2005: Features - Architect to the Core

Minneola, Fla.

It’s the day before this year’s PGA Merchandise Show, and the golf industry is gathering in Orlando for three days of seeing and being seen. But Bill Coore will miss the parties, the hobnobbing and the floor parade. Instead, he’s 30 miles to the west with design partner Ben Crenshaw, and they’re spending the afternoon walking a 250-acre parcel of former grazing land that they’re converting into a private golf club called Sugarloaf.

That night, Coore’s going home. After a week on the road doing site visits, he won’t be going to the PGA Show. While he knows a lot of people in the golf industry, he feels no great need to be there. It’s just not his style.

Jeans are his style. So is spending a day walking raw land prospecting for golf in its native form. He’s not much for the modern business world. He doesn’t have a secretary, or even an e-mail address. And he certainly hasn’t gotten where he is through a progression of those “five-year plans” so prevalent among today’s business-school graduates. Instead, Coore self-effacingly describes himself as somewhat of a “dinosaur that has lumbered along.” It helps having an “aw-shucks” personality that comes from knowing exactly what you want to do and being able to pursue it for a living. It also helps to work hard and be totally unassuming along the way.

Carl V. Harris, emeritus professor of Classics at Wake Forest University, is not surprised by the life path his former student has taken. Not that Harris has ever seen one of Coore’s golf designs. But he has seen Coore’s mind and character at work, and nearly 40 years after they met, the two are still close enough that Coore and his wife, Sue Hershkovitz, stopped in for a few days to visit Harris at his home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“It was my privilege to work with William for several years in Greek at Wake Forest,” says Harris, a soft-spoken, formal man of 82. He then lists the classes that Coore took under his tutelage in the late 1960s: two years of Greek grammar, a semester with Plato’s dialogues, another with Homer and yet another in New Testament Greek – all in the original language.

Coore was hanging around the famed Demon Deacons’ golf team in those days and was good enough for the freshman squad. But as much as he enjoyed golf, he found beauty and orderliness in the work that Harris shared with him. Coore also was struck by how Harris treated him as an absolute equal and was genuinely interested in Coore’s ideas. Coore says he was as much taken by Harris’ character as he was by the ancient Greek world they studied together.

“The experience changed me,” says Coore, “from a jock who wanted to play sports to a person who appreciated disciplined study.”

Harris taught Coore about a sense of repose, “sophrosyne.” It’s a classical Greek term referring to an integrated ideal of harmony, balance and symmetry.

“Everything in due proportion,” says Harris. “Nothing too much, everything is natural.”

He could be describing Coore’s approach to golf design.

Coore, 59, was born in Richmond, Va., and raised in Thomasville, N.C. His parents were divorced when Coore was 2, and his mom raised him – an only child – alone. Along the way, Coore found some help from father figures – or big brothers. A neighbor, Donald Jarrett, started Coore caddying as a kid and taught him about golf, life and the value of hard work. Later, when Coore was trying to find his way in the golf world, a fine North Carolina amateur named Stuart Kennedy gave him a modest job and often took him around the state to play golf and visit fine courses.

Coore finally talked his way onto Pete Dye’s construction crew and put in time throughout the Southeast as a self-described “tree wrestler.” When the golf development market bottomed out in the mid-1970s, Crenshaw was exiled to Huntsville, Texas, where Pete’s brother, Roy Dye, was finishing up the design and construction of Waterwood National Golf Club. Coore was handed the superintendent’s job.

“I was in so far over my head a lifeline couldn’t have gotten me out,” he says.

The only way he managed was to follow assiduously the detailed handwritten memos that a turf consultant, Dick Pisolla, provided for him.

Life was quiet at Waterwood National. The rare visitor was easily spotted. One afternoon, Coore stumbled upon someone taking photographs of the course. Turns out he was an assistant prosecutor from Topeka, Kan., named Ron Whitten. Later, over drinks, Whitten said he was writing a book on golf course architecture. Coore, figuring his newfound acquaintance was half pulling his leg, responded in kind. “Well, that’s OK. I’m going to be a golf course architect.”

