What do you say about a 3,300-yard, nine-hole course in rural Tennessee with a prefabricated shed for a clubhouse, a port-a-john for a locker room, and a practice green the size of a coffee table? For starters, it’s the most enjoyable golf experience I’ve had in years.
Sweetens Cove isn’t the kind of course where you can say, “Well, it’s like a little bit of this course and that one put together.” It will never be called “a classic so-and-so design.” I’ve played everything from munis to tour stops all the way to the Old Course, and I can promise you it’s not like anything else you’ve ever played.
Picture a world-class, challenging, and ridiculously fun golf course. Now strip off the 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, the pro shop, the driving range, the short game area, and even the superfluous nine holes you can’t remember anyway. Now, go ahead and shave another 300 yards off the tips. That may sound sacrilegious, but once you’ve distilled the experience into only what is necessary, you’re left with something that takes you back to when you first fell in love with golf. Maybe even something that takes you back to the birth of golf itself.
Rob Collins is the man behind the course’s creation. When he started the project, it was May 2011 and golf was in a full recession. Courses were closing their doors, companies were struggling to make ends meet, and Rob was betting everything he had on his brand new company (King Collins Golf Course Design, a partnership with Tad King) and their first project of turning a forgettable muni called Sequatchie Valley G&CC into something memorable.
“I was inspired by my favorite courses in Great Britain and Ireland along with Pinehurst No. 2 and Tobacco Road, to name a few domestic courses that provided inspiration,” Rob said. “Additionally, the 1932 version of Augusta National was a huge inspiration for the architecture. The overall goal was to create a great strategic course that places a premium on approach and recovery shots. Hazards, angles, and green contours all work in concert with one another, laying the foundation for a course where there are no weak or indifferent shots during one’s round.”
Happily, Rob and Tad’s endeavor fared much better than many of their contemporaries’ projects in the wake of the 2008 recession, though it did have many twists and turns along the way. Chief among them was in 2013, roughly a year after construction was completed, when the ownership group disbanded and left the course for dead.
“I was desperate to do anything that I could to get the course open,” Rob said. “The course was my baby, and I believed that what we had created out there was architecturally significant and deserved to see the light of day. As it turned out, my client [the original ownership] approached me and asked if I would like to take the course over on a long-term lease. I said yes to that proposition and set about trying to find a partner for the venture. I was introduced to Ari Techner through the former superintendent at Lookout Mountain, Mark Stovall. Ari and I hit it off and partnered in a venture to take over operations of the course. Since that time, our partnership has expanded and includes Patrick Boyd as General Manager as well as a few others.”
Once securing new ownership, Sweetens Cove took off on a consistent upward trajectory that even has it ranked above some major championship venues in certain publications.
Admittedly, arriving at Sweetens Cove for the first time can be a disorienting experience for the recovering country clubber. Meandering through a town of 3,000 people in the East Tennessee foothills, you find a wooden sign marking the entrance that guides you to a gravel parking lot with no marked spaces. Stumbling out of the car, you find a curious hunter green shed for a clubhouse that might lead you to question all the buzz you’ve seen on social media. The walk from your car to the clubhouse, though, provides the perfect perch to gaze out on the King Collins creation… and you start to realize that maybe there’s really something to this place.
When you embark on your journey, you encounter absolutely no resemblance to the mechanical, formulaic assembly of a typical, rubber-stamped golf course design. Instead, you’ll find massive waste areas, perfectly placed pot bunkers, and a movement to the land that captures the imagination. The greens are equally receptive to flop shots and bump-and-runs, but they demand a precise execution of either choice.
The bermudagrass fairways are relatively firm and generously-sized, but uneven lies are a common occurrence. Should you find yourself outside those fairways, prepare to take your medicine. Waiting for you there are those waste areas, as well as tall fescue and even clover and thistle in some areas. While some may scoff at such a notion, this is a microcosm of Sweetens Cove’s ethos. It’s a palace for the golfing purist: a minimalist, essential experience that harkens back to when golf geniuses like Old Tom Morris knew exactly where (and where not) to focus their energy. If something adds to the golfing experience, Sweetens Cove has it in spades. If it doesn’t add to the golfing experience, the folks at Sweetens Cove don’t bother.
The opening hole (pictured to the far left of the above image) is a par-5 of 563 yards. It’s a three-shot hole for most mortals, but your best chance of getting home in two is to start by carrying the bunker on the left about 270 yards off the tee. Be very careful about how you approach the green. It’s guarded by a gnarly pot bunker bordered by vertical railroad ties. The green on this hole is a foreshadowing of what’s to come on the next eight with bounding ridges and multiple potential pin locations that each provide a totally different perspective.
The second hole is a par-4 of 375 yards, and the star of the show is the nastiest little pot bunker. It’s placed squarely in the middle of the fairway about 260 yards from the tee. If you miss it, you’re likely fine, but if you don’t… well, good luck. The smart play is hybrid off the tee to stay short of the bunker, leaving yourself a short iron into the green.
No. 3 is a par-5 of 582 yards. Feel free to let fly with the driver off the tee, but beware how you approach the green. The green is perched high above the fairway and guarded by a massive tree in front and a waste area to the left. If the pin is located on the left side of the green, you’re in for a surprise when you walk up to the flag. The ideal landing area isn’t much larger than a couple hundred square feet.
No. 4, King, is the only hole with a name. It’s a 169-yard par-3 according to the card, but the green is 90 yards long. The shot can play anywhere from 120-200 yards depending on pin location and the direction of the swirling winds. And did I mention the tee shot is blind from the tips?
No. 5 is a 293-yard par-4. For longer hitters, it’s reachable from the tee with the right wind, but be careful where you miss. Short right of the green is all waste area that is relatively escapable, though your second shot will likely be to a blind pin. Short left is another nasty pot bunker.
No. 6 is a massive 456-yard par-4 with a sweeping dogleg left that tempts you to hit a hard draw. What you are likely to find out after the fact is that a good portion of the fairway slopes to the left and into a water hazard that runs the length of the hole. This will be one of the hardest holes on the course for most golfers. The only way to miss this green and still be in play is to be short and/or right of it, but getting up and down from there will definitely test your nerves, skill, and imagination.
No. 7 is a 328-yard par-4. It’s all about what club you select off the tee. Driver straight at the flag (which must carry a bunker on the right) is aggressive but likely safe. A driver left will leave you with that dreaded 60-yard bunker shot, and driver right could be behind a tree. Be smart and hit a hybrid. If you miss the green left or right, you may waste a shot or two going back and forth due to the steep drop off on either side.
No. 8 was my personal nemesis. It’s a 387-yard par-4 that, in retrospect, places an emphasis on an accurately planned tee shot (notice a theme here?). By that I mean at the tee, you need to evaluate where the pin is and pick the club and line that will give you the best angle — while keeping in mind the location of the bunkers and trees that could impact your intended path.
No. 9 is an uphill, 148-yard par-3 with a massive waste area in front, another bunker beyond, and a back-right to front-left sloping green. Matt Cardis’ photo below from his @golfinyourstate Instagram account is taken from the No. 9 tee box.
A course with virtually no excess is a challenging proposition. Everything has to be in exactly the right place, as there’s nothing to divert your attention away from anything that doesn’t meet expectations. Sweetens Cove is definitely up to the task, forcing you to constantly zoom in and out mentally to evaluate the macro and micro of every single shot. There are no less than three shots that can be played from any given situation on the course, but you had better commit to the strategy you’ve chosen and execute or you will pay the price.
The entire journey is spent on the razor-thin edge between heroism and disappointment. Sure, there are elements of this designer and that designer; of links golf and American golf, but Sweetens Cove is truly a golf course without a parallel. It’s a place that serves as a refreshing counter-culture to the vast majority of 21st-century golf courses and, frankly, to the American lifestyle in general. In a world with so much excess, Sweetens Cove will remind you that if all you had left was just a fantastic golf course, all would still be very much right with the world.
The Colonial Experience
Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, is home to the longest-running non-major PGA Tour event held at one location. The course opened in 1936, and it’s been hosting the Invitational at Colonial, now called the Charles Schwab Challenge, every year since 1946.
It was the golfing home of Ben Hogan, five-time winner of the event, and it’s still where most of his trophies and accomplishments are housed. The 1941 U.S. Open was here and won by Craig Wood. The Players Championship was here in 1975 and the U.S. Women’s Open was here in 1991. Colonial, quite simply, is rich golf history in a town that is proud of where it came from. And you can feel the past as soon as you step foot on the grounds.
Walking through the gates towards the course, you are immediately hugged by a “wow” moment. There’s Mr. Hogan, his follow through forever posed, larger than life and overlooking the 18th hole. Also in view is a manually operated leaderboard, permanently tucked away inside the closing hole’s dogleg, reminding you subtly that you are about to play a Tour course. It’s up year-round, and as the tournament nears, Mr. Hogan’s name always appears in the first place position.
