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Course designer Bill Coore brings artist’s eye, romantic's soul to Pinehurst

Growing up in a “nowhere spot on Highway 109” in Davidson County, there were summer days in the 1960s when a young Bill Coore would hop in a car with friends for the 90-minute drive to Pinehurst to play golf.

It’s hard to believe, Coore will tell you in his soft, North Carolina voice, that it was possible to spend $5 and play Pinehurst No. 2 all day. A different day, a different time but now, thanks to Coore and his partner, Ben Crenshaw, not so different a golf course.

Coore imagined himself a player then, and he was good enough to be a member of the Wake Forest golf team in the late 1960s, about the time it was becoming a national powerhouse. He quickly realized there were better golfers and he struck out on a different path never imagining it would lead him back to No. 2 to rediscover what had been lost there.

“We are so grateful that this golf course means so much to us,” Coore said.

In the course design business, where egos are often as large as the budgets, Coore – like Crenshaw – is an outlier.

“He’s a gentleman, very soft-spoken and understated. He has such manners,” Crenshaw said.

Seeing Coore signing autographs Tuesday, a friend chuckled at the scene, saying it’s so far from who the silver-haired 68-year-old is.

When it comes to golf course design, Coore has an artist’s eye and a romantic’s soul. He, along with Crenshaw, has a gift for doing more with less, seeing the natural movement of the land and allowing it to dictate their design. There is a brilliance in their simplicity.

Between them, they have redefined course design, ushering it out of an era of overdone and overly difficult layouts and, in their own way, restored the classic stylings that defined the giants of design, including Donald Ross, Alister Mackenzie and A.W. Tillinghast.

What Coore and Crenshaw have done reinventing Pinehurst No. 2, crafted from graying images found in the local library and the sense that a design masterpiece had been buried under a carpet of Bermuda grass, is a masterwork.

They replaced 40 acres of Bermuda grass that was the rough with sand and wire grass common to the Sandhills region.

“I think it’s arguably the best inland course in the world,” ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said recently.

When the offer to restore No. 2 came three years ago, Coore and Crenshaw were initially reluctant to touch the course. They didn’t like what it had become but were afraid of doing something to hurt the course.

Coore’s sense of what No. 2 was and what it could be again helped convince Crenshaw to take the job. When they asked Pinehurst owner Bob Dedman and president Don Padgett II what they wanted to see at No. 2, the answer was, “It’s up to you.”

What Coore saw in his head – and later in the Tufts archives that chronicle No. 2’s history – was a course rugged and random, similar to what he played growing up. Donald Ross intended for No. 2 to be different, a supreme test, and the scruffy, sand land on which it was built is part of both its charm and challenge.

Coore often walked the property, feeling as much as seeing.

“Bill has a gift,” Crenshaw said.

Coore and Crenshaw have been working together nearly 30 years, judiciously choosing their projects. Like their design style, they don’t try to do too much, preferring to pick their spots. Their Sand Hills design in rural Nebraska is considered by many architecture experts to be the best course built in the United States in the past 30 years.

When the world sees No. 2 this week, brown around the edges and overgrown off the fairways, it will be the antithesis of Augusta National, like the difference in a color photograph and one in black and white.

“People could look at this on television and go, ‘Oh my God, Pinehurst quit maintaining the course,’ ” Coore said, smiling at the possibility.

What they’re seeing is a bit of what Bill Coore grew up with.

“To be able to come back here,” Coore said, “it’s just indescribable.”