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Golf course designer Bill Coore: Ben Crenshaw's partner at the top of his game

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

ATLANTA, GA - Among golf course cognoscenti no name elicits such reverent reaction as that of Coore & Crenshaw.

Creating such masterpieces as Sand Hills and Cuscowilla will earn you that respect.

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have been partners in golf course architecture since 1986. In their 16 years together the pair has produced less than 15 original golf courses, but the modest output is not from lack of opportunity; Coore & Crenshaw are among the most sought after architects in the field.

The secret of their success can be partially summarized thus: strict selection and restraint. Going largely against the industry trend, the team emphasizes quality over quantity, carefully choosing properties that are ideally suited to natural golf holes and typically working on only two projects at a time to maximized their concentration.

They remain adamant about letting the land dictate the lay of the course and deliberately avoid moving earth except where necessary. As a result of both their scrutiny and the work of their close-knit team of shapers and builders that follow them to virtually every job, Coore & Crenshaw are able to build what are widely recognized as some of the most natural and instantly classic golf courses of the last 70 years.

While their working methods are certainly a major reason their courses are so revered, it is the individual characters of this team that truly sets them apart. The ability to walk a property and locate the most strategic and naturally gifted holes is a talent Coore & Crenshaw have in abundance. To suppress their egos and let the land express the golf is a virtue equally rare.

Bill Coore graduated from Wake Forest University in 1968 and began working for Pete Dye. In 1982 he opened his own firm in Texas where he met Ben Crenshaw. The two realized they shared the same affinity for classic golf courses and the Golden Age architects, and soon they joined forces, beginning their careers together remodeling and renovating existing golf clubs primarily in Texas.

Bill Coore spoke with Senior Writer Derek Duncan by phone on his way to their newest course, Friar's Head, on Long Island.

Duncan: You're known for carefully selecting sites that are well suited for golf. Describe the process of selection and how you first approach a project.

Coore: We try to study a piece of property and find situations that feel like golf to us in a fairly natural sense, and then to create as much variety in there as possible utilizing whatever the site gives you. In the case of Cuscowilla (it was) contours, hills to hit over, hills to hit alongside so you could have side-slopes, valleys, uphill holes, downhill holes, and wind angles to work with. As we got a routing out there that we felt would work from a sequence and landform standpoint, then we began to think about how to make the holes play differently in an interesting fashion in regard to greens complexes - we tend to (start) with greens and work backwards - then leading into bunkering that works backwards to the tee. And within all that framework try to create as many options as possible for the ways to play the hole.

For a period of 15 or 20 years we saw so many golf courses that just dictated that there was only one way you could play them. We try to (create) situations that afford you two or three or more ways that you can play the hole based on your ability.

Duncan: It's been said that at the Sand Hills there were over 100 possible golf holes waiting in there.

Coore: Because you could get lost so easily out in the dunes of the Sand Hills we literally did have over 130 holes flagged, with little pin flags out in the field.

Duncan: With so many potential holes it must have been a difficult process of elimination. If you were to go back to the Sand Hills today would you invariably build the same golf course?

Coore: One of our biggest concerns at the Sand Hills [was] we knew we had an extraordinary property that, quite candidly, if you did not create on of the world's truly outstanding golf courses you had failed. There was a lot of concern on our part, pressure if you will, based on the potential of that property.

Having said that, when I go back there now, and I think Ben would tell you the same thing, we had to eliminate a lot of extraordinary golf holes. But as I go back there now and look at it, no, I have no regrets. I don't look at it in any way and say, 'We should have taken that hole over this hole.' It's truly one of the most comforting things about that golf course and the process is that Ben and I - we've talked about this - were always concerned that we would come back and say, 'We should have.' You second-guess yourself. I must say the sequence of holes there work so beautifully, not only given the terrain but the style of the holes and the wind angles that that's never been a problem. We've never gone back and second guessed ourselves.

Duncan: Your methodology seems so simple and straightforward, so why do you think it's as rare as it is in modern golf course architecture?

Coore: In the business of creating golf courses it's probably easier to do the same thing on a fairly repetitive basis. Particularly for the guys who are constructing them in the field it's easier to repeat a style and a process than it is to change dramatically. Because it is an art form and it takes a lot of talent to create those forms in the field. It's easy to talk about them but to create them and make them work in the field is a physical proposition made more difficult if you are constantly changing the style, which we do. It's pretty easy for me to see how if you are a design company or a construction company building or designing a large number of courses at a time it probably is easier to be somewhat more redundant.

Duncan: You have a small group of builders and shapers who travel with you to each site. Can you talk about them?

