In my experience, golf course design is way more about editing than authoring. My name is Bill Coore, and I'm a golf course architect.
We're at Bandon Dunes, on the coast of Oregon—one of the most amazing golf complexes in the world. We're about to begin work on a new project a little further north on the coast of Bandon, a new course known as The Sheep Ranch.
It was a property that about 18 years ago had some work done on it to create sort of an undefined golf experience that included a number of greens and just natural contours that were there that people could go play, and make up their own holes. It's taken on almost a mythological aura during those years, so very few people have seen it.
It's amazing when people see this landscape from a distance or from altitude. The first impression is it's completely flat. When you're out in it, walking, you realize it's anything but flat. It owns the most magnificent contours for golf that you could hope to see. Yes, they're not as dramatic as the Pacific Dunes course here at Bandon Dunes, but in its way this is different from all the other courses and just absolutely ideal for golf.
When we are approached about any project, the questions that come to our mind are what is the site, what potential does it have to create interesting, enjoyable golf? My design partner for over 30 years now, Ben Crenshaw, and I, we go to a site to let the site guide us, to tell us what to do.
As you start to study the site, some things are obvious, I mean anyone who’s ever played golf could come here and say, "Oh I can see a golf hole going along the ocean." But some things not so obvious, you need to walk and get a sense of what the site offers.
This is just an initial thought. It's a par 3, they would either play almost directly downwind, or directly into the wind. For that reason, we have no fronting hazards such as bunkers, or severe contours, because we want you to have the possibility of landing a ball short of the green and rolling it onto the green. That's important certainly into the wind, when you're trying to get the shot lower, but even more important when you're playing directly down a strong wind, because you have to land the ball short; if you were to land on the green it would go over.
We give these type of initial concepts to our associates in the field. We give it to the guys, start working on this, and feel absolutely free to deviate from this at any point you see something happening that you think could be better.
The key to being a good golf course architect: first of all, having a love for the game and appreciation for the game of golf, and what it's provided for so many countless millions of people through its 500-year history. Beyond that, it's having a knowledge of how different people play and what provides them interest and enjoyment in the process.
You want the owner, without question, to be happy. You want the people who are going to come there to be happy, but you can't control those things. If you can, as a designer, do something that you truly believe is the best that can be done on that given site, at that given time, then I think that's all you can do.
I'd like to say I've picked it, but I think it picked us. Pretty special.
How designer Bill Coore turns courses into classics.
It was registration day, the start of his sophomore year at Wake Forest University, and Bill Coore had a problem. He had scheduled an afternoon tee time at the Old Towne Club, a nearby course where he often played and practiced as a member of the Demon Deacons golf team. But first, he had to decide how he was going to fulfill his foreign language requirement at the Winston-Salem, North Carolina institution. "I had taken Spanish the year before and hated it," he says. "I looked around for other possibilities. But all the tables in the library had long lines, and there was no way I was making my tee time if I had to wait in one of them."
Suddenly, Coore noticed that there was no line for classical Greek. So he walked over to the person manning the table there, Professor Carl Harris. After talking to Harris for a few minutes, Coore signed up for the class and then hustled off to Old Towne for his game.
One of the enduring mysteries of life is how seemingly inconsequential events end up having lasting and significant effects, and Coore's decision that afternoon impacted him in major ways. It led to his majoring in the Classics at Wake Forest and being mentored along the way by Harris, who fervently believed in principles, values and discipline and instilled in his student the importance of attention to detail and always putting forth one's best effort. And when Coore decided some years later to make golf course design his career, the lessons he had absorbed from his teacher helped guide him to the top of his profession. Now 72 years old, Coore is regarded not only as one of the finest golf course architects in the game but as also one of the leaders of a second Renaissance in that realm whose body of work will be revered by golfers and students of the game for decades and maybe even centuries after he is gone.
"I remember Dr. Harris telling me before grades came out one semester that he was giving me the highest possible B," Coore says. "He would have given me an A if he had based the grade on my test scores alone. But he could not in good conscience give me an A when he thought there had been too much time missed studying due to my golf. He said that effort mattered, and that I needed to put more into my studies if I wanted to get a A."