Down the steps and around the corner, past the caddie shack and old school bag room, is the starter house and number one tee box. And shadowing over the professional tees is the Wall of Champions, with every winning player’s name and score etched to watch your opening tee shot. Hogan’s name is there five times. Sam Snead. Arnold Palmer. Jack Nicklaus. Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson and Lee Trevino all on there twice. Tom Watson. Sergio. Spieth.
Some courses are second shot courses, with approach shots being more demanding and more important than driving accuracy or distance. Some courses require length. At Colonial, you need both. That’s why the list of past winners is so impressive on the Wall of Champions. You can’t just drive or putt your way to a win at Colonial. You have to be solid in every aspect of the game. You have to earn it and deserve it. You have to be a shotmaker.
Colonial was designed by Texan John Bredemus and well-known architect Perry Maxwell, who also designed Prairie Dunes in Kansas and Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It opened in 1936 and currently plays as a 7,209-yard par 70 that meanders along the banks of the Trinity River. The greens are bent grass, which at one point in time was an unheard of idea for a course in North Texas. Marvin Leonard, the club’s founder, was determined to build a world-class club in the region that could sustain bent grass. And he did it. Just five years after the club opened its doors, the 1941 United States Open was held in Fort Worth. Colonial was on the map and the Marvin Leonard dream had come true.
The course holds only two par 5’s, the first hole being one of them. A 565-yard dogleg right to a slight elevated green, getting home in two isn’t out of the question with a perfectly placed drive. But this introductory hole is the perfect way to start a round. Nothing too demanding. Get warmed up. The second hole, a short par 4, is no different. Start off easy to get some good holes under your belt.
And then you get to the Horrible Horseshoe.
The third hole at Colonial is a 483-yard par 4 that plays even longer than that, due to the severe 90-degree dogleg left near your drive’s landing area. A straight 250-yard tee shot will put you in decent position away from trouble, but you still have 230 yards into a multi-tiered green. Longer hitters can try to cut the corner, protected by bunkers at the corner, but the landing area for that shot is so narrow that the reward is often not worth the risk. This is a tough hole.
The fourth hole is a 220-yard par 3 from the men’s tees. But it tips out to 247 yards for the pros during tournament week. The green is elevated and often very firm, making it incredibly tough to stop a long iron or hybrid on the dance floor for even the best players in the world. This is a tough tough hole. Short is the safe play, though there is no easy up and down from the front, as the green is elevated to eye level and making most chip shots blind.
The fifth hole, ending the Horrible Horseshoe, is one of the finest and toughest holes in golf. Your tee shot dog legs just enough to the right to require a left-to-right ball flight. Something to make you think about standing over your ball. Anything off the tee that is too straight or has any right to left movement is going to cross through the fairway and into an oak tree-lined ditch with rough high enough to swallow a ball for weeks. If you start in the ditch, you finish in the ditch. So don’t miss left.
Don’t miss right either. Anything with too much fade or slice action is going into the Trinity River, which borders this hole on the right all the way to the green. And if you can somehow manage to find the fairway, you’re still a long way from home as this is a 481-yard par 4 leading to a well-bunkered green. This is a tough, tough, tough hole.
If you can get through these three holes, arguably the hardest three-hole stretch on tour, unscathed, you’ve done something.
The rest of the front nine is easy, in comparison to the horseshoe, but by no means simple. Six and seven are wonderfully partnered par fours, running parallel in opposite directions. The par 3 8th hole brings the Trinity River back into view, but the water itself is not a real threat. The hole plays 194 yards from the back tees to a three-tiered green. The safe play is always aiming to the middle of the green and letting the putter do the rest of the work. Missing this green completely will not likely result in par, as deep bunkering and wide trees protect on all sides.
The closing hole of the front nine requires a precise tee ball between large bunkers on both sides of the fairway. The green is tucked behind a scenic pond and in front of the starter’s house and number one tee box. Any miss, left or right off the tee, will most likely force a layup in front of the water. But if you do have a shot at the green, make sure you don’t miss short.
From nine green, you can see much of the front, hopefully recalling fond memories of the first half of your round. Thankfully, not much of the horrible horseshoe is in view…let’s keep that in the past.
