As they approach the 40th anniversary of their partnership, the esteemed course designers reflect on their humble beginning and the philosophy that has paid dividends over the years
The 2019 film "Yesterday" introduces a thought-provoking, theoretical scenario: what if the Beatles (and their songs) never existed. "A world without the Beatles is a world that’s infinitely worse," one character emphatically declares. From a music standpoint, it’s tough to argue with that.
From a golf standpoint, a world without Coore & Crenshaw would feel similarly vapid. Without that partnership, the golfing landscape would be devoid of such top-100 courses as Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska, Lost Farm at Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, Bandon Trails in Oregon, and Friar’s Head on the outskirts of The Hamptons on the east end of Long Island in New York. You can also point to a slew of courses that haven’t yet cracked those top 100 lists that are equally significant and would represent similarly tragic losses — courses such as the Sheep Ranch, Sand Valley, Streamsong Red, The Plantation Course at Kapalua and Ozarks National.
Yet, such a hypothetical scenario was frighteningly close to becoming a reality.
Neither Bill Coore nor Ben Crenshaw can recall a specific handshake agreement or a singular, defining moment when their course-design partnership was formed; however, they do remember the year when the business established its roots. In 1985, one year after Crenshaw won the first of his two Masters titles, he and Coore formalized their design firm. In a stroke of poor timing, their alliance coincided with the beginning of the savings and loan crisis, a slow-moving financial disaster that crippled the U.S. economy and sentenced many golf course development projects to death row.
"The first four jobs that we committed to, none of them happened," Coore recalls. "We spent four years and basically produced nothing. We didn’t have a new course on the ground until March of 1991."
In 1986, Golf Digest published a story about the newly formed partnership, and Coore recalls Ron Whitten, then the architecture editor at the magazine, writing a few years later a follow-up story, which suggested that Coore and Crenshaw were the only two people he had ever known to formalize a business partnership and then immediately retire. The story may have been written a bit tongue-in-cheek, but to the outsider, that’s exactly how it appeared.
As Coore acknowledges, more than five years passed before their first layout opened for play. "It took a lot of patience on everybody’s part," he says.
More than patience, Coore & Crenshaw’s eventual success required equal amounts of faith and loyalty, especially from Crenshaw, simply because the native Texan had entered the prime of his playing career. "At that time, I was playing my best on Tour," says Crenshaw, who won six of his 19 PGA Tour titles between 1983 and 1988.
"If you put it in a business perspective," Coore chimes in, "financially, it was much more lucrative for Ben to go play golf. I used to hear it, people would come up to me who were Ben’s friends, and they would say, ‘You’re messing this all up. This guy needs to play golf. He doesn’t need to be doing this.’"
Looking back on those early years, when the duo had no pipeline of work and no completed projects upon which they could hang their proverbial hats, both men legitimately wondered if anyone was going to hire them. What they did know was that they shared the same philosophical approach to designing courses. Equally significant, they both shared the same philosophy of how they wanted their business of designing courses to operate. “We knew it had to be run like a business to survive,” Coore explains, “but at the same time, philosophically, we were trying to say that we were going to treat it like a hobby.
“When I say hobby, I mean, ‘let’s have fun doing this.’ Don’t make this such a business that we’re not involved and can’t have fun. If you have this dream to actually create a golf course, but you structure a business deal that takes that dream away, now you’re just a businessman.”
Ultimately, Coore and Crenshaw agreed from the beginning that their No. 1 goal was to design a few interesting golf courses, to be significantly involved in the work and development of those courses as they moved through the conception and construction phases, and to have some fun while doing it all. “Back then, no matter how we progressed, we knew we weren’t going to be prolific,” Crenshaw says. “Our goal was to build a few good golf courses. And that’s never changed. It doesn’t change now.”
LESS IS MORE
When Coore & Crenshaw’s first course design debuted in the spring of 1991, the golf world took notice. Given that their introduction as designers centered on the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort, it was impossible for the duo to not make a splash. They followed up that debut with the unveiling of the Cliffside Course at Barton Creek Resort and Spa outside of Austin, Texas, a couple of months later. Sand Hills came next, with The Golf Club at Cuscowilla in Georgia and Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, close behind.
By the time the 10-year anniversary of their debut rolled around, Coore & Crenshaw had a portfolio of 10 18-hole courses, along with a couple of 9-hole layouts and a handful of course restoration projects, including the revered Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. In time, opportunities came along that would have allowed the duo to expand their business significantly, but they chose not to pursue them. Coore humbly explains that their success over the years was born not from their intelligence in the beginning, but rather from their honest appraisal and understanding of themselves.
“We’ve had the opportunity through the years to expand this company — it could have been a major design shop, if we had chosen to do that,” he says. “But that just wasn’t how we felt comfortable. So we’ve just tried to continue it this same way. We try to play to our strengths, and we try to understand our limitations. Plus, if you’ve got six, eight, ten jobs going at a time, how involved can you be?”