That was 28 years ago – before Coore was handed the opportunity to design and build Rockport (Texas) Country Club. The course quickly became well known to regional pros and often was home to PGA Tour qualifying events.

“You could tell it was really something,” says Crenshaw. “It looked so good then and had this naturalness, unlike anything in the area.”

Crenshaw decided to meet the man responsible for the layout.

Eventually the two started talking. About golf and course architecture. Along the way, they formed a bond, a mutual trust and a sense that each was genuine about their respective craft. When it finally came time to form a partnership, Crenshaw had a surprise in hand. At his suggestion, the company would be named Coore & Crenshaw Inc.

“What other Tour player would have put the unknown partner’s name first in the company?” asks Coore.

It wasn’t charity that led Crenshaw to suggest the name; it was respect for Coore’s skills.

“The company name is symbolic,” says the two-time Masters champion. “I feel truly blessed to have met Bill and to have formed this partnership with him. Bill’s so talented, I’ve learned so much from him. He has this amazing ability to see the whole picture. Sometimes I just try not to get in his way.”

Chief among Coore’s skills is routing – the sequencing of holes one to another, and each in connection with the land. Unless he’s certain that a proposed site will work in terms of what he calls “some version of natural golf,” he prefers to turn down the job. Often, that means days, weeks, of careful study on his own time. Many times, it means taking a pass, or suggesting another architect.

Obviously, something’s going right. Coore and Crenshaw have produced six courses on Golfweek’s list of America’s Best Modern Courses, including No. 1 Sand Hills in Mullen, Neb., and No. 3 Friar’s Head in Baiting Hollow, N.Y. That’s a pretty good batting average, considering they’ve completed only 14 courses as a team.

With a portfolio limited to no more than a couple of courses per year, they are in no rush to fill up the American landscape. What guides their choice of assignments, beyond their own schedules, is an interest in the land and in helping the client transform it into good golf ground, land they can work at gently, so that some semblance of natural golf can emerge.

“The only thing we’ve ever promised anyone,” says Coore, “is that it’ll be the best we can do with talent we have at that given time. We let the land dictate design rather than design dictate the land.”

If they get credit for working only great sites, it’s because – thanks mainly to Coore’s routing ability – they are able to deliver a finished product that makes the land look like it was good. On a walking tour of Sand Hills in May 2002 with 30 architects, superintendents and writers, the normally reticent Coore paused at one natural blowout and held court for an hour explaining how the routing emerged. “Everyone says there were 150 golf holes out here and that anyone could have built this place,” he said. “But much of the land wasn’t usable for the kind of walking golf we wanted, and it took a lot of time and study to get the holes together so they’d work right.”

Coore and Crenshaw run a boutique operation by modern standards. In an era when design firms have vast phone trees to handle incoming calls and consider it standard operating procedure to design 10 or more projects at a time, the pair takes on no more than they can personally handle directly in the field. It helps having a tight-knit group of regulars to do the detailed feature work, including putting surfaces, bunkers and chipping areas. That team includes some combination of Jim Craig, Jeff Bradley, Jimbo Wright, Dan Zinkand and Tom Beck, as well as longtime associates who also have done their own design/building work: Dave Axland, Dan Proctor and Rod Whitman.

Coore and Crenshaw are not Luddites who turn their backs on modern technology. When needed, they rely upon laser measurements of green surfaces and other contours. But they also rely upon small machinery, not massive earthmovers, to create the withered, Alister MacKenzie-style bunkering they seem to favor. And they prefer to take their time in the field – looking, thinking, adjusting and exchanging ideas.

And, most importantly, having fun.

“We never want to be in a position with a project that midway through, we ask ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’ or wish we hadn’t taken it on,” says Crenshaw.

For Coore, that means pursuing his craft with passion. It’s not a sensibility that can be formalized into some large abstract framework or manifesto.

“It’s a process for us rather than a plan,” says Coore. “It’s a journey with discipline, effort and not without much thought.”

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