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Favorite Designers: Bill Coore

By: Tony Dear


Editor's Note: In each month of 2011 Cybergolf correspondent Tony Dear covers his favorite course designers and explains why he rates them so highly. Now up: Bill Coore.

No. 1 at Bandon Trails
(Photo by Wood Sabold)

The less well-known half of golf's most respected team of golf course architects, Bill Coore is a figure known really only to core (forgive the pun) golfers who appreciate his remarkable knack for coaxing intriguing holes from whatever terrain he has to work with.

Bill Coore is the most gifted golf course architect Tom Doak knows. He's humble too, says the king of minimalism. "And that's a unique combination," Doak says, "because to succeed in this business it's generally necessary to promote oneself. Bill's partnership with Ben Crenshaw saved him from that aspect of the job, but I suspect his talent would have won through, anyway."

Now in his mid-60s, North Carolina native Coore has been designing golf courses for 35 years, a career that actually has its origins in 1971 when the Wake Forest graduate stopped to take a look at an interesting-looking golf course, called Oak Hollow, being built in the city of High Point, 90 miles west of the state capital of Raleigh.

A better-than-average golfer who had represented the Demon Deacons off and on for two years and who had played much of his early golf on classic courses like Donald Ross's Pinehurst No. 2 and Perry Maxwell's Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, Coore got to talking with a member of Oak Hollow's maintenance crew and asked who had designed it. The guy wasn't sure but thought it might be Pete Dye. Coore asked if he had Dye's phone number, which was eventually found pinned up in the maintenance shed.

"The course looked so different to everything else that was being built at the time," says Coore, "which basically means it looked different to what Robert Trent Jones was doing."

Dyeing to Start

Coore had envisioned a career as a professor of Classical Mythology while playing a little amateur golf, but he was willing to put all that on hold for a chance to work for the architect whose reputation has begun to soar following the opening of Crooked Stick, The Golf Club and Harbour Town.

"I thought I might work for Mr. Dye for a year or so, and really badgered him, made a total nuisance of myself," says Coore. "He eventually found a job for me on the maintenance crew at Cardinal GC in Greensboro."

The work was less than glamorous. Coore cut trees in a swamp, but he somehow persuaded Dye to let him tag along when the designer was out walking the course. "To this day I don't know why he agreed to that," says Coore. "I would say nothing, of course, just listen and absorb."

Coore ended up working on Dye projects for three years. He never rose to the position of lead shaper or project manager, but did become firm friends of the Dye family, occasionally staying at their home and taking care of Pete and Alice's beloved dogs Otto and Gypsy. "That gives you a pretty good indication of how important I was to the company," Coore jokes, saying the experience was actually very useful as he had access to Dye's extensive golf library.

"I read a lot of books on course architecture by Alister Mackenzie, Robert Hunter and others," he says. "I took notes and just became incredibly interested in the subject."

For so unconventional an architect to own books written by predecessors who literally wrote the book on golf course design might surprise many, but Coore insists that Dye was firmly grounded in philosophies championed by the greats of the past. "Mr. Dye was inspired by classic architecture, but obviously chose to improvise a great deal," he says.

"He wanted to create something different. A lot of golf course architecture was driven by Trent Jones at the time and I think Pete wanted to do the exact opposite. Look at Harbour Town. It's relatively short, very narrow and has tiny greens - very different to most of Trent Jones's layouts."

Coore notes that while some may think of Dye as golf design's mad scientist, he was in fact incredibly astute. "You have to remember, Pete was a million-dollar-a-year insurance salesman . . . in the early 60s!" he says. "He was never haphazard and never made a false move. He studied those books very carefully, taking what he needed. Then he went his own way."

Dye sent Coore to Texas to work for his brother Roy on a course called Waterwood National in Huntsville, 50 miles north of Houston. Soon after Coore's arrival, however, construction stopped because of the oil embargo of 1973-75 when OPEC nations halted exports to the U.S. because of its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

There was nowhere else for Coore to go, so he stuck around, eventually winding up as the course's superintendent. "I did that job for five or six years, and it was one of the best things I could have done," he says. "It was invaluable experience, but I couldn't have done it without the help of Dick Psolla, a soil and agronomy expert who I've worked with on numerous projects down the years. He really held my hand and guided me through my first year there."

