The fifth edition of this season’s Upping My Dye-Q series asserts that Crooked Stick is among the three most important courses in the history of golf architecture in America
Golf course architecture in America has been marked by several eras, each with a short list of courses that epitomize the craft in their time. Early in the 20th century, Charles Blair Macdonald’s quest to create the ideal golf course, based on principles gathered from in-depth study of the courses of the British Isles, resulted in National Golf Links of America. Macdonald’s method set a new standard for design that would drive the Golden Age up until the Great Depression. In the early 1990s, a beloved professional and a largely unknown architect partnered to build a throwback masterpiece in the middle of Nebraska. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s Sand Hills Golf Club would be the spark that ignited the modern renaissance of course design that we are still enjoying today. These two courses, among others from their respective eras, are rightly held in esteem for their merit and importance. But what of the intervening period? Was there no course built between 1945 and 1990 that belongs in the same discussion? Indeed there is, and it is called Crooked Stick.
The period during which the Dyes cemented their legacy has been retrospectively dubbed the “Dark Ages” by some. This blanket condemnation is misplaced and fails to recognize the context in which architecture was practiced. Coming out of the Great Depression and World War II, Americans were feeling heroic and unbeatable. Architects, led by Robert Trent Jones, wielded technological power to create courses where growing numbers of players could demonstrate further heroism. There was an unfortunate sense of “out with the old, in with the new” that was an understandable reaction to emergence from such a dark period in world history. Pete and Alice Dye stood apart during the Heroic Age in their desire to blend the old with the new, and Crooked Stick was where they pounded their historically significant stake into the ground.
The Course (and Careers) that Might Not Have Been
Before diving into the aspects of Crooked Stick’s importance, a little context is appropriate. The success of the Dye’s development project was far from assured during its infancy, much like their budding careers as designers. Pete and Alice were accomplished players and had several courses under their belts, but to call them prominent architects nationally would have been a major overstatement when they set out to build the country’s premier modern golf club in the mid-1960s. They didn’t have the land, the money or the gravitas that would have made realizing the dream a safe bet. They did have support from a few key players in Indianapolis and Alice’s family, but it was not offered without a bit of trepidation. “The O’Neals were likely not entirely enthused about Pete and Alice’s career choice,” confirms club historian Chris Wirthwein, whose book Crooked Stick Golf Club: A Story of the Original Masterpiece from America’s First Couple of Golf chronicles the club’s history. Even Bill Diddell, founding member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and early mentor to the Dyes, attempted to steer them in a less risky direction.
Pausing to reflect on this moment in time illuminates the first aspect of Crooked Stick’s historical significance. Pete and Alice, standing at a crossroads, could have chosen to abandon their dream, returning to comfortable lives of amateur golf, the insurance business and raising a family. Nobody would have judged them, and Alice’s family might even have celebrated. Instead, they courageously pressed on, and an arduous decade later, their vision and persistence was rewarded.
Had they given up, it is hard to imagine where course architecture would be today. Not only would there have been no counterbalance to the influence of the Jones and Fazio families, but the Dye Family design tree would never have existed. Might we have never heard from some of their progeny?
To name a few…Dave Axland, Chris Cochran, Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw, Brian Curley, Bob Cupp, Tom Doak, P.B. Dye, Perry Dye, Roy Dye, John Fought, Chris Gray, Gil Hanse, John Harbottle, David Heatwole, Bruce Hepner, Rick Jacobson, Stephen Kay, Tim Liddy, Jim Lipe, Jason McCoy, Tom Meade, Scott Miller, Chris Monti, William Newcomb, Jack Nicklaus, Jack Nicklaus II, Greg Norman, Tom Pearson, David Pfaff, Scott Pool, Dan Proctor, John Robinson, Lee Schmidt, Scot Sherman, Bobby Weed, Rod Whitman…in addition to the next generation of talented designers and shapers now coming into their own.
One thing is certain—the architectural landscape would have been far less interesting had the Dyes chosen a different path.
Where the Old Met the New
Pete and Alice brought to the table a design perspective based on their exposure to great Golden Age courses such as Camargo, Culver Academies, Pinehurst #2, Scioto, Seminole, the University of Michigan Course and many more. In the spirit of C.B. Macdonald’s study trips abroad, the pair made a point of visiting 30+ courses in Scotland while there to compete in the 1963 British Amateur. They took in the links and took photos to create a database of ideas for later use. Like National Golf Links, Crooked Stick was built upon the principles that gave those courses their timelessness, but with a fresh twist. Modern architects like Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Dave Zinkand and others followed Macdonald and the Dyes’ footsteps, honoring the maxim, “To be a great architect, see great courses.”
As a bridge between eras, Crooked Stick now belongs on the priority list for study, which is exactly what Chris Wirthwein has done. His extensive research, which included numerous conversations with the Dyes, provides a deep dive into the design process. Walking the fairways with Wirthwein is like being taken on a tour of a museum with its curator. Sources of Pete and Alice’s inspiration are built into every hole, each with its own evolutionary story. Beginning at the tee, Crooked Stick is a throwback. Dye embraced angles and hidden landing areas to make players uncomfortable on the tee. The holes are decidedly not “right there in front of you.” Some landing areas have speed slots to discover, offset by uphill slopes that kill drives. Dye further channeled the Golden Age by laying out several of his par-4s as switchbacks. If a left-to-right ball flight is optimal from the tee, right-to-left is recommended on approach, and vice versa. The greens and surrounds are an homage to the couple’s favorite courses and architects. Players will find six MacKenzie (3,6,10,13,14,15), four Ross (1,2,8,9), three Raynor (5,7,18), one Dunn (4), and three Dye original (11,16,17) styled greens. From methods to strategies to features, Crooked Stick is a significant link from the past to the present.
