Jim Wagner and the power of surprise

The secret behind superstar design duo Jim Wagner and Gil Hanse? Surprise!

Jon Cavalier

What exactly makes a quality golf course? Dozens of voluminous volumes and a million airy blog posts have addressed this question, many of them content with this answer: great courses marry art and landscapes with a variety of shots from a way that blends seamlessly into their surroundings. This is to start. The consensus is that great courses also make you think. They engage and entertain. Offer any of these sightings with your friends over a post-round drink and there’s little chance of anyone arguing. But they can come back with “How about some examples?”

To help you take an authoritative stance without sounding like gossip, we asked a quartet of leading architects – Tom Doak, Bill Coore, David McLay Kidd and Jim Wagner – to discuss their own work to illustrate how whose design ideas materialize in the field.

Jim Wagner and Gil Hanse’s work on Ohoopee Match Club has turned it into one of the best courses in the United States.

Jon Cavalier

Architect: Jim Wagner

Course: Ohoopee Match Club

Design principle: provide endless surprise

Every time someone praises a course that Jim Wagner and his partner Gil Hanse designed to “be right in front of you”, Wagner knows he’s meant to be flattered. But that’s not how he takes it. Obviousness is never his intention.

“If you get it right away, we didn’t do our job,” he said.

The goal is to give you a range of experiences and emotions: elation, deflation, clarity, frustration. The “A” hole at Wagner and Hanse’s Ohoopee Match Club in Georgia does the trick. Part of a four-hole “whiskey” course that complements Ohoopee’s main 18, it stretches less than 500 yards. (Par isn’t marked on the scorecard, because every hole at Ohoopee is set up for match play.) Finding the fairway off the tee isn’t the problem. The architects have made this step relatively easy because this is where the real fun begins.

gil hanse holding a map of the course

Walk a golf course with designer Gil Hanse and you’ll see the game differently


Michael Bamberger

The green looks like a sunken thumbprint, set at an angle to the fairway. Players aiming for two are asked to carry a sample of sandy waste and a small volcano-shaped green side bunker. Everyone fights for position, carving a path to a hitting surface that can either receive or push back.

On a poorly designed hole, the only purpose of your second shot is to advance the ball. A great design allows so much more. Aerial assaults. Animation of ground games. Dangers, heroism, pitfalls, possibilities. Think of it as a puzzle with no fixed solution.

“Ideally,” says Wagner, “it should take a lifetime to figure it out.”

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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes to all GOLF platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Have Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.