While at Waterwood, Coore became aware of a low-budget, nine-hole course being built at Rockport, half an hour north of Corpus Christi on the Gulf of Mexico. The developer had let the original designer go and asked Coore to come out and take a look. "The project was in a deep dark hole, but it was an opportunity," says Coore. "They said I could begin the very next day, but told me I could not spend one dollar more than they had already committed."

The first nine holes at Rockport Country Club turned out pretty well. So well, in fact, Coore was asked back to build nine more. Then came a second course, built at a real-estate development called Kings Crossing (which closed two years ago). His fledgling design career was a tiny acorn against the established oaks of Dye, Trent Jones and others who had begun to partner with big-name tour pros on big budget projects, but Coore had become known to a Texas course developer who would have a profound effect on his career path.

Howdy Partner

Charlie Bellair wanted to build a course near Rockport named Cape Velero. But, says Coore, the ground was totally unsuitable. "It really had no chance, much of it was underwater," he adds. "But while we were looking at the site, Charlie asked me why I hadn't set up with a famous pro yet and which one I would choose to work with. I said I hadn't given it a second's thought, but he pressed me and, because I had read an interview with Ben Crenshaw recently in which it became clear he was very knowledgeable about golf course architecture, I said him."

It was 1984 and Crenshaw had just won the Masters. His star had obviously risen significantly, so Bellair, who obviously recognized the potential benefits of partnering with a major champion, contacted Crenshaw's manager and arranged a meeting. "Ben consented, I think because he had heard about Rockport," Coore remembers. "But I didn't know why he was coming to see Charlie's property. It was just awful."

The two met for the first time at Cape Velero and quickly agreed the course was never going to happen. "Ben suggested we go to Rockport," says Coore. "After seeing it, he said it was really neat, and as the day went on, it became apparent we were compatible, had similar personalities and shared an opinion on what made a golf course enjoyable."

There was no talk of a partnership, but the two stayed in touch. By the end of 1985 it was obvious to everyone except the two men they really should go into business together. "We had lunch with Rod Whitten of Golf Digest, who asked what the name of our company was going to be," says Coore. "But we honestly hadn't spoken about it and were kind of caught unawares by the question. Eventually Ben spoke up, saying it would be called Coore & Crenshaw. That just says so much about Ben. What other star player would put his name second?"

Slow Start

The company became official in January of 1986, but it would be five years before its first full-length course opened. "We did get a couple of commissions in our first year but neither course was completed," says Coore. "The first was for a course called Uplands in Austin, Texas, which was to be financed by Charles Keating; the other, Blake Tree National outside Houston that was developed by oil tycoon Thomas Blake and where we did actually rough in 13 holes."

Uplands failed after Keating's savings and loan empire crumbled in the mid-1980s, and Blake Tree National stopped when the oil economy bottomed out - possibly as a result of the savings-and-loan scandal (Blake Tree National did eventually open in 1997 after Blake himself had created the finishing holes.) There were other ventures in Denver and Baltimore that ultimately failed as well, and the pair did some restoration work at both Houston Country Club and on Perry Maxwell's magnificent Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kans. Coore also designed a course in Aquitaine, France, called Golf Du Medoc.

But even though the partners had vowed to work on two or maybe three courses a year tops, it was a disappointing and fairly ignominious start. "Ron Whitten said we were the first architects to form a partnership and retire before opening a single course," says Coore.

In 1988, Coore and Crenshaw began working on the Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui, and soon after at the Barton Creek Resort in Austin. Thankfully, both opened as planned in '91 and both gave the world a glimpse of what the designers were capable - layouts that were wide enough but sufficiently challenging to appeal to resort guests, club members and professionals.

Playing in the Sand

In 1990, with the company's reputation for classic, playable and unpretentious courses fast taking hold, Coore and Crenshaw took a call from Dick Youngscap, an architect (buildings rather than golf courses) turned developer from Lincoln, Neb. With the speaker phone on, the duo listened as Youngscap invited them to a place named Mullen in the Sand Hills region to inspect a site they may be interested in.