Pete Dye was not afraid to tinker, even if that meant having to revise features and entire holes. Crooked Stick is historically important because it provides a window into the evolving mind of a master. Rare indeed are those courses where the architect had a chance to come back year after year to experiment, test and fine tune their ideas in the ground.
The tinkering began with construction and shaping. During construction, the club was not flush with cash and so the Dyes had to be creative in conjuring a course from the flat farmland they had acquired. Large lakes and “Dye-pressions” were dug to provide fill to build up fairways and green sites in other areas. They used bulldozers, farm equipment and any other available machinery for earth moving. For the finer shaping, Pete invented a method to achieve the look he wanted. “So somehow I figured out to take an old farm disk—and a farm disk is rigid—and crack the frame so that it would float over the ground,” Dye explained to Wirthwein. “Then I’d take the loader, dump some dirt, and get on the tractor and just pray to God when I go over those hills that something good would happen. Well that disk would ride on the surface and you’d end up with all these different undulations you couldn’t get with a bulldozer.” This spirit of invention extended to the detailing, and even the agronomy, giving the course an old-world feel.
Architects will often say that they wish they could go back and make edits after seeing their courses years later. At Crooked Stick, Pete took advantage of the trust bestowed upon him by the membership by acting on that impulse. Driven by a steady stream of high profile championships, large-scale renovations took place in 1978, 1985, 1986, 1989, 2001 and 2009, with plenty of tweaking in between. Each iteration got a bit better than the last while keeping members, guests and competitors on their toes. Has all of this revision resulted in perfection? Surely, Pete and Alice would say no. The result has been to leave a fascinating design record born of the Dyes using the course as a living laboratory.
Players today find a Crooked Stick that is at once beautiful, vexing and fun. The spirit of the place can perhaps best be summed up by an excerpt from a Board of Directors resolution honoring Pete Dye’s work:
“WHEREAS, there were fields without fairway; there were water holes without land; there were holes with streams so fiendishly criss-crossed that a ball missing the first criss would surely catch the second cross, or (if exceptionally well struck) the third criss; there were some great sand traps like the Gobi Desert and many small ones scattered about like buckshot; there were some greens so large as to require putting with a full backswing; others so small so as to leave no room for the hole; one green requiring a wedge shot over a trap at its mid-point; some greens so contoured as to roll in two directions at once, and still others so buried in the woods as to be invisible from any direction…NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED…that words are inadequate to describe our gratitude to our founder, PETE DYE, who has done so much to so few with so little provocation.”
For lovers of variety and fun challenges, Crooked Stick provides an endless supply. The course winds its way around the created countryside, changing directions regularly and giving a different look on every hole, while maintaining unified themes central to strategic golf. Every hole has an aggressive play and a safer option. The nature of the player’s adventure is theirs for the choosing.
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The front nine begins with a straightforward (by Pete Dye standards) par-4 to a small, tricky green. An initial dose of thrill comes at the 2nd as it turns left around an imposing set of bunkers. The 3rd is a tough three-par that requires a confident tee ball to a canted and contoured putting surface. At the par-4 4th, players are confronted with an unsettling tee shot, followed by an approach to a large green that plays much smaller to certain pin positions. The opening stretch is capped off by the first par-5, punctuated by a bold green that would make Seth Raynor proud.
Water is a theme for the next set of holes, beginning with the often photographed par-3 6th. The large specimen tree back-right is sadly gone, but the hole is no less gorgeous and treacherous. The drive on the par-4 7th is blind, followed by an approach reveal into another Raynor-inspired green complex. The 8th is Dye’s cape hole, wrapping around a lake left to a peninsula putting surface with very little margin for approach error. To complete the outward half, the par-5 9th makes players think position, with a creek cutting across and and the green set back among the trees.
The inward nine starts with a tough three hole stretch. The 10th heads out, the lake running along the right, to a deep, false-fronted green. The par-5 11th plays up over a rise and then down to a fairway that winds left around the Dye’s rendition of the church pews. The two-shot 12th begins with the most disorienting tee shot on the course to a canted fairway with a deep valley right. The green, inspired by the 5th at Maxinkuckee CC, might be the best of the bunch.
The next set of holes begins with a serpentine creek and ends with a boomerang. The par-3 13th is a unique little one-shotter over the water to a green partially obscured by a hillside. The dogleg left 14th asks players to take on the creek again off the tee. The bold are rewarded with a shorter approach into the difficult putting surface. The par-5 15th plays up over a rise and then to a beautifully set green inspired by MacKenzie and Maxwell’s work at UofM and Crystal Downs.
From both everyday and championship perspectives, the closing holes at Crooked Stick are grand. The 16th comes back over the fairway hump and then down into a modified biarritz green with water right. The 17th is a stout three par that demands a well judged and executed tee ball from an elevated box exposed to the wind. Various forms of disaster await misses on either side, or long. The home hole angles right around the lake to a big green with an amphitheater setting in the shadow of the clubhouse. Holing out, it’s not hard to imagine the crowd roar cascading down the hillsides. A special finish to a special course.
Pete and Alice Dye had a vision for a pure golf club, a place where kindred spirits could come together to share in camaraderie and the joy of the game. In turning their dream into a reality at Crooked Stick, they not only achieved their goals for the club, but they created a course that sits among the most historically important to golf architecture in America. As a bridge between eras, a jumping off point for so many careers in design, and a window into a hall of fame designer’s mind, Crooked Stick is worthy of its place among the all-time greats.
Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf