Austin’s own Ben Crenshaw has grown from golf course champion to golf course designer
Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons
For a man regally regarded as perhaps the greatest putter of his generation, and likely a few others, pace means everything. It’s evident even in the way Ben Crenshaw speaks. His words matriculate in meters of molasses, with pauses indicating not a lack of information but, in fact, an abundance. There’s a thoughtfulness to his diction, a sensitivity to select the perfect phrase and the most precise detail. Crenshaw sees the beauty in nuance.
His two major championships, 1984 and 1995 Masters victories, were authored at Augusta National, one of the most majestic layouts in North America, but its delicate qualities—the blooming azaleas and dogwoods, the emerald fairways—disguise a monster underneath. Augusta is a golf course composed of undulating topography and swirling breezes that isn’t overpowered so much as embraced.
“For the best players, it’s the indiscernible details that make all the difference,” said golf course architect Bill Coore. “Ben has an artistic side to him, a sensitive side to him. He’s gifted to know how the small features can influence a golf shot.”
Coore has known Crenshaw going on three decades. They’ve officially been business partners since 1986, when they formed Coore & Crenshaw, a golf course design company that has produced timeless layouts like the Kapalua Plantation Course in Maui and most recently was selected to restore the historic Donald Ross creation, Pinehurst No. 2.
The feel and imagination that allowed Crenshaw to tame courses as a 19-time winner on the PGA Tour now allows him to carve new ones.
“We’re very old fashioned. We don’t do things by computer. We go out and walk,” Crenshaw said of their design philosophy. “It’s much like the old practitioners. They would take a rudimentary piece of ground and mark up green sites. And then it starts to be a puzzle.”
Though Crenshaw forged his career on a competitive path, winning three NCAA individual titles at the University of Texas and his first start as a PGA cardholder, it only figures that Crenshaw would eventually break into the creative frontier. His father gave him Charlie Price’s The World of Golf as a teenager, in part to motivate Crenshaw to qualify for that summer’s U.S. Junior Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Price’s book painted a picture in Crenshaw’s mind that he couldn’t quite comprehend; born and raised in Austin, his 15-year-old world existed of nothing more than West Austin Little League games and the bumpy Bermuda greens at Lions Municipal.
The Country Club was rustic and eclectic, with granite outcroppings and towering, craggy trees. The golf course just happened to be intertwined. “I had never seen anything like it,” Crenshaw recalled. “Way back when, people built golf courses without moving a lot of earth. They were very natural in their place. I was fascinated by the way these people handled their piece of ground.
“My nose has been in a book ever since I was in Boston.”
The circular chemistry of Crenshaw’s career is uncanny, even eerily so. “I’m a big believer in fate,” Crenshaw said at the press conference the night before his 1999 American Ryder Cup team famously trounced Europe in singles play for a historic comeback victory. Crenshaw’s team just happened to be playing at The Country Club. In his 2001 autobiography A Feel for the Game, Crenshaw listed a handful of his favorite U.S. Open venues, including Pinehurst No. 2 and Shinnecock Hills. How could he know that, only a few years later, he and Coore would be called upon to re-inspire these classic designs?
The invitations merely attest to the old-world tenets that Crenshaw stands to protect. Believing that golf is a game of strategy and ground game, their designs are inspired by the landscape, and the inspirations are the feature of every hole. Nature, Crenshaw says, should speak for itself.
Their work at Pinehurst was to return the course to its original presentation. Situated in the Carolina sand hills, grass greens didn’t come to Pinehurst until 1936 but, in the years since, the course essentially greened itself in. As a result, the course had a monotone look, and its hazards were not readily apparent.
“In all of the writings and pictures about the old Pinehurst, you could see that it was tees, fairways, and greens,” Crenshaw explained. “Around it was an unkempt, natural look—a golf course encased in sandy ground, a beautiful little native plant called wiregrass, and pine needles and pine cones.
“What you see now is what it was, an ode back into time.”
Photo courtesy of the Scotty Sayers Collection
Bill Coore (left) and Crenshaw at Pinehurst.
Coore and Crenshaw believe what the revered architects introduced. Quality turf should be presented on trees, fairways, and greens, but it’s not necessary to buff and coif a part of the course that isn’t to be played. Inherent in that philosophy is a naturally efficient use of water. At Pinehurst, for instance, they were able to eliminate 700 irrigation heads.
Crenshaw’s Austin Golf Club, which opened 14 years ago in southwest Austin, presents the same ethos. Cut among a surprisingly docile Hill Country terrain and live oaks, the fairways blend into a shorter rough, and then it’s all native land.
“We don’t water outside the fairway. We let the rough go as it is. That’s a very old idea,” Crenshaw said.
In an era of gadgets and GPS, Crenshaw remains an old soul. More than yardage and pin placement, Crenshaw says a million different things can go into picking a club. It might be warm outside or it might be cool. There might be a breeze. Some people think of these things as conditions but, to Crenshaw, they’re the inspirations behind a well-crafted golf shot.
Similarly, Coore and Crenshaw can envision a hole design in just about anything, be it lines of bathroom marble or puffy, cumulous clouds. Even a bag of chips.
One day, while sharing lunch together, the design partners found themselves eyeing the twists and folds of a potato chip and agreeing, “That’s a pretty nice green right there.”
“You build a golf course to provide a place to play and gather, where people can have a wonderful game with their friends and come back and enjoy it,” Crenshaw said. “I hope there is a sense of naturalness wherever we go and the sites depict where they are. Maybe a few quirks here and there, thoughts of ours that harken back through history. And certainly—hopefully—nothing monotonous.”
Coore & Crenshaw Designs
Admiration and respect for the golf courses of the "Golden Age of Architecture" inspired Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore to establish their design firm.
Austin Golf Club (2001)
Bandon Trails (2005)
Barton Creek Resort & Spa (1991)
Chechessee Creek Club (2000)
Clear Creek Tahoe (2009)
Lake Tahoe, Nev.
Colorado Golf Club (2006)
East Hampton Golf Club (2000)
East Hampton, N.Y.
Friar’s Head (2002)
Baiting Hollow, N.Y.
Hidden Creek Golf Club (2002)
Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
Kapalua Plantation Course (1991)
Klub Rimba Irian
Kuala Kencana, Indonesia
Lost Farm at Barnbougle Dunes (2011)
Bridport, Tasmania Australia
Old Sandwich Golf Club (2004)
Sand Hills Golf Club (1995)
Sugarloaf Mountain (2006)
Lake Apopka, Fla.
Talking Stick Golf Club (1997)
The Dormie Club (2011)
The Golf Club at Cuscowilla (1996)
Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame (1995)
Notre Dame, Ind.
WeKoPa Golf Club “Saguaro Course” (2005)
Fort McDowell, Ariz.
Shady Oaks Country Club
Fort Worth, Texas
Pinehurst No. 2
Village of Pinehurst, N.C.