The first edition of this season’s Upping My Dye-Q series takes a look at the Tim Liddy designed Rock Hollow Golf Club
“Who are you, and what do you do?” The direct inquiry by the local I encountered in the pro shop after completing an early-spring loop around the Tim Liddy designed Rock Hollow Golf Club caught me off guard. He must have noticed the befuddled look on my face, so he elaborated. “We saw you playing fast and carrying your bag. We know everyone who plays out here. What’s your story?” Gathering myself, I explained that I was on my way to French Lick and was taking the opportunity to see Rock Hollow, which had been on my hit list for years. After commiserating over our mutual affection for their home course, we settled in for the kind of enjoyable conversation that naturally flows among fellow geeks. Topics ranged from Chicago Golf Club to Langford & Moreau to the Pete Dye Course at French Lick, along with their beloved Rock Hollow. It was exactly the kind of community golf vibe that makes me feel right at home.
Tim Liddy got his start at an engineering firm where he was working as a landscape architect and self-described “front end guy”. The engineers often assigned him to be the client liaison because of his skills with people and drawing. This dynamic led to an introduction to Pete Dye in 1990, resulting in his assignment to the Ocean Course project on Kiawah Island. “Pete didn’t draw plans. At that time, the permitting process required more detailed drawings,” Liddy shared. “Pete loved me because I had studied the world’s great golf holes and understood what he was talking about. It also helped that I drew well and quickly, and I didn’t mind that most of my drawings would end up in the garbage when he changed his mind. Pete started as my idol, served as my mentor, and ultimately became a father figure.” The pair’s collaboration carried on for 25 years with Pete concocting and Tim drawing.
Serendipity would continue to tap Tim Liddy in the early ‘90s. The Smith family, stalwarts of the game in Indiana, were looking to build a golf course and they approached Pete Dye through a mutual friend. While reviewing plans for another project at the dining room table in the Dye home, Pete made the simple suggestion, “Tim will do it.” The gears were set in motion for Liddy’s first solo design.
The Golfing Smiths
Why did the Smiths decide to build a golf course? “It’s 25 years later, and I am asking myself that same question,” joked Terry Smith, the patriarch of this golfing clan. Terry learned the game from his father, and passed it on to his three sons, Terry, Todd and Chris. All played high level competitive golf, with Chris ultimately becoming a PGA Tour winner.
The family owned a gravel and stone business that operated out of a 350+ acre quarry in Peru, IN. By 1972, the site had been mined out and sat fallow. “We left it alone to become wildlife habitat, but I felt that there could be a better use for the land,” Smith said. “Golf was such a big part of our lives, it made sense to transform the quarry into a golf course.” Clearing began in 1992, and based on Pete Dye’s recommendation, the Smith’s crew went to work under the direction of Liddy. “We had the equipment and people to handle the clearing and earthmoving, and Pete lent us a shaper to bring the finer details of Tim’s design to life.”
Creation stories tend to be romanticized, glossing over the gory details. Many golf geeks dream of building and owning their own course, and most have no comprehension of the blood, sweat and tears necessary to make that dream a reality. The story of Rock Hollow’s creation includes hints of just how tough it can be. “After unexpectedly having to top dress the entire course with soil from our farm, we found that the 7th hole was still too rocky to grow healthy turf,” recounted Smith. “Members of our family, staff and the community came out and crawled the entire length of the fairway on hands and knees picking out rocks prior to seeding.” With that level of commitment and engagement, it is no wonder that the Smiths and their neighbors remain attached to the course.
The site that would become Rock Hollow had two special characteristics on which Liddy capitalized. The mining operation created more than 50 feet of elevation change from the outer edges to the central lake—uncommon for this part of Indiana. Additionally, the site was much bigger than the golf course, allowing for the retention of that “nature preserve” feel. As Liddy described it, “Everything leads you into the natural landscape. It is like a watercolor with detail in the middle of the painting while the edges blur to support the whole.” Areas of wetland and woodland are interspersed, with the golf holes taking the player on an exploration of the land.
Rock Hollow’s nines are routed in two loops. Each begins by working around the property edge and then turning back inward to interact with the lake. The perimeter topography holds more interest, and Liddy took advantage of that variety to create a collection of holes packed with character. “One of the best things about Tim’s design is that there are no weak holes,” gushed Smith. Even after discounting his owner’s bias, I tend to agree that Rock Hollow is solid from start to finish. A unique and creative hole like the short par-4 16th, with its semi-blind approach to a green that seemingly floats on the horizon, stands out from the rest as a favorite.
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In typical Dye fashion, Liddy employed angles, elevation changes and landforms to make the player feel uncomfortable on the tee. Confident drives are rewarded, but the best line to take is frequently not evident to the newbie visitor. Unlike some of Pete Dye’s courses, Rock Hollow has a much more understated aesthetic to accompany the strategy. “The design was a reaction to Pete’s strong personality,” Liddy explained. “The feature shapes are simple and the edges are blurry on purpose, allowing the landscape to be the focus.” This conscious restraint does not result in a bland golf course, however. To complement the natural beauty of the setting, Liddy took a hands-on approach that is evident in varied green surrounds and large, contoured putting surfaces. Rock Hollow is a course that would remain interesting, challenging and fun even after numerous plays.
Returning to the locals in the pro shop, their pride in Rock Hollow is palpable and well founded. After a period during which the conditions deteriorated, new Superintendent Larry Wilk and his team have the course looking and playing great. The design might be restrained, but the hard work and love that have gone into making Rock Hollow a terrific community golf course have been anything but. “I love golf, and it feels good to have created a place for our family to work and play the game,” Smith mused. “We took an unproductive piece of land and gave it a new use that makes people happy.” Terry Smith doesn’t say so explicitly, but I get the sense that reflecting on the joy that his course has brought to players makes the investment of blood, sweat and tears worth it.
For those in search of fun, affordable and architecturally interesting golf, Rock Hollow should be on your list. The Smith family is ready to welcome you in Peru.