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.
Let's play word association. Charles Blair Macdonald.
Thank goodness for Charlie Macdonald. After all that he learned at St. Andrews, he spent the rest of his life trying to bring the game he knew and loved back to America.
Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Unique. Spectacular. One of the most emotional courses you could ever play.
Especially in 1995.
[Laughs] Well, the small area between triumph and disaster.
You played your 42nd Masters this year. How many more starts do you have left in the tank?
[Laughs] I've thought about this for the last five years. I tell myself, "This is crazy. What are you doing? Just sit back and watch." But I can't get it out of my system, not necessarily to [be competitive] on the course, but to just keep playing and experiencing it. It's so much fun for me and my family. But there will be a time—it's way beyond my capabilities, I can tell you that.
You played with Guan Tianlang this year, the 14-year-old whiz kid from China. Is he for real?
That kid amazed me. He did not change at all over 36 holes. He had so much discipline. He has a big, long swing and a gorgeous short game. Gosh, his short game is beautiful. You would think he would lose his balance and swing out of his shoes once or twice. He kept his left heel on the ground. It'll be interesting to see how much he grows. What a confident, quiet mind.
Tom Doak built the Blue course at Streamsong at the same time that you built the Red course. Deep down, did you want your course to turn out just a little bit better?
We compete with nature. We're constantly in a match, I suppose, with her. You make a wrong move and it doesn't look natural. That's when you have to tone it down and do something different. I love [working on] courses that look like they were set in nature, and being able to bring the geographical features out. Perry Maxwell said, "A golf course must be there, not brought there." I love that.
But didn't you want your course to be better than Doak's?
We had fun working with each other. All our workers would gather at lunch and throw around ideas and talk about the business. We were peering over the hill to see what they were doing, and they were looking at what we were doing. It was fun. We share a philosophy with them. It was slightly a contest, but we were trying to put the two pieces of ground together in the best way we could. It was a unique situation with undulating land in Florida, beautiful sand, vegetation, and some beautiful water that was man-made.
Which course that you've designed is the most overlooked?
Hidden Creek in New Jersey, outside Atlantic City, is a neat course. We're proud of it. And a lot of people haven't seen Old Sandwich up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Which of your designs do you get back to the most, and why?
"I do think it's time we [rolled back the ball]. Go back over the last 20 years—how many billions of dollars have been spent on the acquisition of land, retrofitting courses, trying to protect scores?"
Obviously, this one [Austin Golf Club]. We get to Sand Hills as much as we can. Julie [Crenshaw's wife] and I go to Long Island every year, so we'll get to see East Hampton Golf Club and Friar's Head. We have friends up there, and Julie enjoys going up there very much.
What three courses would you be happy playing every day?
St. Andrews, Royal Melbourne, and probably Cypress Point.
Harvey Penick was instrumental in your playing career. Did he also influence your design career?
Harvey knew Perry Maxwell and drove him around Austin to see a suitable site [for the new Austin Country Club, where Crenshaw and Tom Kite learned the game from Penick]. They picked a spot east of town that had sandy soil and close proximity to a water source, which was Lake Austin and the Colorado River. Harvey had a little bit of a hand in helping Perry with where the site was. He built it in '49. It was one of his last projects. But Harvey — I can't say we talked specifically about golf architecture so much, but he knew I was interested in it.
In 20 years, will there be more golf courses or fewer?
Boy, that's a good question. I'm hopeful there'll be more. All of us want participation. That's the goal. In the real scheme of things, it's like Harvey—he wanted to introduce the game to people and he wanted to keep them there. He knew how good the game was for people. There's something about a golf course; you go out there, there's no buildings—it's so peaceful.
What kind of feedback have you received about your restoration of Pinehurst No.2, next year's U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open venue?
It's been very good. It's a high, high honor to be involved in that, very sentimental for Bill, and equally enthralling for me because they've got such a great set of archives. The Tufts Library is incredible. It was a lot of fun, but daunting at first because the course was so different.