"We just looked at each other and knew exactly what the other was thinking," says Coore who had heard about the quality of ground in north-central Nebraska from various sources. "I first heard about the Sand Hills in 1976 or '77," Coore recalls. "I was speaking with Ron Whitten, who was the Assistant District Attorney in Topeka, Texas, at the time. He told me he was going to write a book about golf course architects and we got to talking about the best ground for golf in America.

"He said the best place he had seen was in Nebraska and, of course, I didn't believe him. But a few years later when I was working at Prairie Dunes, I was speaking with Doug Petersan, the superintendent, who said much the same thing. 'Can you imagine finding a piece of land as good for golf as this,' I asked him. He said 'I know where there's better; Nebraska.' "

Other architects were considered for the job - Pete Dye whom Youngscap had hired in 1982 for a course in Lincoln called Firethorn, and Jack Nicklaus. But in the end Coore believes the developer chose the company he felt would be least intrusive.

Coore and Crenshaw first visited the property in September of 1990 and were overwhelmed. "The vastness, the natural ridges and contours, the sandy terrain were what every golf course designer dreams about," says Coore.

"We were walking back 500 years with all the exposed sand and natural blowouts. I always regarded Robert Hunter's description of the perfect bunker as the standard I should be trying to attain - that they should have the 'appearance of being made with carelessness and abandon.' Bunkers like the huge 40-foot wall of sand on the fourth hole at Royal St. George's in England would have looked far more rugged and natural decades ago. We had hundreds like that at Sand Hills."

Finding great holes on such a site was no problem; any course architect worthy of the American Society of Golf Course Architects' plaid blazer could find a few dozen. Coore and Crenshaw found over 130 that could quite conceivably have made the final cut. But routing the course in such a way as to take advantage of as many of the best features as possible took a special brand of genius. "I scribbled all the holes onto a scrap of paper, our letterhead actually, that is now framed in the bar," says Coore. "There's a tiny notation for each hole, many of which actually crisscross each other."

With 8,100 of the property's 11,000 acres at their disposal, you'd think the design duo would have found their course without too much bother. But after Crenshaw spotted an interesting stretch to the west of the course's designated area, a request was made for the additional parcel.

"A gentleman named Jim Simon was one of the main investors in the land purchase," says Coore. "Mr. Simon told Dick he could take whatever land he needed for the golf course and he'd take the rest for cattle. After getting to the 11th hole we couldn't agree which direction to go in. I thought we should probably move back east toward the clubhouse, but Ben was looking over the boundary fence to the west. I thought that area looked a little steep, but Ben wanted to take a look. Once we found the 12th, the 13th took some finding, but the 14th and 15th were then pretty clear."

After putting the idea to Youngscap, the developer immediately realized this would be pushing back the agreed-upon perimeters and encroaching on Simon's land. He asked his architects if this was really what they wanted to do. "Yeah Dick, I'm afraid so. It's just better this way," Coore replied. Youngscap joked that he had given Coore and Crenshaw their pick of the 11,000 acres but still couldn't find the full course.

With the final routed established, construction began and took three summers to complete. The cost of building the course was just $1.1 million, nearly 75 percent of which went toward the irrigation system. "Dick spent his investors' money incredibly carefully," says Coore. "He watched it like a hawk. He was an amazing steward, and wanted the course built as efficiently as possible."

Not every golf course architect is lucky enough to be presented with a site comparable to that which Coore and Crenshaw reveled in at Sand Hills. But who besides a very select group of designers could even come close to building so great a course for so little money?

The 2nd Hole at Bandon Trails

Keiser Commits

Half a dozen more commissions came along - including the Friar's Head job in Baiting Hollow, N.Y., a course now ranked 34th on Golf Digest's list of America's top 100 - before Mike Keiser felt the time was right to bring Coore and Crenshaw to Bandon Dunes. "I disqualified Bill and Ben before choosing an architect for Bandon and then Pacific Dunes because hopes were high for Sand Hills and I felt that, because of its success, anything they built at Bandon Dunes would be seen as their 'second' course," says Keiser. "So I went with the unheralded Scotsman, David Kidd, for Bandon Dunes and then picked Tom Doak for Pacific Dunes."