That back nine at Colonial is an absolute blast. The two par 3’s on this side are both world-class holes, 13 being the course’s signature. The lone par 5, hole 11, is a straightaway 635-yard-long mammoth with a troublesome creek along the entire right side.
But it all starts with the absolutely tremendous 10th hole. Only 408 yards from the tips, the hole plays tricks on the eyes. From the tee, it looks like you have plenty of room off on the right, but course knowledge can go a long way on this hole. You absolutely have to keep your tee ball hugging the left side of this fairway, which feels like a horrifying proposition while standing over the ball. The tee box falls off into the water, which doubles as approach shot hazard on nearby 18. Driver just isn’t the club here, though it feels like it should be. Any miss slightly right is going to be shielded from the green from overhanging trees and a deceptive angle.
The back nine has a bit more undulation than the front. The formerly brush-covered Trinity River land still has plenty of mature foliage, mostly oaks, pecans, and cottonwood trees, to maintain the feel of an old-school course. It is truly a classic layout in every sense of the phrase. The bent grass greens, made famous by Mr. Leonard’s passionate pursuit, are pure most of the year, though fans are erected during the Summer months to keep them cool.
The par-3 13th hole is a tournament spectator favorite. 190 yards from the pro tees and 171 from the men’s, this hole is as beautiful as it is treacherous. The further you miss right, the more carry you’ll need to land safely. During tournament week, the professional caddies are in on a long-standing spectator event: the caddie races. Fan’s surrounding the green pick a player’s caddie to root for, then they cheer (and maybe even gamble) for that caddie to reach the green first. I’ve seen all-out sprint races and slow walk dramatic finishes alike. First foot to touch the green wins, and the caddies are hilarious about it. They eat it up.
The home stretch at Colonial is designed for drama. The 16th, a par 3, is another stunner. 185 yards over creeks and ponds to the most difficult green complex on the course. Only two tiers, but a pretty drastic climb from front left to top right. And the Sunday pin placement, top right, has caused more heartburn than any other spot on the track. Miss too far right and you’re out of bounds and in the Colonial parking lot. There is a great patio just beyond the 16th green where members can sit to watch the approach shots.
17 is a strategic short par 4, where iron is the safe play off the tee. A dogleg right, the tee shot is more about angles and accuracy than length. Miss too far right and your approach into the green is dead, blocked by trees. A proper drive on the left middle of this fairway sets up a great chance for birdie. And at Colonial, you need to take advantage of these holes. Especially with 18 coming up.
The closing hole is a classic. Now you need a long draw off the tee to this 441-yard dogleg left. The fairway slopes right to left as well, so a shot on the right side here usually ends up in a wonderful position. The green is slightly elevated and guarded by incredibly deep bunkers short and on both sides. With that sloping fairway, the approach is generally a side-hill lie that works the ball left. And remember, that pond we saw on the 10th fairway is very much in play here. Any miss left and you are wet.
As if the water left isn’t enough pressure, the clubhouse is right there watching, typically bustling with activity and eyes on your shot. Plus, there is Mr. Hogan’s statue, always there to intimidate golfers as they walk off the green to end their round. The house that Hogan built.
Which is a perfect reminder to head inside the clubhouse for cocktail and tour around the Hogan Room. Located upstairs near the main entrance, this small room could take an hour or two of your time if you aren’t careful. Major championship trophies, scorecards, Mr. Hogan’s locker, the famous Merion flagpin, the Ryder Cup. It is a genuine thrill to walk through.
Downstairs, connected to the pro shop, is another Hogan tribute…the man’s personal office sits untouched and exactly how he kept it. It’s a bit like looking into the Oval office for golf nerds.
The rest of the clubhouse is a tribute to not only Mr. Hogan, but the history of the tournament itself. Every past champion is recognized with a photo of him holding the trophy, proudly wearing the Colonial plaid jacket, and displayed next to a golf club they used to accomplish the win, donated to Colonial. Clubs pulled from the bag of every past champion…walking the halls of Colonial is like walking through the Golf Hall of Fame. History around every corner.
There is also a special tribute to Dan Jenkins. The Fort Worth native and original wild-man golf writer was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012. Jenkins played golf at nearby TCU and was a beloved member at Colonial. He was also close friends with Mr. Hogan. The display holds all of Jenkins’ wonderful books, including Dead Solid Perfect, as well as his typewriter. A hero of mine, it’s hard not to walk by the Jenkins Tribute and stop to admire. Every time.
