Bill Coore and his design partner, former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, are two of today's most sought-after golf architects. Coore began his career working on construction crews for Pete Dye (Sawgrass, Whistling Straits) and then designed on his own for several years before forming the partnership with Crenshaw in 1985. Along with a talented team of associates, the pair has produced some of the most strategically fascinating and artfully executed golf courses of the modern era.
THOMAS DUNNE: Last year marked the tenth anniversary of the opening of Sand Hills Golf Club, the highly regarded course you and Ben Crenshaw designed in Mullen, Nebraska. What's your take on its remarkable success?
BILL COORE: From the first time we walked that land, we knew it had the potential to be an incredible course, but we never expected that eventually some would consider it a watershed event in golf architecture. At the time our goals were to create an interesting and enjoyable course for the members and to justify the faith the owner, Dick Youngscap, had shown in offering us the chance to work there.
The style of Sand Hills is frequently associated with the term "minimalism," and there has been a lot said about what this means. How would you define the term?
We've never applied the label "minimalism" to our work, although others have. Ultimately, I think the style that some call minimalism is really more of a return to the design concepts and philosophies of the 1920s and '30s. When architects didn't have the means to move earth like we can today, a premium was placed on finding good natural sites, and golf courses were laid out, as Ben likes to say, "very quietly on the ground." "Minimalism," though, has become a catchword, and I don't believe you can define it in any absolute way.
Some have determined that minimalism means moving as little earth as possible. But when you refer to the golden age of design, I get the sense there's a lot more to it—a strategic element as well as the engineering.
Certainly strategy is a big part of it. The very best practitioners of golf architecture, no matter the era, have understood that the best courses are those that offer the most interesting golf—interest is generally dependent on strategy and the artistry used to create it. Just looking at two of our projects, defining minimalism on the basis of how much earth was moved doesn't quite work. Talking Stick in Arizona is sometimes described as minimalist, because the end result was natural looking, but in reality we moved something like 520,000 yards of earth, albeit for thirty-six holes on a flat piece of land. On the other hand, if you were to look at aerial photos of the Kapalua site before we built the Plantation course, you'd probably be able to recognize all of the holes. It's an extreme site, both in its severity and its natural beauty. We didn't change very much at all—our primary concern was simply to make it playable. And yet Kapalua Plantation isn't everyone's idea of a minimalist golf course.
Which golf courses would you say most influenced your ideas of strategic design?
I grew up in North Carolina, not far from Pinehurst, and my friends and I would often drive over there and play all day. Back when the Tufts family owned the resort, it was five dollars for a day pass, and we'd grab our bags and play fifty-four holes. I might not have understood it at the time, but what I loved about Pinehurst No. 2 was all of the subtle details. On the first hole, for example, the deep greenside bunker on the left lures a lot of approach shots out to the right, where many golfers think a nice safety zone exists. But it's a false sense of security—because of the angle of the green, it's actually a good deal easier to recover from that deep bunker.
This kind of subtlety was in direct contrast to many of the new courses being built during the '60s, especially the self-proclaimed "7,000-yard championship courses." When I was in college at Wake Forest, I had the opportunity to play at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, a Perry Maxwell course with some of the most intricate greens anywhere. Like Pinehurst, it was fascinating to see how at Old Town even small movements on the ground affected the ball, and that made a big impression on me.