Geeked on Golf

FAIR IS A FOUR LETTER WORD AT FRENCH LICK

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The second edition of this season’s Upping My Dye-Q series takes a look at The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort

The devilish designer himself greets visitors to The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort. A statue of the creator of nearly one hundred golf courses over a decades-long career stands by the bag drop. He is smiling, a friendly countenance on first impression. Alongside the sculpture is a stone adorned with a quote that ends ”…so why build a fair golf course”. After reading Pete Dye’s words, the smile doesn’t look quite so chummy. More a smirk, perhaps, or a grin that gives way to a chuckle at the travails that are about to ensue. Players have not even put on their shoes and Ol’ Pete is already trying to get in their heads.

Pete and Alice Dye have never been afraid to throw difficulty into their designs. After all, their first nine hole course included thirteen creek crossings. Tour pros have been complaining for years about being tortured by the duo on The Ocean Course to PGA West, and all points in between. However, to conclude that hard golf is what the Dyes design is to miss the point, and the complaints from fairness-loving pros speak to the reason why.

There is an adage from the Golden Age of golf architecture that the best holes appear either easier or harder than they actually are. Throughout their career, the Dyes have adhered to this principle of creating discomfort through deception. They are not simply testing a player’s ability to execute in the face of a straightforward challenge. Holes that only examine physical skills cannot test the best while remaining playable for the rest. Such design might be considered fair, but invariably, it is too easy or hard, depending on level of skill. It is also predictable and boring—two words that have never been used to describes the Dyes or their courses.

Influences of an Influencer

When Pete Dye hung up the insurance salesman suit in 1960 to don his brown work shoes and khakis, he was a far cry from having his own artistic voice. During his military service, he spent a great deal of time at Pinehurst, interacting with Donald Ross and falling in love with the No.2 course. His competitive playing career exposed him to the bold brilliance of Raynor’s Camargo and Langford & Moreau’s work throughout the Midwest. These Golden Age greats were influential, but were also being obscured at the time by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and other post-war practitioners of “heroic” design. Embarking on their architectural journey, the Dyes stood at the crossroads, not knowing exactly which way to go. The first half of the ’60s would be a formative jumping off point for the fifty years of exploration that would culminate on Mount Airie in French Lick.

In 1962, the Dyes were commissioned to build Radrick Farms in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a lengthy engagement with the course finally opening in 1965. During this period, two additional influences ensured that Radrick was the last Dye course to ever have an RTJ feel. The first was University of Michigan’s other course, designed by Alister MacKenzie. The second was Pete Dye’s 1963 trip to Scotland to study the great courses and history in golf’s birthplace. He came back enlightened to quirk, visual contrast and strategic design, and began working out the Dye style at Crooked Stick.

At Harbour Town in 1969, the pair took a contrarian approach with narrow playing corridors and small, angled greens. They exercised their earth moving and engineering muscle by conjuring TPC Sawgrass from the Florida swamp in 1982. By 1991, they were in full blown Dye-abolical mode at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. At this point in their career, a certain expectation had emerged among players and developers for what a “Pete Dye course” should be. Certain courses like Whistling Straits feel like they are in part the result of a compulsion to outdo the last hit offering, rather than further explore and evolve the artform. If a deleterious trend in the Dye’s work was developing at the turn of the century, they thankfully stamped it out by 2009.

Fairways and Greens

Pete Dye was tremendously excited to build this big budget course at the French Lick Resort, and he considered it to be among the best sites he had ever been given. Long-time Dye collaborator Tim Liddy confirmed, “Pete was enthusiastic about French Lick and heavily invested in its creation. It is the last big project to which he gave his maximum personal attention and on-site presence.” The numbers corroborate Liddy’s perspective—150 site visit made by Pete, 30 by Alice and almost 3 million cubic yards of earth moved to create 18 outstanding hilltop holes that can be stretched to 8,100 yards. The Dyes took a special opportunity, brought their expertise and willingness to push dirt, and delivered a magnum opus.

Although the scale and views are jaw-dropping, and the potential for punishment abounds, there is a subtle brilliance to the Pete Dye Course at French Lick that harkens back to Raynor, Langford, Ross and MacKenzie. Taking a look at the fairways and greens provides insight into the depth of the Dye’s design.

“Make their eyes lie to them” is a Dye family mantra, and French Lick is no exception. On many occasions, a player will stand on the tee with their eyes screaming, “There’s nowhere safe to hit it!” Holes feature a combination of fairway undulation and angled orientation that makes confidently choosing a line difficult, especially when one or both sides drop off the massive hillside. To top it off, degrees of blindness are sprinkled in, drawing upon the inspiring Scottish links of the designer’s early years. And yet students of Dye’s work know that they have provided safe landing areas for conservative and aggressive players. The eyes are lying, but those who can block that feedback out can find the fairway, and score.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The Pinehurst No.2 influence is evident from the first few green complexes. They are small relative to the overall scale of the course, often elevated, angled to the approaches, and shaped to allow for tucking pins. For the player looking to attack, the greens are intimidating and set up to punish reckless aggressiveness. On closer examination though, a high degree of playability is built in as well. The green fronts are open and wider. The slopes and surrounds are varied, including plentiful shortgrass maintained fast and firm by Superintendent Russ Apple and his team. Crafty players can bump-and-run or even putt their way to recovery around most of the course.

A final dose of deception is delivered on the putting surfaces. Although there are some pronounced contours, most are relatively benign. Instead subtle shaping complements the bold tee-to-green features. In this case, subtle does not mean easy though. The Dyes use the visual trick of countering green slopes to the hillsides, making reading break challenging, even on short putts. The green at French Lick confound first-timers, but also leave a desire to come back and try again.

The Pete Dye Course at French Lick is not fair, and players are all the better for it. What it is is the expression of artists who had come full circle and integrated five decades of exploration. It is a destination for players, and it would seem for Pete and Alice as well. To fully understand just how great the Dyes were at their craft, devotees must make the pilgrimage to French Lick. Like the statue with the satisfied smile, it stands as a testament to a lifetime spent climbing the circuitous route to the top of the mountain.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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