Initially there was no guarantee Coore and Crenshaw would agree to the idea though. "Mike called to express his interest in having us come and take a look, but warned us the site would likely be seen as inferior to those used for the first two courses as it wasn't along the ocean," says Coore. "You may not be interested he said. We didn't have a problem with the site's position so I went out there and spent three weeks walking it."

Keiser's original plan called for 18 holes in the forest and 'out of the wind,' and it was there that Coore began his search for 18 interesting golf holes. As he was staying in the resort's main lodge, however, Coore would walk west of the course's proposed boundary every evening, and after crossing the resort's main access road close to what is now the 17th green, he found himself traversing the sort of dunes that had made the first two courses so exciting.

"Every morning and every evening, I'd walk over what eventually became the first, second, 17th and 18th holes and wonder why on earth we weren't using that ground," says Coore who naturally broached the subject with Keiser and Howard McKee, the resort's planner and architect. "Mike could have said no, but he considers all his options wisely and agreed to the idea of using what dunes we could."

Keiser wondered if it might be possible to go even further west and make the whole course, at least most of it, a natural links similar to its illustrious neighbors. But despite considerable effort, Coore just couldn't find enough suitable ground to justify the switch. "It made sense to use the dunes close to the access road, but beyond that I couldn't find more than about three holes, two of which would have been par-3s," he says. "We could have bulldozed the place and found more, but that's not how we work."

It meant that after starting the round in the dunes west of the road, the golfer would cross over it to get to the third tee and then head out into a meadow before crossing a ridge into the forest that Keiser had originally set aside for the course. It was a risky move, and Keiser wondered aloud how, after whetting their appetites with a couple of early, windswept-dunes holes, Coore was going to maintain the golfer's interest. "Mike said that after five great holes in the dunes, most people believe that Spyglass Hill lacks drama for the remainder of the round and he didn't want the same to be true of Bandon Trails," says Coore.

"He said that after the two opening holes, golfers would likely want to remain in the dunes and head west rather than move inland. I told him we would bring the golfer back to the meadow at the 14th tee and then back into the dunes for the final hole," says Coore.

Keiser was happy, the course was built, and it currently sits at No. 14 in Golf Digest's list of top U.S. public courses. Better yet, Coore has now fashioned the linksland he couldn't quite transform into a full-length course into an exquisite 13-hole par-3 course named Bandon Preserve, whose longest hole is 152 yards and which is set to open in spring 2012.

Six months after Bandon Trails opened, the Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa in Fort McDowell, Ariz., opened. Unlike most desert layouts and visually comparable with some of their previous designs, the Saguaro immediately drew praise from both architecture geeks who appreciated the course's lay-of-the-land sensitivities, and snowbirds who cared not a jot for golf course architecture but just wanted to have fun playing golf in the sun.

Sugarloaf Mountain in Lake Apopka, Fla., and the Colorado Club in Parker, Colo., enjoyed similar fanfare soon after they opened, but then business slowed as it did for everybody when the Great Recession began in late 2007 and took hold the following year.

The 3rd Hole at Lost Farm

Lost Down Under

Fortunately, Richard Sattler, the self-proclaimed "dumb potato farmer" from Tasmania, who had been persuaded to develop part of his property into a golf course - the superb Doak- and Mike Clayton-designed Barnbougle Dunes - had money to spend on a second course and consulted with Mike Keiser on who should build it. "Mike had been an advisor in the first course and become a close family friend, so we trusted his opinion" says Elizabeth Sattler, Barnbougle's marketing manager and the boss's daughter. "We were aware Bill and Ben had designed a course at Bandon Dunes and Mike suggested they would be a good fit for Lost Farm. Tom Doak also said that, if he couldn't build the second course, he would pick them too."

Although Crenshaw, still playing a full schedule on the Champions Tour, couldn't commit to the travel, he knew his partner was eager to go to Australia having missed an opportunity to work in Melbourne years before. Coore worked at Lost Farm with the course's superintendent, Phil Hill, as well as company associates Dave Axland and Keith Rhebb, who surely deserve much of the credit for Coore and Crenshaw's success along with Jeff Bradley, Dave Zinkand, Jimbo Wright, Dan Proctor and a handful of other Coore & Crenshaw regulars.