Coore: There are about eight of us if you put us all together in a room. There are about five or six guys that we work with in the field. They're extraordinarily talented. Some of these fellows I have personally worked with for 20 years, and this will be Ben and my 17th year together. We're a pretty close-knit group and tend to stay together. We work together enough and we seem to think alike, and we like the same types of things, really a multitude of things all over the spectrum.

We tend to like pretty much any sort of old classic golf design that you might come up with, the revered names in architecture like Donald Ross or MacKenzie or Tillinghast or Seth Raynor or William Flynn or Charlie Macdonald or whoever. We like all those things and at any given time we may borrow a little from any of those types of styles or principles. In our process because we don't do detailed plans that lay out everything in advance, we sort of allow the guys we work with a great deal of flexibility.

Duncan: What a luxury to have a team that can adjust on the fly and produce whatever design element you can imagine.

Coore: Ours is a design made up of input of a lot of people. A prime example would be Hidden Creek, the new private club we just finished in New Jersey. [When] Ben and I were out there one day about a year ago just getting started we were thinking we were probably going to do greens and (complexes) sort of like a Pinehurst or a little like Cuscowilla because the land lent itself to that. A fellow that works with us, James Duncan, said, 'What if we consider doing something like a heathland golf course England, like a Sunningdale or a Swinley Forest?' because the property looked very much like that. We said, 'We could see how that would work, we've never done that.' So James... ran the project for us. It was [built with] as much his guidance as Ben's and mine. It worked out beautifully and it's as much credit to James Duncan as it is to any of us.

We've [also] got guys like Dave Axland who works with us, and he and Dan Proctor, another guy who works with us off and on, they designed Wildhorse out in Nebraska that's ranked on GolfWeek's list of best modern courses. So we've got guys like that who work with us and then go off and do their own thing and then they come back. We're fortunate that we have this talented group of people. Lord knows Jeff Bradley, who does all of our bunker work now, if he's not the best bunker guy in America, I don't know who is.

Duncan: His work at Cuscowilla is some of the most unique in America. How does bunkering factor into your designs on the whole?

Coore: There are two ways to do it. There are a lot of courses that have bunkers that are ideally placed that function beautifully from a technical standpoint and a strategic standpoint, and then once in a rare while you have bunkers that function and are strategically placed and are also artistically done. When you look at old pictures of some of the work like MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell's earlier (bunkers)...that portrayed nature, usually with eroded edges like broken off creek banks and...the way sand would blow up in the dunes and get in the little nooks and crannies and very irregular edges and natural looking forms, that's what we liked. Admittedly we've done smooth, very uniform looking bunkers if we were working at a club that had those types of bunkers, but usually left to our own devises we try to make them a little more rugged and natural.

Duncan: Getting back to methodology, you and your team build golf courses that are not only less expensive but highly distinctive, yet the industry trends have been to spend more money while creating less distinctive courses. Why don't more architects build courses like Coore & Crenshaw?

Coore: I can't speak for anybody else. I don't know other than to say that we look for situations where we feel comfortable with the piece of property and the concept of the golf course. We are not the best suited [firm] at working with extreme pieces of property that require tremendous alteration to make them adaptable for golf. Lord knows we get to look at [those] properties - I've walked properties that we would have had no concept of what to do because of the extreme nature of either elevation changes or conditions, and yet I've gone back and looked to see where someone else has created just a wonderful golf course on those sites by totally altering (them) with massive earthwork. So I guess we try to look for situations where we can visualize golf in a fairly natural fashion. That certainly reduces the cost.

We don't do detailed plans that we can just give to a contractor and say, 'Here are the plans, you can build this entire golf course.' We don't do that. We create budgets and schedules based on past experience. We think that we know from past experience how long it's going to take.

If you're doing six or eight or ten, or twelve or twenty golf courses at a time, you can't control it all - there's too much work to do in any given hour of any given day. Our philosophy of doing very little [earth] work and picking balanced sites works for us.

Duncan: The word "minimalism" is thrown around very loosely lately by just about everyone? Has the word lost its true meaning and is it simply a codeword now that can help with PR?

Coore: I don't know who started that phrase but I've been hearing it for years. It has become sort of an "in" phrase. I guess regardless of how you describe it, whether it's a term or phrase, there is something of a movement in golf architecture toward allowing the land to dictate the golf course. I think there have been some golf courses built in recent years that have proven that very good sites can produce very good golf courses.

Often the very best golf courses are sight-driven and not necessarily demographics-driven and I think you're seeing some people in the business start saying, 'We don't need the courses on the ocean.' Obviously if you're going to out in the desert in Las Vegas and you're going to try to create something extremely attractive a lot of work is going to have to be done. But Shadow Creek doesn't need to be the role model for all golf courses. There's still a chance to do, for lack of a better term, minimalistic golf courses.

