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Meet the man who brought Olympic Golf Course to life

RIO DE JANEIRO -- The light was just right Tuesday morning at the Olympic Golf Course, and the man who designed the layout figured it was a good time to try to take some photos.

Gil Hanse spotted two-time major champion Martin Kaymer playing down the first fairway and thought, "Wow, we're actually here. They're actually playing our golf course.'

"I'm not sure if that is the point where it really hit me, but I think that is the point where the pride really started to flow."

Hanse, 53, was the surprise choice for the Olympic Golf Course project, his Gil Hanse Golf Design company beating out industry heavyweights such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Martin Hawtree, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Peter Thomson and Tom Doak.

And there is no way he could have known back in March 2012, when the contract was awarded, what was ahead.

Environmental issues. A land dispute. Construction delays. As much as all of the Olympic Games in Brazil have been affected by various problems and negativity, so, too, was the golf course.

Had the 2016 Olympics been awarded to, say, Chicago, there would have been numerous choices to stage the Olympic tournament. Not so here, where just two courses existed in Rio; neither is public or suitable for a major golf competition.

The new course was built in the Barra da Tijuca section of Rio within a natural reserve on sandy-based terrain that provides excellent drainage and a links-like feel. There are virtually no trees on the property, so wind will be a factor. Only a lagoon separates the course from the Atlantic Ocean.

"What struck me was how little dirt he really moved," Ty Votaw, an executive with the PGA Tour who is also vice president of the International Golf Federation, told ESPN.com. "He really built a golf course that rolled with the terrain he was presented with. Because of this location, seaside, it has a links feel to it. But he designed something that fit really well into the landscape and topography."

Players such as Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler both noted its Australia-like qualities, especially the sand belt region near Melbourne, where the courses are known for the links-like, sandy-based terrain.

"We talked to Gil earlier today and told him how much we appreciated what he did here," said Bubba Watson, the top-ranked American in the field. "It's beautiful. The layout is unbelievable. Couldn't ask for anything more."

For the men's tournament that begins Thursday, the course will measure 7,128 yards (6,245 yards for the women's event, which starts Aug. 17) and play to par-71. It has four par-5s and five par-3s.

The finishing holes offer the chance for drama with a drivable par-4 at the 16th, the par-3 17th, and then a reachable par-5 18th.

One of the reasons Hanse was selected for the job was he was willing to relocate to Rio from his home in Malvern, Pennsylvania. All of the applicants were offered a set fee of $300,000, well below market value; Hanse's design group could easily expect to earn double that and likely triple now that he's had the exposure that comes with the Olympic project. Designers such as Nicklaus and Norman routinely command seven-figure design fees. (Nicklaus later offered to waive the design fee, believing the Olympic project was so important to the game.)

Hanse had also been awarded the task of revamping the Blue Monster course at Doral, owned by Donald Trump. He also designed Castle Stuart, where the Scottish Open was played last month; did an overhaul of Los Angeles Country Club; made alterations at TPC Boston, site of the Deutsche Bank Championship. And he recently completed a third course at Streamsong Resort in Florida.

But seven months into a planned yearlong stay in Brazil -- with his wife and a daughter who was close to college age -- Hanse realized the process was going to take much longer.

He moved back home, then took numerous trips to Brazil, spending 10 to 14 days at a time, overseeing the construction. Delays became worrisome because a test event was supposed to be played a year ago (the course was not ready) and a new course needs time to grown in and soften.

"I was really delighted how quickly the course matured once it was grassed," said Peter Dawson, the IGF president and former long-time CEO of the R&A who along with Votaw served on a four-person committee that picked Hanse for the job. "If it had been going on in the U.K., it wouldn't yet be ready. But down here it went quickly.

"I think he produced a masterpiece, frankly. And he's been a delight to work with. The players I've spoken to have been very positive. I think they're all surprised how good it was. I don't think they were sure what they were coming to."

Several of the design applicants brought on a woman partner to help strengthen their bid, which is why Nicklaus' pitch seemed so formidable when he enlisted Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, who dabbles in course design.

Not only that, Nicklaus and Sorenstam had been prominent campaigners for golf's inclusion in the Olympics when the sport was awarded a spot in 2009. Norman had Lorena Ochoa on his team, and Thomson worked with another Australian icon, Karrie Webb.

Hanse brought on Amy Alcott as a consultant and could not have been happier with her role.

"Her being in the room I think gave us more credibility having a women's golf Hall of Famer up there," Hanse said. "She talked wonderfully about how she got into the game and how much this golf course could provide an opportunity going forward."

She also gave Hanse feedback on landing areas, a tricky aspect to the design because the course needed to be championship caliber for both men and women. If the idea is to have a hole play as a driver, 7-iron, for instance, then the tees need to be moved up for the women to hit a 7-iron to the green -- and the landing area also will be in place close to the hole.

"There are different ways to provide risk-reward without piling hazard after hazard out there," Hanse said. "Amy was really good about those type of discussions."

Ultimately, having a great competition and tournaments that are remembered and appreciated by Brazilians will be the most important aspect in forming a legacy, Hanse said. Getting them to come here to play the course and embrace golf will be the next great challenge after the Games are complete.

For now, Hanse can only watch, his design and all that went into it ready when for so long there were doubts about this day ever arriving.

"As a designer, you have a certain intuition as to what you've built and how it's going to play," he said. "I feel really good about what we built and I think knowing that the conditioning is where it is ... looking at the weather, the wind is going to blow, we'll get wind from different directions ... I think the golf course will be shown off in its best light. And that's good.

"But don't get me wrong; on Thursday morning I'll be shaking like a leaf, nervous and excited at the same time."