While Axland and Rhebb lived on-site, shaping typically tantalizing green complexes, Coore estimates he made 15 visits Down Under. "I would love to have been able to work like Alister Mackenzie and make a single visit, put a plan down on paper, then leave it in the capable hands of my associates," he says, "But that's not how it works nowadays. And anyway, I loved going down there. It's such a beautiful place and it was a pleasure working with Richard and his team."

The plan for Lost Farm was that it would complement Barnbougle Dunes rather than outshine it if, indeed, that were at all possible. "We just wanted to make Lost Farm different," says Coore. "And the site pretty much ensured the two would be very distinct. While Barnbougle Dunes is mostly linear, Lost Farm is a sort of square shape with a flattish paddock in the middle. It was a land unto itself where the cows would go and hide when the weather turned nasty. You could drive by it all day and not know it was there. And it was more diverse than Barnbougle - hilly in some areas and flat in others."

It opened in December 2010 and, like Sand Hills, made an instant impact being listed among Golf Magazine's top-100 courses on the planet.

Aerial View of Restored 1st Hole at Pinehurst No. 2

Restoring Ross

At roughly the same time as Coore had been busy in Australia, he had also been working on a splendid heathland-style course in his home state, not 10 minutes from Pinehurst Resort, where he spent so much time as a youngster. The Dormie Club opened in May 2010 and was instantly compared with the famous Pinehurst No. 2, some writers even suggesting it was better. But while others resisted the temptation to go quite that far, everyone concurred that it was, at least, the best course designed in the Sandhills region since No. 2 opened in 1907.

Somewhat ironically perhaps, Coore and Crenshaw's next job in America was renovating the very course their new Dormie Club would soon be vying with for best-in-state honors. Fact is, Pinehurst No. 2 had begun to look tired and, motivated by criticism from the likes of Doak, Lanny Wadkins, Curtis Strange and Ray Floyd to name just a few, the resort's decision-makers - owner Bob Dedman and president Don Padgett - made the decision to restore it.

"But restore it to what?" asks Coore. "The course had been through so many phases it was unclear exactly what look and feel we should try to recreate."

Coore says the assignment was a daunting one, but that Padgett and Dedman gave them their full support whatever they chose to do.

"To be honest, we really had no good ideas before hiring Bill and Ben," says Padgett. "I think we had tended to dismiss the criticism because the course was still staging successful tournaments, including the 2008 U.S. Amateur. So we needed their knowledge and expertise to help us decide what to do."

Padgett adds that Coore and Crenshaw were really the only people he and Dedman considered for the job, though he would have been happy hiring Doak or Gil Hanse had his first choices turned him down. "We knew we could trust them," he says. "We gave them the resources they needed and really just let them do what they thought was necessary."

Fortunately, says Coore, everyone seemed to agree that turning the clock back 100 years and trying to recreate the course that Ross built was the way to go.

Crenshaw, obviously thrilled to take on so historically significant a role, was adamant he and Coore not seek to incorporate any of their own idiosyncrasies and trademarks but simply replicate what Ross might do if he were to see what had become of the course. "Our job was not to impose our own philosophy, but uncover and restore Ross's original intention for the course," he says.

That meant a return to 50-yard-wide fairways watered sparingly from sprinklers positioned down the center of each one, the loss of 650 irrigation heads, the removal of 35 acres of Bermuda rough, and the creation of large, sandy waste areas dotted with native wiregrass.

It was a terribly bold plan, riskier even than the decision to route Bandon Trails through so many different landscapes as the outcome would affect not only Pinehurst Resort regulars but the village of Pinehurst itself. Also affected was the USGA, which had named Pinehurst No.2 as the venue for the 2014 U.S. Open.

"The business model was working, and so few people had seen it in its original form," says Coore. "There were so many potential pitfalls. A stranger actually walked up to me and said we'd better know what the hell we were doing because whatever happened at No. 2 determined the whole vibe at the resort and in town. Ben said this was either the smartest or dumbest job we'd ever agree to do. Everyone involved had to be on board, but it was inevitable some said they would reserve judgment until they saw the finished article."