SELECTIVE BY DESIGN
Early on in his career as a course designer, Coore cut his teeth working for Pete Dye. The late course designer famously influenced the direction of golf architecture on two separate occasions — first in 1969 with the creation of Harbour Town Golf Links, and again 11 years later with the design of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. In both instances, Dye purposefully set out to design a layout that was antithetical to the style of courses being built during those respective eras.
When Coore and Crenshaw chose to team up, they took a similar, purposeful approach; however, they weren’t focused so much on designing courses that required a specific style of play or introduced a revolutionary playing experience. Instead, they chose to push back against the prevalent strategy at the time of forcing a course onto a site based on its real estate potential rather than its ability to provide a world-class golf experience.
“We said, let’s see if we can find a few situations where we might be like the old guys in the 1920s who went out there and said, ‘this looks like golf,’” Coore remembers. “We wanted to let the land dictate.”
“We follow traditional lines,” Crenshaw adds. “Usually, we won’t attack a piece of land if we don’t think that we can get the best out of it. It’s painful for both of us to say no to a project. But we have.
“He’s the absolute best at looking at a piece of land and discovering its possibilities fairly quickly,” Crenshaw continues, pointing to Coore. “He envisions it across the land, and if he can route a course across a property in interesting fashion, then it becomes interesting. We don’t want to fight the ground as much as we work with it. That’s always in the back of our minds.”
Across almost four decades of work, Coore and Crenshaw have only taken on design commissions when they’ve determined that the parcel of land can host a golf course that they can build. In most cases, that has translated into working on sites that are naturally conducive to a golf course routing. That doesn’t mean that the duo haven’t built courses on sites where substantial earth needed to be moved — their current project in St. Lucia is proof of that. But in those cases, the earth that’s been moved has widened corridors or strengthened organic shapes and contours, sometimes significantly so.
What Coore and Crenshaw don’t do is take on a project that requires them to substantially reshape a site to accommodate the vision of a golf course. Coore acknowledges that some golf architects out there can do that — and they’re able to do it well — but he and Crenshaw have always asked themselves two questions when they evaluate a property: What do we know how to do? And what don’t we know how to do?
“We’re land-oriented,” Coore says. “We do try to understand our abilities and we try not to get outside of them.”
When it comes to challenging sites that Coore and Crenshaw have tackled, the location of their most recent project — the northeastern shoreline of St. Lucia — may be the most daunting one they’ve ever committed to. When asked if that impressive and dramatic course, Cabot Point, is one that they could have tackled earlier in their careers, both men silently shake their heads even before the question is finished.
The fact that they’re making routine visits to the Caribbean island (and have done so for the better part of two years) is less an indication that their design skills have improved. Rather, it’s a reflection of the respect and trust that Coore and Crenshaw both have for key individuals involved in the project. The duo worked closely with Cabot’s principal, Ben Cowan-Dewar, in 2016 when they designed Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia. And their relationship with investor Mike Keiser goes back more than a decade and a half, when they designed Bandon Trails in 2005.
Of even greater significance are the contractors and shapers who are working with Coore and Crenshaw on this project. In fact, the designers divert much of the praise that they’ve received over their careers, preferring instead to give ample credit to course shapers such as Keith Rhebb and Trevor Dormer, who are the primary course builders working the ground and doing much of the heavy lifting in St. Lucia.
“In the early years, these guys all started either running equipment or doing different aspects of the job,” Coore says. “And then they evolved to not just run the equipment and create the features but coordinate the jobs, run the crews, and then come up with their own concepts and ideas for not just building the features on the ground but the designs behind it.”
Over time, Coore and Crenshaw have developed a profound trust with many of the shapers and grounds crew members who consistently work with them. And the key word is with. Rather than impose their seniority over the younger members of their team, Coore and Crenshaw have cultivated an autonomous culture within their firm, one that encourages the less experienced to be just as involved in design discussions as the company’s namesake founders.
“They are extraordinarily talented designers in their own right. We’re just fortunate that they work with us,” Coore says. “It would be absolutely ludicrous for us to go out there and to try to dictate every single feature [of the course]. Then you’re taking away their talent. We want to allow as much latitude as possible for their individual creativity.”
“I shudder to think that I’ve ever told one of our guys to do this or do that,” adds Crenshaw. “That is not me. I want to work with them. I want to learn with them.”
In Coore’s opinion, that democratic approach serves as one of the cornerstones of the company. Similarly, their commitment to take on only a few projects a year is another foundational mantra. Yes, that means they’ve left dozens of opportunities on the table, but neither Coore nor Crenshaw believes that’s a knock on their success.
“If you’re a strictly business-minded, bottom line-oriented person, you can look at us and go, that’s a failed opportunity,” says Coore. “We don’t see it that way.”