The USGA is getting a lot more proactive. Do you think the ball needs to be rolled back?
I do. Jack [Nicklaus] has been unequivocal about this for a long time. I think he's right. It's time to really look at it. I mean, you go back over the last 20 years — how many billions of dollars have been spent on the acquisition of land, retrofitting courses, trying to protect scores?
Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong century?
I do. [Laughs] I sometimes think, you know, that era would have been fun.
What course is highly rated that you just can't seem to appreciate?
I don't know. Charlie Macdonald, in Scotland's Gift: Golf, said, "Criticism of a golf course is like going into a man's family." That book is one of my favorites; it has long passages on how the USGA was formed, what fights they had, and [sections] on architecture, as well. What I'm saying is, I don't want to be critical.
Switching topics, since your team won the Ryder Cup in 1999, there have been few highlights. Last year, Davis Love's squad couldn't close the deal after leading 10-6 entering Sunday singles, the same deficit that your guys overcame in Brookline. Was it karma?
That was so hard to watch. I really felt for Davis. I congratulated José María Olazábal and he said, "You showed us how to do it," and, you know, he's right. It's ironic how things work out, because he was the man who Justin Leonard made that putt against [in 1999]. José did exactly what we did with the margin and the points.
How often do you get out and play with your friend George W. Bush?
I played with him last month. I went to see him play at Brook Hollow, a beautiful Tillinghast course [in Dallas]. He was coming off a back procedure that kept him off the course for a while. He said, "I was miserable. I wanted to get out and play." He loves it. He's painting now, too. He's taken up oil painting.
You won two Masters, but you also had three runner-up finishes at other majors. Do any of your near-misses keep you up at night?
[Laughs] I was proud that I had some realistic chances to win three or four more majors, but I get down on my knees every day about the two I did win. I'm so thankful. I do wish I could have won one playoff, because I'm zero and eight in playoffs. Maybe I could have pulled off just one playoff.
What about on the architecture front? Would you like any do-overs?
Our Coore/Crenshaw course at Barton Creek [outside of Austin], which was one of our first courses. We were instructed to do a conference-center course. They said, "Build a course people can get around." There are some greens that maybe have a bit too much slope. The dimensions here and there are just a touch wide. A couple of greens are maybe too large or slightly uninteresting to our eye now.
Your design for Sand Hills is frequently cited as the best course built in the past 50 years. Do you feel a burden to try to duplicate it?
We could never emulate or duplicate some of the things that we did there because it is so entirely natural. The setting and the environs there are so unusual in this country, and in a lot of respects it was our most fortunate situation to work with. The thing that we're probably proudest about is that it gave people a notion that you could build successful golf courses in remote places.
Developers hire Coore/Crenshaw with the hopes of getting a Top 100 course. Do you feel pressure to deliver?
Rankings can only be justified over a long period of time. People have to play it and see it and experience it. A simplistic answer is that we're confident in our ability to present an interesting course that people will enjoy. If we have a good piece of ground, we can build a good course.
The Hit List
Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses in the World and U.S. rankings include seven Coore/Crenshaw designs, from Long Island [New York] to Hainan Island [China]
Sand Hills, Mullen, Neb. (1994): No. 9 (U.S.)/No.12 (World)
Friar's Head, Riverhead, N.Y. (2003): No. 20 (U.S.)/No. 32 (World)
Old Sandwich, Plymouth, Mass. (2004): No. 46 (U.S.)/No. 90 (World)
Bandon Trails, Bandon, Ore. (2005): No. 49 (U.S.)
Streamsong (Red), Streamsong, Fla. (2012): No. 52 (U.S.)
Barnbougle Lost Farm, Bridport, Tasmania, Australia (2010): No. 72 (World)
Shanqin Bay, Bo'ao, Hainan Island, China (2012): No. 78 (World)
This article appeared in the September issue of Golf Magazine, available free to subscribers in tablet form at Golf.com/allaccess.