In a 2005 interview with the noted author and golf architecture critic, Dr. Bradley S. Klein, Coore said his experiences with Harris changed him "from a jock who wanted to play sports to a person who appreciated disciplined study," adding that the professor also introduced him to sophrosyne, which is an ancient Greek concept of excellence in character and soundness of mind. And in theory, when those ideals are combined in a well-balanced individual, they allow other qualities to emerge, such as moderation and self-control.
Bill Coore has lived his adult life by those values. And in many ways, they have also shaped his work, whether in solo projects (the Barnbougle Lost Farm layout in the Australian state of Tasmania and the Chateaux Course at Golf du Medoc in Bordeaux) or in partnership with two-time Masters champion and World Golf Hall of Famer Ben Crenshaw (Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska, Bandon Trails in Oregon, and Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, among other masterpieces). When building new tracks, Coore works with great care, consideration and style, making excellent use of the sites on which they are constructed and allowing the natural landforms to dictate the designs rather than imposing his will on the property. And when the job calls for him to restore or tweak classic layouts like Seminole Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills and Pinehurst No. 2, he strives to find ways to enhance them while respecting the original architectural intent.
"Bill Coore is one of the great masters of his craft," says Ben Cowen-Dewar, who developed the Cabot Links golf resort on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia and worked extensively with the architect when he and Crenshaw built the highly-ranked Cabot Cliffs course there. "He has done some 30 courses over a 30-year career, and the hit rate on those is just phenomenal."
Coore grew up in a rural area outside Thomasville, North Carolina, a small city in Davidson County famous for its furniture industry. He was an only child, raised by his mother Clara after his father divorced and left her when Coore was two years old. "We were dirt poor, and my mother had to work a couple of jobs just to keep us alive," Coore recalls. "It was really tough on her at times, yet she still maintained such a positive attitude. I'd come home with these crazy ideas about things I wanted to be and do. A baseball player one week. An astronaut another. And not once did she ever discourage me. She said there were lots of ways to get through life, and if I had a dream, then I should follow it and do my absolute best at whatever it was I pursued."
As a young boy, Coore fell in love with golf, thanks to a neighbor named Donald Jarrett who introduced him to the sport. "I'd hit balls from my house to his house and then into a nearby corn field when the corn had been cut down," Coore says. "We'd make up different games, and he'd take me to Pinehurst and other places to caddie for him. I'd also play Pinehurst myself and often traveled there with friends. It cost us each only $5 for the entire day in the summer, even for the No. 2 course, and we'd play as much as we could, sometimes getting in as many as 54 holes and carrying our own bags the entire time."
Coore enrolled at Wake Forest in 1964 and was good enough to make the golf squad there. "I was on the team as a freshman and sophomore," he explains. "But I was a non-factor and never even played a match that second year." Part of that was a result of academics becoming much more of a focus, and he relished the time he was able to spend with Professor Harris, who had a habit of addressing him as "William" and knew absolutely nothing about golf.
Sometimes, Coore was the only student in the class, and he remembers how those sessions endowed him with an increasing strong appreciation for learning. "I came to like it all so much that I began thinking I could follow in Dr. Harris's footsteps," he says. "I saw myself teaching Greek and then playing amateur golf in my spare time."
Make no mistake about it, Coore still loved golf. But it had become more of a hobby to him. And while he always enjoyed teeing it up, he found his mind wandering on those times he did head out to the course as he considered why he liked certain layouts better than others—and why holes were routed the ways they were.His growing interest in course architecture notwithstanding, Coore continued to pursue what he expected to be a career in education, graduating from Wake Forest in the spring of 1968 and gaining admission to a graduate program in the Classics at Duke University. But then Uncle Sam came calling. "I was drafted by the U.S. Army," he says. "I was assigned first to the signal corps at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia and then an intelligence group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Army was sending everybody else to Viet Nam, but somehow I ended up in those spots. I was one of the lucky ones."
