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Ben Crenshaw Interview on Augusta National, the 1999 Ryder Cup, golf-course design and his favorite courses

Ben Crenshaw
A portrait of the artist as a young man, at Augusta National in 1973.

Ben Crenshaw won 19 times on the PGA Tour. He's the proud owner of two green jackets and is in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He's the guy who broke down and sobbed upon winning the 1995 Masters just days after serving as a pallbearer at the funeral of his mentor, Harvey Penick. Crenshaw also captained the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team's famed come-from-way-behind victory at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. In 50 years, though, Crenshaw, will likely be revered more as a co-designer (with partner Bill Coore) of retro gems like Sand Hills in Nebraska, Bandon Trails in Oregon, and most recently Streamsong (Red) in Florida. Golf Magazine caught up with Gentle Ben, 61, at another of his designs, his home course at Austin Golf Club, to discuss his legacy, his one regret, his buddy George W. Bush, and making art on what he calls "the biggest canvas there is."

Tom Doak and Davis Love III have said they learned about architecture from you. Who taught you the craft?

It started for me when I was 16, when I went to Boston and played the U.S. Junior at Brookline. It was my first trip to the East, and it opened my eyes to national competition, golf history and golf architecture all in one week. My dad was a keen golfer and a lawyer, and we went together on that trip and had such a ball. We saw a Red Sox game, we walked the Freedom Trail, went to the North Church. It was all very, very new to me, coming out of Texas. It was a very sentimental trip.

What specifically did that trip teach you about golf architecture?

That there were ways to make things look entirely natural. It was distinctive New England terrain with an occasional granite outcropping that exposed itself here and there. Craggy, smallish greens, undulating terrain -- it really did look old. It was unusual, and it all blended together, and from then on I was fascinated by terrain in golf architecture. I was lucky enough to start playing and traveling a bit more in college and amateur circles, and I got to see some wonderful places, as I did when I turned pro in '73. I would make these side trips to a Donald Ross or [A.W.] Tillinghast or [Alister] MacKenzie course I'd heard about. It was a hobby.

Are you still learning?

Yes. I just love it. I was fascinated to learn how people -- including the three I mentioned, who are on the top rung, but also Charles Macdonald and Harry Colt and Seth Raynor -- treated different situations. I was fascinated by how they treated slope -- upslope, downslope. All of them had different trademarks. No question a course has to be a test, but it has to be an interesting test for every class of golfer. That's the trick. The easiest thing you can do is build a hard course. There's no better course to study than St. Andrews. It teaches us so much. It's a maze of interesting problems for everyone -- anyone of any ability can play it. It's a paradox.

What's your take on the adjustments they're making to the Old Course?

I'm not necessarily in favor of it, but you know, we're running out of ammunition. We're in a dangerous age. You don't want to disfigure a classic.

How many courses have you and Bill Coore built?

We're right at 20.

In a typical Coore/Crenshaw design, how much is Coore, and how much is you?

Bill usually starts the inception, looks at the land. I'd say maybe each job, I've averaged six or eight visits, two and a half, three days at a time. Bill, more.

How do the two of you split the design duties?

Most of the time Bill has gone out first. He's a great assessor of a piece of ground, and he can do it fairly quickly. It really just depends on schedules. My [playing] schedule, thank God, is winding down. I want to do this for the rest of my life, and I'm very happy about that. Usually at the inception we get a call and ask rudimentary questions like, "Where is it?" You go out and look at a piece of ground, and after a couple of days of combing over a piece of property, some bases form in your mind.

Coore has worked more on your overseas designs, right?

Bill worked [on Barnbougle Dunes in] Tasmania, and I said, "I just can't do it." I had enough going on. I went to China [to work on Shanqin Bay], but I couldn't go on a regular basis.

Has that been a source of tension or conflict for you?

He'll show me a layout, show me pictures. My trip to China, it was rough graded. We went around the course and I said, "There's nothing I can advise. These guys have done such a good job." I'm less and less enamored with overseas travel, and that's a selfish thing. I admit it.

One of your trademarks is your large, irregular and raggedy-edged bunkers. How did you develop that style?

We're guided by a look, by the old, old pictures of MacKenzie's bunkers that were described by [architect and author] Robert Hunter. If you look at the banks of a natural creek, you'll see that they have hanging lips, and you portray erosion that way. We're in the school of trying to do as MacKenzie said: If you work on a piece of land, you have to work extra hard to make all your features look natural.

Do you approach your designs with the intent that they can be walked?

We certainly like to have that, if possible. But we also know that the economics of a place requires participation, whether that's in carts or walking. It's a nice thing when you can step a few paces off a green and you're on the next tee. Tiger Woods, after playing Augusta National, had one of the great quotes. They asked him what he liked about the course, and he said it was fantastic because the tees are right next to the greens. He was right.

Do you have to be a great player to be a great designer?

I'd think the norm would be against that. Some of our great courses were done by amateurs who maybe did just one or two. That's fascinating. Which is not to say that James Braid, Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor, Willie Park Jr., and Greg Norman haven't done fabulous courses. I enjoy Tom Weiskopf's designs. At the inception of his work he tried extremely hard, and pulled it off many times, to build the short par 4. He brought it back to the modern age.

Willie Park Jr. was a superb putter, and his courses had interesting greens. How much has your putting prowess influenced your designs?

If you give every hole a mythical par, those two shots with the putter ought to count for something. Greens can get too quick, and that's been a debate. Some older courses have more undulation and they keep the green speeds commensurate. If you have more undulation it obviously applies to shotmaking ability and being able to place the ball where you want to. I love the old quote by John Low, one of the captains of the Royal & Ancient: "Undulation is the soul of the game." I suppose that applies to the fairway and through the green.


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