Playing a round at Colonial is a special experience. Still one of the finest golf courses in Texas, it remains the home of golf history in the Lone Star State. Golf Mecca for Hogan fans, the course has withstood the test of time. And the clubhouse itself, with all its history and charm, is worth the price of admission. I feel better about the future of golf knowing clubs like Colonial are out there, working hard to keep the past alive.
What GolfWRXers are saying about Seminole and TaylorMade’s Charity Relief skins match
In our forums, our members have been discussing Seminole and TaylorMade’s Charity Relief skins match. The course has received plenty of praise from our members, and WRXers have been sharing their thoughts on the event as a whole in our forums.
Here are a few posts from the thread, but make sure to check out the entire discussion and have your say at the link below.
- tw_focus: “Amazing event all around, golf is back baby. RF played well, but he missed badly on the last shot while Rors was clutch, as always. As good as this event was, it’s just the undercard for next week The Match II. Can’t wait to see TW back!”
- RainShadow: “Seminole looked beautiful. A course designed for strategy and nuance. Anyone know the individual scores? Rickie 66 maybe, Rory 69, DJ 69, Wolff 70? The players all looked a little rusty, Rory and Rickie looked like they’d played a bit recently though. Need to do more of these after this thing is over. More of carrying their own bags and reading their own putts………..Side note….DJ, go back to a blade putter.”
- dcfas: “I enjoyed it. Thought it was interesting to see and hear some of the discussion on shots and breaks. Thought it was also interesting to see their performances without caddies, and while carrying bags. Also fascinated to have a “close up” look at Seminole. Added it to my bucket list of courses extremely unlikely I’ll ever get to play. Good cause. Thumbs up.”
- Lark: “If they do this again, they should have two matches at the same time to avoid so much dead airtime. Have the winners play a one hole playoff for a final prize.”
- Dave230: “Good concept and some good bits but to be nit-picking: Far too many ads, I know Americans are used to more ads than Europeans, but they hit their drives…ads….hit their second shots….ads. It’s just hard to watch. Too much intervention from the commentators, if the players have microphones on then let them speak and just leave it there, you don’t need to talk over everything. I prefer commentary that’s not afraid of dead space. The phone calls…the less said the better.. Just let it play, even if they’re walking, let us see them talking and the surroundings sometimes. Still manage to overproduce even in a restricted setting. Apart from that, grateful for golf to be on television again and well done to those involved.”
An interview with Bill Coore
With the impending completion of the final course at Bandon Dunes, the Sheep Ranch, the golf architecture world focuses on the incredible trace that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw fit into a piece of land that confounded experts.
It is appropriate to revisit a 2016 interview with Bill Coore on his background in golf and his thoughts on golf course architecture and the game.
The interview is reprinted from our Ronald Montesano’s website, BuffaloGolfer.Com, with permission of the interviewer.
If you’ve never been on a golf trip, I bet you’re tempted to go to Myrtle Beach or someplace like that. If you do, you’ll have fun and you might stumble onto a course designed by Mike Strantz, a terrific designer. If you want to see some great, great golf course architecture, you might end up in Bandon (Oregon) Pinehurst (North Carolina) or Inverness (Nova Scotia), any place you can find a Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw golf course. Soon you’ll be able to play one at Sand Valley (Wisconsin), and there are many others. Bill Coore spoke to us from a site that he was then assessing, near Charlottesville, Virginia. He SPOKE with us for AN HOUR, as he was mucking through the woods and grasslands of the site. No interview subject has ever given us that much time (over on hour on the phone) and we are humbled.
RM: Tell us about yourself and your history with golf, prior to embarking on your chosen career.
BC: I grew up in rural North Carolina, in Davidson county. I was introduced to golf by my neighbor, Donald Jarrett. He loved to play golf and he would go on weekends and play local public courses in the area. I would caddie for Mr. Jarrett some when I was a kid and he would say, every once in a while “Here, hit one.” He had some old clubs that he let me use and I’d make up some golf holes in his yard or in the corn field, just hitting shots. It wasn’t a formal way, but it was a fun way to be introduced to the game. When I would caddie for him, he would show me the proper way to do things, the rules, etiquette, conduct? I was fortunate in that way. I didn’t grow up in a family with a club membership. I learned what I still think of as proper golf from Mr. Jarrett.
