Bill Coore

One of golf's most innovative designers doesn't build courses. He finds them

Pay enough attention on a Bill Coore design and you can feel the vibe of the public par-3 tracks he walked as a kid, see the British Open magazines he read as a teen and hear the wisdom he absorbed from Pete Dye while serving as his shaper. The sum of those early influences, along with his now-legendary collaboration with partner Ben Crenshaw, has resulted in a string of courses praised for bringing natural landscapes back into the mainstream without settling for standardization, from Streamsong to Friar’s Head to Cabot Cliffs. In this candid conversation, Coore discusses the differences between him and other designers, his simple inspiration at Sand Hills, the philosophy behind Bandon Preserve and how he and Crenshaw are attempting to break the mold again with a bunker-less Sheep Ranch.

Bill Coore, Illustration
Illustration by Kate Copeland

I’m curious: What’s your favorite golf course outside of the ones you’ve built? 

There’s so many, but my usual fallback position is the National Golf Links of America on Long Island [in New York]. In many ways, it’s very structured, and the holes that [Charles Blair] Macdonald and [Seth] Raynor created there, they then created again at other places. But the way that [NGLA] is put together on those landforms, it is just an amazing thing. Obviously I could name another dozen, but if it came down to it, that would be it. 

So I guess you’re alright with using some templates in your courses? 

If the opportunity presents itself, we certainly won’t shy away from it. Some of those template holes are still the most interesting holes throughout golf history. But that doesn’t mean we go out looking for situations just to recreate and build them. 

There are distinct thumbprints that all architects—the Pete Dyes, the Tom Fazios—have in their designs. In your mind, what are some of the features of a Coore & Crenshaw course?

I think when you’re talking about Pete or especially Tom Fazio, Tom and his company have built such magnificent golf courses in oftentimes very extreme sites. When you look at Tom or Pete—in most cases, and this is my opinion and they might disagree—it seems that they went to a site and had a vision of what the golf course on that site should be, and they altered the site to meet the vision. If anything, I would say we are the exact opposite. 

How so? 

We try to go in with zero preconceived notions. We try to study sites and say, “What is interesting about this site and naturally appealing for golf? Can we visualize golf out here in any form, and, if so, what is that form?” And then study that site enough to allow it to tell us what the golf course should look like and what the concept should be. Then, as you go further into the process, [we build] the routing and individual holes and greens and bunkers. We would like people to say each course has its own individual character and looks like it belongs there, not brought there. 

Some people would call that minimalism, which is the trend you’ve had a big hand in bringing back. Why do you think that more-natural approach of finding the golf course within the land has resonated so much with people and young designers? 

I think it’s the cornerstone of golf architecture ever since it began: using natural sites and finding a way to play golf across the sites. It wasn’t until centuries later that it became more commonplace to say that we will alter sites to make golf possible. 

Why do you think that happened? 

In the very earliest years of seaside links golf in Scotland, there were the dunes sites that were not good for agriculture but proved to be very interesting to play golf across. And they were very close to the towns. As years go by, and literally centuries go by, that becomes less likely to happen. Certainly in the 1920s and ’30s there was still interesting land around major populations, and that’s when many fabulous golf courses were coming to life in places like Philadelphia and Long Island and California and Chicago. As things changed after World War II, there was movement to suburban areas and the courses began to follow the demographics. I think when that happened, oftentimes the sites weren’t nearly as interesting, so they had to be created. When that gets carried to such an amazing level, like at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, which is perhaps the ultimate coming-together of imagination and financial wherewithal, you get to the point where you say, “The site doesn’t matter. We can make any site with enough imagination and funding.”

And now we’re moving back to letting sites drive the great courses. Any great examples come to mind? 

Dick Youngscap, the founder of Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska, summed it up when he said, “Great golf courses are site driven, not demographically driven.” The Sand Hills course was very much a throwback. Dick had little to no budget. Plus the fact that everybody had thought he had lost his mind because there were only two people per square mile in Hooker County, Nebraska. By necessity, it had to be the way those earlier courses were done, where they said, “Here’s a truly extraordinary piece of land; go out and find the golf holes. We don’t have any money to change them. You better find them and get them done at the absolute minimal costs.”

For me, that gets spiritual. You’re thinking, “This is land so beautifully suited to the game I love, and they didn’t have to build it or push it around. It was just here waiting for us to golf our balls across.” That’s a pretty special thing, and I’ve felt it on a number of your courses.

We are firm believers in that no matter how talented you are as a golf designer, no matter how much money can be given to you to work on a project, it is just simply not possible to compete with Mother Nature when you are thinking about randomness and interesting contours and the variety of things that can come into the picture with landforms and landscapes.

