrub defined by local sands blend together with the bunker sand. Two-tone, and unpredictable: you never know what you are going to get, but you should not lose a ball (unless you hit it in the water at Seminole, that threat is not at West Palm).
In truth, West Palm is not a Seminole knock off, which is a good thing. It is authentically Gil Hanse, with his usually flair for greens, if a bit more restrained and dare I say focussed than the other two projects of his I have played. Sure, flavours of Seminole are here, but so is Alister Mackenzie’s vision Down Under in Melbourne’s sand belt, particularly on the one-shot holes. The 11th will quickly grab people’s attentions, and even though my caddie said the 17th is the “signature” hole, I would beg to differ and expect most of social media’s posting—including our own—to include the back nine’s first one-shot hole. Some might see Valley Club, my caddie seemed to think the 5th at Royal Melbourne. I have never been to both, but they share an architect.
Part of the genius is the routing, which playfully works its way either back in three hole loops, or six holes. The 3rd, 9th, 12th, and 18th come back. Play three? Easy. Not enough time to play eighteen, but want to sneak in a few more after 9? Good thing the golf course returns after 12, and triumphantly, if I do so add myself. A very cool punchbowl iteration on a long par 4. Uphill, and blind coming into the green, it is the golf hole personification of ‘adventure.’ The contours is rather rippled and unpredictable; no guarantees it will funnel in—although there is a high chance—but missing outside the punchbowl is no bueno.
Streamsong’s Black course often gets criticized for the wild green contours, and my mention of Pinehurst No. 4 at the beginning of this article is, well, of course valid in my opinion (I imagine this article’s minor criticisms will be met from a Gil Hanse associate with cries of me needing to read more or I am too young to know what I am talking about). But at West Palm, or “The Park” as the cool kids say, that is not an issue. Greens are particularly dialed in, teething with contour that is both smart & subtle, and turned up when need-be.
For example, the shape on the par 4, 2nd is long and skinny, like a Twizzlers or Slim Jim, and features just enough movement to be interesting beyond the shape. On such a uniquely shaped green, you really do not need that much pizzazz or too much internal contour. For the first time in my interactions with Gil, it seems he is ever-focussed on the end goal, rather than just throwing things against the wall and hoping the public will like it.
On the 4th, a square green masquerades behind a bunker complex that looks like it is green side from the fairway on this long par 4, but really, sits some 75+ yards short. The 15th, a world-class par 5, has a rectangular green, set at roughly 65 degrees from the line of play, with the short left side’s contours either rejecting or funnelling balls, and shots played way out to the right over the contour ridge hiding the good stuff will benefit from a better angle. It is small details here that make a difference, and makes it easy to fall in love with this layout. There is no water here, nor should you lose a ball. What the public will play is a sandy, wide golf course where the ball will continue to work its way forward, but met with some very sophisticated greens, a stern enough challenge to entice, engage, and puzzle.
Most of the front nine sits in the high plateau above the landforms that begin to roll as they get closer to the Interstate to the west, which allows the greens to really take centrestage. The 1st, a Valley of Sin dub on a middle length par 5, is clever, disguised behind a large bunker on the right and a small contour ridge. The aforementioned 2nd is really neat, and one I would love to play to the back flag. The 3rd, the first of three one-shot holes on the front comes back to the clubhouse, with a standard green.
Things begin to pickup on the 4th and the 5th, a very long par 3 with a pseudo Biarritz. From the tee, it seems as a rather unassuming one-shot hole, but I suspect it would reveal itself more on multiple plays to the fact where one might overthink the shot. The 6th is a short 4 with a very pretty green site tucked into the trees—a rarity here—and a centre bunker splitting the green into the lower (left) and upper (right). Not quite a Lion’s Mouth, but conceptually, cousins.
The 7th ends a very strong four hole stretch, with Gil’s rendition of a Redan, although curiously with a hollow short left that will certainly complicate things coming in. While I enjoy templates, I prefer those who use the concept, but alter it just enough to give it its own identity. This is no standard
redan reverse redan. There is enough variation to see the individualistic features, and for that, an instant favourite.
While the aforementioned 11th and 12th will be celebrated by visitors once The Park officially opens, so should the 13th, a middle length par 4 that feels straight out of Juno Beach, some 30 minutes up the beach. A domed green and sandy scrub bleeding into the fairway awaits, and the approach, to an upside down bowl, will surely terrify everyone.
Beginning with the all-world and previously mentioned 15th is the three-hole stretch most will talk about, however. After the risk-reward three-shot hole, the 16th follows up with its own half par, drivable par 4 to a skinny and rectangular green that falls off hard on the right. At the green, a view of the penultimate par 3, a heroic climax of sorts to a green well-bunkered by the sandy abyss, allows the golfer to have their mind run.
If there is a criticism, it might be the subtle stuff is really subtle, in that most will not see it. The long par 4, 14th, for example, bending around the palm trees to a green with some stunning contour short to deflect balls, is low-key and understated. For me, this is a bonus; for some, it might be a ‘boring’ hole, even if it is not. Likewise for the par 5, 9th with its triangular green that prefers a shot from closer to the property line up the right, or the kicker slope on 10. The 18th does end rather disappointingly, a longer par 5 back to the clubhouse, but almost anything would be disappointing following 15-17.
As I am writing this, it has been three weeks since West Palm Golf Park. The new, shiny new toy bias has worn off. I have played Seminole, TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium, and Yeamans Hall since, but the memory lingers on. The way I see it, Florida has a new contender for the best public golf course in the state. It stands tall among the best at Streamsong, whichever way you lean (for me, Red). I prefer it to TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium course, and we will just have to wait and see what Cabot Citrus Farms turns out (it is looking good). Going forward, I will never miss an opportunity to play West Palm Golf Park, even in a very strong area for golf; it is that good. When it opens, run, don’t walk… this is something special, and if it took a Gil Hanse skeptic to a fan, I cannot imagine what it will do to newcomers or those who already love the OG caveman.