While stationed at Fort Bragg, Coore often returned to the Thomasville area to see his mother, and it was during one of those visits that he took a ride out to where Pete Dye was building the Oak Hollow Golf Course in High Point, North Carolina. "I had never seen anything like it," Coore says. "Railroad ties, pot bunkers, peninsula greens and even an island tee. I was fascinated by what he was doing, and how he did it." And it was at that point that Coore decided to challenge his own status quo and rethink the decision he had made to go to graduate school once his military hitch was done.
"I wanted to learn how to design and construct a golf course, and I figured that if it didn't work out, I could still go back to school," he recalls. "So I began to badger poor Pete for a job. Someone at Oak Hollow gave me his number, and I kept calling him. I pestered him to the point that he eventually gave in and asked me to help build a course at the Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro. I was a laborer, at the very bottom of the totem pole. Mostly, I cut trees with a chain saw, and then I started running some equipment. In time, Pete let me walk the land with him, and I'd listen to him talk about what he was trying to do with the design and why. He thought I was odd and wondered why I wanted to do what he was doing when I had a college degree and did not even know how to start a tractor. But I had become more and more interested in becoming a golf course architect, and I wanted to learn. At the same time, my mother had become more and more distressed. So much so that she somehow got a hold of Pete's phone number and asked him to fire me so I could go back to school."
By going to work for Dye, who at the time had begun to be considered perhaps the best and most innovative of the modern course designers, Coore had started to engage deeply in his new profession. As he had done as a student in college with Dr. Harris, he was learning his new craft from a master of his profession. Dye demonstrated to Coore the importance of detail and of being on property as much as possible during a job instead of having his associates do all the work. Dye also showed his protégé how to look at land and discern the best ways to use the terrain for golf, as he also taught him about construction and being able to build a golf course as well as design one. In addition, he introduced Coore to the written classics of that discipline and loaned him a number of his books on the subject so he could advance his understanding of the craft.
Dye also encouraged Coore to take on the job as course superintendent of a course he had been helping the designer and his brother Roy build in East Texas. "One day, the superintendent quit, and when we could not find someone to replace him, Pete suggested I replace him," Coore recalls. "I had no idea what it took to tend to a course like that, but Pete had all the confidence in the world in me. ‘You can read the label on a can, can't you?' he asked. So I did what he said, and it turned out to be a great move because it taught me all about turf maintenance and course conditioning and made me understand those things much better as I went on to design and build my own courses in the future."
In 1982, Bill Coore left Dye Designs to hang out his own shingle. His first solo effort was at the Rockport Country Club in Texas, and once again Coore challenged the status quo by creating something with a naturalness about it in terms of look and the sequencing of its holes. The result was a design that seemed quite different at a time when many new courses felt quite manufactured by architects who had taken to moving lots of earth, and Rockport attracted the attention of a number of discerning golfers, among them Ben Crenshaw. It led to the two men meeting, and not long after they did, they formed a partnership, Coore & Crenshaw, with Crenshaw being the one who gave Coore top billing.
It took a while for that team to take off. But when it did, they began producing some of the greatest designs modern golf has ever seen as they also did extraordinarily deft restorations of several of America's finest classic courses. And while Crenshaw certainly deserves much of the credit for the success of the firm, there is no denying the strong influence of Bill Coore—and of his mentors Carl Harris and Pete Dye. Especially when one considers Coore and Crenshaw's obsession with quality, their refusal to do more than a couple of projects at any one time so they could always give the current work their undivided attention and the insistence on always spending as much time on a given site as possible. They were also quite discriminating when it came to taking on new commissions, being sure that the sites on which they agreed to work were first-rate and that the clients they selected shared their vision and design philosophies. That way, they could ensure their compositions would always be of the highest possible quality.
"Bill truly is the consummate professional," says James Duncan, who assisted Coore for many years with Coore as part of the Coore & Crenshaw design operation and now heads up his own firm. "He cares about every aspect of the job. He is both artist and engineer. He understands course routing and how to see a hole in the land. He knows how an irrigation system works. He knows how to get grass to grow in certain ways. He knows how to shape a bunker and finish a green. He can do it all, and do it well."
There is no denying that, and for Bill Coore the payoff has been huge. "Honestly, I could not have possibly conjured up a better dream job," he says.
It's worked out well for the world of golf course architecture, too.