It is always a real pleasure to get a chance to meet and speak with the best in the business — regardless of whether we’re talking high-finance, technology, entrepreneurism or, in this case, golf. With that in mind, I was very pleased to meet Bill Coore, half of the Coore/Ben Crenshaw design team, while on the 13th green at Friar’s Head, a remarkable course on Long Island. Heralded as among the best 40 or so designs in the world, Friar’s Head is likely the design team’s second most highly regarded course, behind Nebraska’s Sand Hills, which is now typically considered among the Top 10 courses in the world.
Bill is part of an incredible group of designers with links to Pete Dye. Coore worked for Dye in the early 1980s before starting his own firm and beginning work with Crenshaw in 1984. Twenty-five years later, Coore is held up by many as the best in the business. But consider, for a moment, all the designers with links to Dye who came out of that era. There’s Coore, Canada’s Rod Whitman, who often still shapes for Coore/Crenshaw, Tom Doak and Jim Urbina. It is an impressive list.
Though known to golf design geeks, Coore is still not widely recognized, perhaps because the firm has held true to its initial concept of quality over quantity, as well as the fact many of its courses are run by private clubs.
“When people would hear I was building a golf course they’d ask who I had hired [to design it.],” says Friar’s Head partner Ken Bakst. “When I told them Coore and Crenshaw, they’d look at me blankly. ‘Who?’ But then I’d say, ‘Yeah, Ben Crenshaw and his design partner Bill Coore who are doing some neat stuff.’ Everyone to a man would say, ‘Why didn’t you hire Palmer or Jack Nicklaus or Fazio or Rees Jones?’ And I’d say that’s because they aren’t building the golf courses I want to build.”
It is true that many Coore/Crenshaw courses are not accessible to the general public, but for those intrigued by their work, test out Bandon Trails in Oregon, part of the incredible Bandon Dunes resort, or Cuscowilla, a terrific public course in Georgia.
During my visit to Friar’s Head, I bumped into Coore on the 13th hole. Humble, affable, but still with strong opinions, he walked three holes with my group before calling it a day and heading back to do some real work. A couple of days after I arrived home, my phone rang and it was Coore asking my take on Friar’s Head. The easy response was that it was one of the best modern designs I’d ever been witness to — right up there with Pacific Dunes and Kingsbarns. That doesn’t mean I thought it was perfect — but I”ll discuss that later in the week.
G4G: What did Ken Bakst bring to the Friar’s Head project?
Bill Coore: Ken is not only an extraordinary golfer and businessman, but he’s also well-detailed in everything he does and extremely knowledgable in golf architecture.
G4G: That can be a good thing or a bad thing?
BC: In Ken’s case it was great. He had a lot of great things to say as Friar’s Head went on. He thought a lot about the experience. He wanted it to be as close to perfect as it could be.
G4G: Does it help to have an owner with that strong a vision for the course? Some of the best developers — guys like Mike Keiser at Pacific Dunes — have had very singular visions for their courses.
BC: Mike Keiser, Kenny, Dick Youngscap (the man behind Sand Hills) — these are all guys with exceptionally strong visions of what they wanted. There was never an attempt by any of these guys to be all things to all people. That’s not to say Kenny wasn’t open minded about what he wanted in a golf course. He had thought about that a great deal. A lot of owners simply say they want something special. Kenny was willing to take the chances to make that happen.
G4G: Isn’t there a concern about having an owner who is too focused and too involved?
BC: Some people think of Ken as being so definitive in his vision that he wouldn’t be involved in discussions about the project. But that wasn’t my experience. He’d come out and we’d talk about the project, but that he’d tell me the end decisions were ours.
G4G: Canadian designer (and long time Coore shaper) Rod Whitman was involved in helping transform part of the potato field — the area coming out of the dunes on #2 — into an extraordinary part of the property.
BC: That was the area of concern for us. How do we make the transition out of these great dunes and into an area that had been farmed as potato fields for generations? In that regard, Rod’s work is the watershed event in the development of the course. He started work in that area and started pushing earth down and up — he has a great sense of contours. I remember standing there looking at what he had done and thinking, ‘This is going to work.’ It is that transition right there that made the front nine work.
One thing is clear — Bakst was willing to take the risks associated with building a great course. Most developers play it safe — creating staid, obvious designs that are functional but rarely get the blood pumping. That isn’t the case with Coore or Bakst, neither of whom were willing to risk being average. For golf owners, taking risks is rare and they are rarely rewarded with great designs. It is a shame and creates a world of floundering, homogeneous courses. Friar’s Head is different.
“I wasn’t looking to make a safe bet,” I also said to people that I wanted to build an old school, turn-of-the-century type of golf course based on that kind of architecture. And people would say, ‘You can’t build an old course. You have to wait for it to become an old course.’ I said I think we can, but if I’m wrong we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Tomorrow: an interview with Ken Bakst, the man behind Friar’s Head