I think the beauty of golf course architecture is that it should all be different and there's a place in this world for Shadow Creek and a place for (that) ability. I admire the ability of Tom Fazio (and his team) who can take just a horrible site and create something of immense beauty and enjoyment. I can't tell you how good those guys are.

By the same token I so admire someone like Tom Doak who can take an absolutely extraordinary piece of ground like Pacific Dunes and know what to do with it and not let his ego [overwhelm the design], and not have to make giant statements out there but let that land dictate that golf course to guide it. Those two are probably the best examples of creating something of extreme quality out of absolutely nothing on one end of the scale, and taking an extraordinary piece of property and allowing it to dictate how the golf course should be done [on the other]. They both require imense talent.

Tom Doak is extraordinary. I've known Tom a long time, as well as his guys, Gil Hanse, and there's a guy in Michigan named Mike DeVries that you're going to start hearing a lot about. There is going to be a movement of younger guys, going back to your original question, who are allowing the land to dictate the holes.

Duncan: You have a preference for building golf holes with "classic" aspects or characteristics. What in your mind is the greatest difference between "classic" or Golden Age architecture as you see it and what could be termed "modern" architecture?

Coore: I think more than anything those courses that are most referred to as "classic" afforded options. They were immensely interesting to a lot of different players and different calibers of players, and through their options they allowed players of varying ability to pick their own way to play the course. Those courses encouraged players to play golf according to their ability - the courses did not dictate to the player how to play the hole.

I think a lot of courses built since the 1980's, through the 80's particularly, tend to dictate to a player how you play, and I think that's probably the biggest difference. If courses dictate to players how they have to play then they become one dimensional, and I think that's what is happening to golf: it's become more one-dimensional. Those old courses set up situations like a puzzle. Each hole was a puzzle and based on your ability as a player you saw the puzzle in different ways. It wasn't just target golf.

Duncan: Do you have an explanation as to why golf has digressed from that period?

Coore: I think there are several factors. Certainly real estate had something to do with it. As real estate and golf became more intertwined the land that could be afforded to golf in terms of acreage became less. A lot of the old holes we refer to as [providing] options were very angular holes with a lot of width to afford different routes of play. As real estate became [financially] important the playing corridors became more linear.

The old courses had length for their time, certainly, but they also had depth and options and therefore they had interest. I think a lot of it is a matter of economics, land cost, maintenance cost, construction cost.

Like all things, golf architecture is cyclical. It follows whatever's current, and when real estate is involved, it [becomes a matter of] what's good business. What are the magazines touting? There are certain styles that are promoted in very prominent magazines and touted in the ratings as being the best. Naturally the developers are saying, 'That's what I want.'

Duncan: Is it the media's job to shift the emphasis away from big budget, development driven golf architecture and back to traditional styles?

Coore: I think it is. I think that's a major part of it. It's somewhat like music or movies. Hopefully there's still a place for "Casablanca" in this world and not just movies that are solely based on visuals or special effects. There's nothing wrong with "Star Wars" or even [movies with] far more intricate special effects. I enjoy those too. There's room for both.

Duncan: You've stated that you are always looking for different and unique challenges in building golf courses. Talking Stick, for example, was a flat and barren property that allowed you to create a golf course from scratch, and Kapalua Plantation was the opposite, a severe and rather prohibitive landscape for golf. Would you consider it the ultimate challenge to try to design a distinctive golf course in the flat, swampy terrain of Florida?

Coore: We would love to work in Florida. We never have. But we are not the best when it comes to situations [that] require extreme degrees of regulation regarding permitting, and in Florida a lot of times because of the wetlands or endangered species, those issues can become very intricate. But yes, if somebody had a flat piece of land that was pure sand, and that would be the key - pure sand - that was at least three feet above the water table, that's a situation where you could do something really neat. It just hasn't come our way.

Coore & Crenshaw Original Courses

Coore & Crenshaw Original Courses
Kapalua Plantation, Hawaii, 1991
Barton Creek, Austin, 1991
Southern Hills Country Club, Tulsa, 1992 (9 holes)
Onion Hills Country Club, Austin, 1995 (9 holes)
Sand Hills, Mullen, NE, 1995
Klub Rimba Irian, Kuala Kencana, Indonesia, 1996
Cuscowilla, Lake Oconee, GA, 1997
Talking Stick, Scottsdale, 1997 (36 holes)
The Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame, 2000
East Hampton Golf Club, Long Island, 2000
Austin Country Club, 2000
Chechessee Golf Club, Spring Island, SC, 2000
Hidden Creek, Atlantic City, 2002
Friar's Head, Long Island, 2002

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.


 
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