As has happened with just about every project in which Coore & Crenshaw have been involved, the finished article was given two thumbs-up, five stars, and a thousand gushing reviews. Even USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, who gave the restoration his unreserved blessing, has confirmed the first U.S. Open without rough will be played at Pinehurst No. 2.

Though probably sweating in his office as work got underway, Padgett now says he had no reservations about the decision to make the changes or hire Coore & Crenshaw, but adds even he has been a little surprised with how well the "new" No. 2 has been received.

"I've never been in any situation, business or otherwise, when so big a change was praised so much," he says. "My only concern is how it's going to hold up for the Open, but I'm not really worried about what the winning score will be. Whatever the conditions, and however Mike Davis chooses to set the course up, I think the players will love the challenge."

Coore has heard the criticism that the course might now be too easy, but he's happy knowing players who miss the short grass will now have several options open to them and be able to advance their ball toward the green rather than simply chop it back onto the fairway. "Having so many different lies off the fairway will mean a greater variety of recovery shots," he says. "And the fact they have multiple options will put doubt in the players' minds. We hope the strategic and psychological challenges will keep scores respectable."

In the Works

By the time the game's best players get to take on the new No. 2, and TV viewers around the world get to see it on display during the U.S. Open, Chinese golfers will have had their first experience of a Coore design at Shanqin Bay on Hainan Island which is scheduled to open next June. Coore, who was never terribly excited about the prospect of working in the People's Republic, felt compelled to accept the offer after seeing the fabulous cliff-top site and meeting the developer, former chairman of the China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) Wang Jun who, Coore says, certainly knows his golf.

"I wouldn't go to China and cut the top off a mountain just to build another golf course," he says, "but what do you do when you're given a site like that? The pictures I'd seen of Chinese golf made it look very ornamental, but Chairman Wang wanted something different. He actually wanted the place to look similar to how it did before the course was there. Even though he wanted to keep more of the site's trees and line the fairways with them, our visions for the course were actually pretty similar and I came to respect him very much. I really wanted to build something special for him."

Five or six months after Shanqin Bay opens, Coore will open another course - Streamsong in Central Florida which, likewise, promises to be pretty special. Located in Polk County, a little closer to Tampa than Orlando, Streamsong will be a 36-hole resort located on an old phosphate mine with one course by Tom Doak and his Renaissance crew, and one by Coore, Crenshaw and their band of artisans. Actually, as Doak says, he and Coore get on so well and have such great respect for each other they practically came up with the routing for all 36 holes together, and even ended up sharing a few. "I've known Bill for 30 years," says Doak, "but it was a rare privilege to work with him on the routing at Streamsong, and see how he works first-hand."

The Secret's in the Dirt

There's really no secret as to how Coore works and how he gets such good results - he puts the time in . . . a lot of it. Unlike his partner, who played 21 official tournaments in the 2011 season, Coore has the freedom to log some serious hours getting to know a site. "I've always heard from his clients how much time Bill spends just walking around looking for golf holes," says Doak. "But his process is much more methodical than that. Still, the result is that he finds a lot of smaller, human-scale features to build his courses around than most of us who work from maps. And he always makes good connections from one hole to the next because he's discovered them all on foot."

It's a skill Coore's partner has always appreciated. "Bill is extremely well-versed in all aspects of golf course architecture," says Crenshaw, "but I would say his greatest asset is his ability to assess the raw land and find the best routing for the course. He studies the land from every possible angle and takes so many things into consideration, like drainage, wind, topography, land forms and foliage. It's a difficult task no matter how good the land. But Bill is one of the best, if not the best, at it."

Thanks to Coore and other designers creating interesting, playable courses without resorting to excessive use of bulldozers and check books, the days of insipid architecture and unnecessary intrusion from ill-advised, signature hole-building landscapers is hopefully drawing to a close. And when people see how much fun playing the sort of course Coore crafts can be, they will surely be tempted to try the game. Could it be, in fact, that the future of golf course architecture depends on people like Bill Coore?

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.