Conversations with the best: Coore, Whitman and the CGSA conference

The day after coming back from Calgary, I mentioned my dinner with golf designers Bill Coore and Rod Whitman to my friend Ian Andrew. I’d hung out with the pair, along with other shapers and the superintendent from Cabot Cliffs, on Tuesday night. We spent the evening talking about the courses Coore consults at—among the best in the world—and the number of projects he and partner Ben Crenshaw have on the go, including Sand Valley, Mike Keiser’s latest in Wisconsin. He bounced things back and forth with Whitman, his longtime friend. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of golf talk and red wine.

“You know you’re getting to hang out with some of the best and that’s pretty cool,” Ian said.

I recognize that, which is why I flew from London to Toronto to host the keynote at the Canadian Golf Superintendents Association meeting in Calgary.

I first met Whitman over a decade ago. I was on a trip with the National Post and took an afternoon to play Blackhawk, the hotly-tipped club outside of Edmonton. As I finished the round I asked Al about Whitman.

“Do you want to meet him?” Al asked. “Cause he’s right behind the 18th tee shaping a putting green.”

I thought that was odd, but when we wandered behind the green and into an area full of dirt piles, there was Whitman on a dozer pushing earth about. He joined us for a post-round beer and I immediately felt a connection with him through our mutual affection for Jasper Park Lodge.

Two years later I was invited to meet Whitman, Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser and his team, including Coore, at a site on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. Whitman picked me up in a truck and drove me out to the site. Once we parked I noticed a man standing in a field.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“That’s Bill,” said Whitman.

“What’s he doing?”

“Looking for golf holes,” came the reply.

I spent some time wandering the site that day with Keiser/Coore/Whitman. It remains undeveloped to this day, screaming out for someone to make it Sand Hills North. Though it was clear the course wouldn’t move forward following our visit, I did get to meet Coore and Keiser and over the ensuing years I’d speak to both semi-frequently, and more recently with the development of Cabot Links and now Cliffs.

On Wednesday morning, following breakfast, I sat down on the stage in front of a few hundred superintendents from across Canada and had a conversation with Whitman and Coore about their shared history, their friendship, their work on courses and their successes.

The interesting thing about Whitman is there really is no more successful golf designer currently active in Canada. After all, his only four Canadian designs—Wolf Creek, Cabot Links, Sagebrush and Blackhawk—are all in SCOREGolf’s Top 30. Despite that, he has no new project to build, and instead is rebuilding the greens at Austin Country Club, the first course he worked on for Pete Dye.

Coore, on the other hand, has one more project than his team would like; they prefer to work on two courses at a time, and this year they have three. He’s consulting at places like Shinnecock and Seminole, and has no intent on slowing down.

It is interesting to ponder how Coore and Whitman will be regarded decades from now. Coore’s work is heralded as some of the best ever, with courses like Old Sandwich, Sand Hills, Friars Head, and Lost Farm all residing in the Top 100 in the world. Whitman isn’t as well known outside of Canada, but his limited designs in the country have few peers.

The only rival for Coore is really Tom Doak. Together they’ve dominated the last 10 years of golf design. Does anyone really consider Tom Fazio or Rees Jones the best any longer (if they ever were in the first place)? Not anyone knowledgeable. That debate comes down to Coore, Doak, or maybe Gil Hanse.

It is always nice to spend time picking the brains of those who have accomplished great things. Over my career I’ve had the good fortune to talk to world leaders, business giants and sports legends.

But few of those conversations were more interesting than the one I had in the hotel bar of the Calgary Fairmont, chatting with Coore and Whitman.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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