We get kidded all the time: We’re out on a site and almost invariably someone will say, “How long is it?” I don’t know. Then, “What’s the par?” I don’t know. 

Once someone said, “OK, then, what do you know?” And I said, “Well, I know it’s a really interesting site and we feel like we can create a golf course with a lot of character and a lot of gifts for golf, hopefully, but we have no idea how long it’s going to be.” Generally we’ve noticed that, at some point, somebody adds up the yardage and then tells us. 

We are firm believers in that no matter how talented you are as a golf designer, no matter how much money can be given to you to work on a project, it is just simply not possible to compete with Mother Nature.

What are your feelings on concept-type courses that are different and breaking the mold?

I think it’s just fantastic. Ben and I both grew up playing on nine-hole golf courses. And we both found those to be extremely interesting and just as real for golf as bigger, regulation courses. For years, we tried to get clients to allow us [to do something different] if they had a site that we didn’t feel was conducive to an 18-hole course. We’d ask, “Would you consider doing a nine-hole course? Or a nine-hole course and a par-3 course? Or a 12-hole course?” And it was just frowned upon consistently, particularly in the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s. 

What was the disconnect? 

It was just like that wasn’t proper golf and that wasn’t a marketable product. And so much of golf and golf architecture—whether we want to admit it or not—is tied directly to the ability to market and be successful in the operational sense. Most clients were just not willing to take the leap. 

How, then, did the Preserve, your par-3 track at Bandon, come about? 

I give [Bandon Dunes owner] Mike Keiser so much credit for so many things, especially the idea that public-access golf can be just as good and interesting as any golf in the world. In addition to that, Mike’s the one at Bandon who said, “You know what, guys? We need a par-3 course. We’ve got all these people coming out here with aspirations to play 36 holes a day, and it’s walking golf. That’s not going to happen more than one day, or two if you’re younger.”

I remember asking about his goals for the course, and he said, “To make it really fun, quirky and interesting.” Then he said, “I don’t want any 200-plus-yard par 3s. I don’t care how short the holes are; I only have one requirement: I want them to be inspiring enough that you could pick it up and set it on one of the regulation courses and you’d be happy to play it in the round.”

And I remember laughing and saying, “That’s really all you want?”

So how did you decide on making it 13 holes? 

I asked him how many holes he wanted and he said, “I don’t care as long as it’s not nine or 18. The last thing I want is some form of standardization. I want it to just be amazing fun.” As it turns out, it ended up being 13 holes. 

Now you’re trying to do something else groundbreaking at Bandon with Sheep Ranch. What can you tell us about that project? 

The Sheep Ranch is an amazing piece of property, but it’s completely different for those who have been to Bandon. The landforms are different. It’s not sand, and it’s not dunes like Pacific Dunes or even parts of Bandon Dunes. The shoreline is different; it has more angles, particularly as it goes out into the center of the property towards an area called 5-Mile Point. So it affords an opportunity to play golf not just along the ocean, but literally across the ocean from cliff top to cliff top.

It’s a rolling, twisting, tumbling landscape. It’s got bigger contours in terms of broadness than the choppy contours that you might see at some windblown seaside courses. But the contours themselves are so incredible that we just tried to take what was there in terms of landforms and visualize golf holes on top of them. I think the end result will be very interesting. Like the other regulation courses at Bandon, I think there will be certain people who play there and proclaim that it’s the best golf course on the whole resort. I think there will be other people who play it and say it’s their least favorite.

Anything else out of the box that you are trying there? 

There is a photograph that Ben and I were both aware of, from a book called The Links by Robert Hunter. It’s a photograph of contours that says something like, “Someday there will be a site with undulation so perfect for golf that bunkers will be unnecessary.” The more we walked out at the Sheep Ranch, we could certainly visualize super-spectacular bunkers. But it’s a very windy site and it’s not sand-based, so sand would have to be imported there and [the wind] would probably blow it out of them as fast as you were putting it in. 

It would have been a maintenance nightmare. Finally it just became obvious that if we were ever going to do a golf course with no bunkers, this is it. The landforms take care of all the interest for golf.

Funny how something like that can sound so innovative and yet have such old roots, right?

We’d all like to say, “Oh, we created something that’s never been created!” But there’s nothing new. I think it was Harry Truman who said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” In terms of golf architecture, that is true. There’s nothing new; it’s a series of things that have been done before and you try to make the arrangement different using the same notes.

Bandon Dunes, Bill Coore
According to Bill Coore, the land dictated that the Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes (above) have no bunkers.