We actually formed a golf team at my high school, my senior year. We talked the baseball coach into letting us play a golf schedule, even though it coincided with the baseball schedule. I went to college at Wake Forest, and played a bit of golf there. And that got the process started, of why do I like this and not that? Why do I like this course? Why do I like Old Town (Winston-Salem, N.C.) so much? I did my own assessment, of why I liked certain courses and not others. I took a serious interest in golf, and from there, a serious interest in golf courses.
RM: How did an interest in golf course architecture lead you to choose a career in the field?
BC: I was fortunate enough, being in North Carolina, which has some very good courses. The Pinehurst courses, in the 1960s, were very affordable, very accessible, particularly in the summer, their off season. Mr. Jarrett would go there once in a while and I would caddie for him, and we would go there once in a while to play golf. I got to experience playing golf there, on Pinehurst #2, and all the other courses there. There is no question that that experience, of being introduced to golf at Pinehurst, and then when I was at Wake Forest, at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, a Perry Maxwell course, helped me. Pinehurst #2 is basically flat and Old Town is quite hilly, so there were two extremes of land forms and visuals. I just was so fortunate to play those on a regular basis. You don’t appreciate how good they really are, and when you see other courses built or being built, it’s the beginning of an awareness where you gravitate toward a certain style of golf course architecture more than others, and perhaps it was dictated to some degree by my game. I was never a long player, I depended a great deal on short game, finesse, and the ability to run the ball on the ground a lot. And Pinehurst #2, a championship golf course of the highest caliber, would allow you to do that. And a lot of the other, so-called, championship courses, that were already built or being built, just didn’t allow that to happen. I got to the point where I thought, Number two allows me to play my game and it would allow the longest player on tour to play his game, and although we might play from far different spots, we both had the ability to succeed. And that came upon me quite early on. And the man who taught me to play golf, Mr. Jarrett, we were playing our little public course that we had played many times, with a little par three down the hill with a creek that stuck out on a peninsula, with a creek in front, on the right, and behind, and a little hillside to the left. And I would invariably aim at the flag and come up in the creek. (At this point, our phone call dropped, and then my recording app dropped, but the gist was to use the hillside to feed the ball to the green, another revelation for Mr. Coore.) Playing golf at Old Town and at Pinehurst #2 was the foundation for my understanding of what exceptional golf and golf course architecture were all about.
RM: What sort of preparation/training did you do post-college for golf course architecture? Was your undergraduate degree helpful?
BC: My undergraduate degree was in Classical Greek. Most people would likely say I can’t imagine how that could be applicable in any way, but I might disagree somewhat and say, it was helpful because it taught me discipline. Translations of classical Greek in the classroom and preparation for the classroom are quite tedious, very detail oriented, and it takes great patience and attention. I happen to believe that those are attributes that work well in the golf architecture business: attention to detail, patience, and persistence at times. Though it would seem that they don’t have any connection, I would think that the discipline gained, that process, when I was at Wake Forest, was very helpful. I don’t have any technical training. I spent a couple of years in the Army after graduating from Wake Forest. When I was getting ready to get out of the Army, I saw the work that Pete Dye was doing at a public course called Oak Hollow (in High Point, N.C.). It was different, in the Harbor Town mode. It was shorter, it was finesse, it was quirky, with the railroad ties and pot bunkers. It was things you didn’t see and it just fascinated me. I managed to badger Mr. Dye to the point where he just gave up after telling me No so many times. He offered me a job, working as a laborer, and then as an equipment operator on another course he was starting to build in North Carolina, called The Cardinal golf club (in Greensboro.) All my experience and background, my preparation in golf course architecture, doesn’t really relate directly to what I studied in university. It was a process of acknowledging an interest and then starting at the bottom. Mr. and Mrs. Dye were both kind enough to allow that to happen. It was just one of those extraordinary, fortuitous occurrences, just like when Mr. Jarrett took me to play golf, stumbling into Pete Dye building a golf course, not knowing who Pete Dye was. There’s nothing glamorous about any of it, the labor, wearing hip waders, cutting trees three feet deep in water. It was just a process and it all led to today.
RM: How did you and Ben Crenshaw meet, and what led the two of you to believe that a partnership would be both manageable and fruitful?
