From friends and colleagues, golf course architect Gil Hanse has taken the good-natured needling with a smile and roll of his eyes. Yes, Hanse could claim three holes-in-one in his life, but they’d all come at one very special, but very small layout—The Cradle par-3 course that Hanse designed and opened at the Pinehurst Resort in 2017.” Fake” aces is the harsh assessment of Hanse’s business partner, Jim Wagner, whom—the architect likes to point out—doesn’t have a hole-in-one of his own.
Well, the joking is officially kaput, and better yet, Hanse’s ace is one that will be talked about for years to come—scored on a course he designed and was playing for the first time, in the company of some of the most powerful businessmen in America.
“The highlight of my golf career,” Hanse said with a bright grin on Friday at the Omni La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, Calif., where he attended the official groundbreaking ceremony of what will be his complete reimagining of La Costa’s Champions Course, set to be completed in 2024.
On Wednesday, Hanse was in the Coachella Valley, outside of Palm Springs, to play the completed holes of his design at the Ladera Golf Club in Thermal, which, when it opens, figures to be nearly as exclusive and mysterious as Steve Wynn’s Shadow Creek when it debuted. The club’s owners are entertainment mogul Irving Azoff and Apple executive Eddy Cue, who led a seven-some onto the course that included Hanse, Irving’s son, Jeffrey, New York investment banker and PGA Tour Policy Board member Jimmy Dunne, Creative Artists Agency managing partner Rob Light and venture capitalist Geoff Yang.
They played 12 holes, adjourned to lunch, and then went back out into the gorgeous late afternoon light in the desert. When they arrived at the par-3 eighth hole, well-bunkered and playing at 135 yards, Dunne, a born instigator, announced the stakes: $20 per man for closest to the pin and a $1,000 each for a hole-in-one. “And we’re like, ‘OK, great, Jimmy, that’s fine,’ Hanse recalled.
Jeffrey Azoff, the best golfer in the group, went first, and when he didn’t pull off an ace, Cue upped the ante: $10,000 per guy. sure, everybody agreed. It was Dunne who ended up closest at eight feet until the last man stepped up—Hanse.
“Nine-iron, and I hit it right where I wanted to, because obviously we designed it and we know where to hit it,” Hanse said, laughing. “It came off great and landed, and people are saying ‘good shot.’ And then they’re saying ‘looks like it’s inside you Jimmy.’ And then it was ‘this could be in the hole!’ And it just rolled in like a putt.”
And here is where Hanse’s description flows from excited to lyrical: “The sun was hitting it in just a way … the ball—a yellow ball—was slightly shadowed and you could see this thing go hmmph. It was pandemonium after that. I threw my club in the air. Everybody is going crazy.”
There were hugs and high-fives and pictures taken. And when they walked down the next fairway, Hanse made it clear that he wasn’t really expecting to pocket $60,000 from his friends for the ace. But then Dunne joked that maybe he’d donate it to his alma mater, Notre Dame, and that spark a notion for Hanse. He and Wagner have what they call the Caveman Scholarship Foundation, and it provides money to the children of underprivileged employees at courses they’ve worked on. Everybody immediately agreed that it was a fantastic way to go. And then to celebtate, they sat outside at the club’s firepit and shared beers out of a cooler. Hanse didn’t have to spend a dime on drinks.
Two days later, Hanse, who is as down-to-earth as any famous golf architect could be, was still glowing from his feat.
“Modestly speaking, for the history of the club,” he said, trying to put the day in perspective. “To have it happen, with everybody playing for the first time, and to have it be me on the first time I played it…”
He didn’t have to say more. No one will argue that his first “real” ace was as legit as it gets.