BC: I had started a design company. I had been given an opportunity to design a course in south Texas with one of the guys who still works with us, in 1980. It was a place with extraordinarily limited funds, so they were desperate enough to give me a chance to work on it. We built nine holes and then skipped a year, and then built the next nine. This takes us to 1984. I had been asked a number of times, You’re designing some golf courses that are pretty good (at this time there were only two) and why don’t you have a partnership with a well-known tour player? It was just not something I had given much thought to, to be perfectly candid. One day, a potential client, also on a site in south Texas, asked me a question: I’d like you to come down and look at another site. It was never going to be a golf course; it was impossible for it to be a golf course. Right along the gulf, it went under water at high tide, and it was salt water at that. The man took it upon himself, in the course of the conversation, he said Why don’t you work with someone? It was 1984 and Ben had just won the Masters, and I had read some articles, and in those articles, it was mentioned several times about his interest in golf course architecture. And I could tell by the comments, that he knew something, that he had studied. When the potential client kept pressing the issue, I said, Well, I guess if it was going to be anyone, it would be Ben Crenshaw. He got in touch with Ben’s business manager and mentioned something about this project. He’s the one who actually got us together. Ben had heard of the golf course we had already done, close by, and he came to look at this other site. The project manager introduced me to him. We never worked on that golf course, of course, and we had no intention of working together, but we started talking about golf architecture over the next year, off and on, and we became friend first. At some point, we said, well, maybe we should try one of these things together. We both felt comfortable enough with each other, both personally and philosophically, regarding golf course architecture. It was no great plan, it wasn’t something that was programmed from the beginning, or something that I had given serious thought to, or something Ben had given serious thought to. Again, it was simply another one of those fortuitous things that happens. That was thirty years ago, and then in December of 1985, we formed our partnership. This past December was the 30th anniversary of our partnership.
RM: Does each of you (Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) have easily-defined roles in the partnership? If so, can you tell us what they are?
BC: I think the answer to the first part of the question is No, we don’t have easily-defined roles. There are some things, given the amount of time that we can spend on the site, that gravitate more toward one or the other. The routings, just because I have the freedom of time, over Ben and his playing career, have come a bit more in my domain, but in no way exclusively. Take the Austin Golf Club, for example, it’s totally Ben’s routing. We’ve collaborated on almost all of them, but if you had to say that one of us concentrates on a certain aspect more than the other guy, well, Ben has certainly taught me so much about the details of the land forms that affect the best players in the world and how they think, and how small details can influence the best players in the world. Little slopes here, little contours or hollows there, tilts of the green, angles, the way the wind blows, wind directions. Ben is so extraordinarily perceptive. You could say that if you’re trying to categorize us, it might be those two things, but basically, we overlap. We use each other as sounding boards and we talk to each other about the concepts of the courses, the routings, we go walk them together and make adjustments together. We talk about the concepts of the holes, the bunkering schemes, the greens, and the contouring of the putting surfaces. We bounce ideas off each other, as well as listing them to the guys who work with us, who are extraordinary. In many ways, we’ve both become editors. We do the routing and then we are adamant with the guys that we work with that nothing is set in stone. If something neat begins to happen, go with it. Every one of our guys has the freedom to abandon the original concept at any point, if they think that something better could materialize. In that regard, sometimes, we give a main concept, they work on it, and sometimes you walk back up there and a green complex or a bunker has been roughed in, and you think, well that’s not exactly what we talked about, but it’s better! We’ve always tried to maintain flexibility in the process.
RM: Please describe your process for assessing a piece of land and determining a routing.
BC: When we’re called to look at a piece of land, the first thing we do is go walk the property. We try to get a sense if the land, in its actual state, looks and feels like golf. We try to get a sense of whether you could lay a golf course on that landscape, without huge amounts of alteration to the land forms. If so, we’re very comfortable with that. We’ve done courses where you’ve had to do major alterations, but it’s not our preference. After walking the property (sometimes it can take two or three weeks) if we determine that this property can yield a course to attain the owner’s goals, with us working on it? There are some sites that we have looked at, where someone else could do a great job, but we would spend a lot of money and not do a very good job. We’ve looked at other sites and thought that other architects would be way better at it than we would be. And there are some sites that we look at and say, well, no one could ever do a good job on this. And finally, there are sites you look at and say, this is right in our comfort zone. We try to understand our limitations. The worst thing that can be done is to spend a lot of money and build a bad golf course. The owner needs someone who can sit across the table or stand on the grounds and say, I can do this. I’ve seen some sites where I’ve not known what to do, and Ben hasn’t known what to do, and [another major architect] has built beautiful golf courses on those sites.
RM: You have established a successful working relationship with Mike Keiser. How did that come about and what makes both sides click together?
BC: It was like we won the lottery. Mike Keiser was a founding member at Sand Hills in Nebraska (a course designed by Coore & Crenshaw, recognized as the best new course of the 2nd half of the 20th century), so we had met Mike, but neither one of us really knew Mike. He called me on the phone and he said Bill, I’d like to talk to you and Ben about doing the third course at Bandon. I’m going to be very candid with you: it’s not on the ocean, a lot of it’s going to be interior, back in the woods, most people will probably perceive it as an inferior piece of property to what Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes are on. We had seen what he had done out there with David Kidd (the original Bandon Dunes course), with Tom Doak and Jim Urbina (the Pacific Dunes course) and it was fantastic. We wanted to look at the site at the very least. We went out and looked at it and the results of studying it for a fairly long time, and after various conversations about where the golf course should be, it ended up being Bandon Trails. We knew that it had some difficult spots; there is a big ridge that runs through it that we had to work around.
Ben and I felt that All we want to do here is build a golf course that complements the other two somehow. We don’t want to build a golf course that nobody wants to play, but we think we can do something hopefully good enough that people will appreciate it. He gave us the chance to do that and in that process, he became not only an extraordinary client, but a very, very good friend. Mike Keiser has incredible insight from the standpoint of, as he calls it, the retail golfer, what the paying customer looks for, and the experience they hope to have, as well as an affection for seaside or sand-based golf. We got to work at Bandon Trails, Lost Farm at Barnbougle Dunes (Tasmania) and then more recently, up at Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, and last the par-three course, the Preserve at Bandon, so Mike has been so generous to us, that I would never know how to thank him. He has given us opportunities that anyone in this profession would be thrilled for. In my mind, he is the patron saint of modern-day architecture. He affords people in our business opportunities that we could have never dreamed of, spectacular sites to work with, and the freedom to work with them. I’ve enjoyed every walkabout, whether it’s to assess a new property or a course under construction, like the first course at Sand Valley, in Wisconsin (designed by Coore and Crenshaw, that will open for play in 2017.)
RM: Give us a sense of where you see golf course architecture heading in the next 25 years, and what you hope your firm’s role will be.
BC: We hope that golf architecture evolves in a fashion that maintains people’s interest in the game. That may be in the form of shorter courses, courses with less than 18 holes. I grew up on a nine-hole course and most of the public courses around me were nine-hole courses. Certainly, Ben and I are not dismissive of courses with less than 18 holes, or of shorter courses. If there are ways to make golf more accessible and more enjoyable for people, that’s fantastic. You only have to look at the two, non-18 hole courses at Bandon, to understand this. The one we did, the Preserve, is absolutely chock full of people, all the time, playing it over and over. It’s tremendous fun. It doesn’t require excessive strength or excessive skill to enjoy. The Punch Bowl, which Tom Doak did out there, is a giant putting course. Now, do you call that a golf course? Well, I guess it depends on your definition, but you could certainly spend all day out there, or an hour. That’s just as much golf as any of the big courses at Bandon. Those are just two examples of things that could happen. The world is so fast-paced, and families have so much going on, that it’s almost unreasonable to ask people to go spend the entire day at a golf course. Any type of golf course architecture that provides interesting golf and which can be experienced in a shorter period of time, be it three hours or an hour, is the way that golf out to go.
RM: What question haven’t we (or anyone) asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, please. This was a challenge for me and Bill. It ended up being more of an idea than a question, and here it is:
BC: Any question that would allow us to express how talented the guys who work with us are.
I said earlier that Ben and I often fulfill the role of editors rather than authors. The fellows that work with us are so often referred to as shapers or bulldozer operators; they are that but so much more. There are several of them that have done their own designs. Dave Axland and Dan Proctor did Wild Horse (Nebraska.) Dave Zinkand who worked with us for twelve years, has redesigned Desert Forest (Arizona.) These fellows have all done their own designs, and yet they come out and work with us on equipment, help us build bunkers. Rod Whitman, the Canadian architect, has three or four of the top ten courses in Canada. He has worked on greens, bunkers, fairways and tees on our golf courses for years. Our list of about ten guys who are so extraordinarily talented, there’s not one of them who could not go out on his own, if circumstances presented themselves, and design one heck of a golf course, that we would all be proud of. They are just extraordinary: Jimbo Wright, Jeff Craig, Jeff Bradley, the premier bunker guy in America. It’s fun to see them, to see the talent, and to be a part of it.
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