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STEAM SHOVEL SCULPTING AT MAXINKUCKEE

The fourth edition of this season’s Upping My Dye-Q Series speculates on the influence of Langford & Moreau’s work at Maxinkuckee Country Club on the Dyes

In order to truly understand and appreciate the work of an architect, it is necessary to look at their sources of inspiration. After all, there are very few (if any) completely original ideas in art or science. Contemporary practitioners are always building upon or reacting to their forebears, and their work is therefore linked to the past.

Pete Dye brought to his craft several different influences which were touched on in the second edition of this series which looked at French Lick. It is not hard to imagine how The Old Course, Pinehurst #2 or Camargo would make an impact on a budding designer—each course is brilliant in its own way with a story to tell about form and function. But there is a far less likely source of inspiration that Alice O’Neal Dye added into the mix that was just as important in terms of both aesthetics and methods. By bringing Pete to her family’s vacation town of Culver, IN and exposing him to the work of William Langford and Theodore Moreau at the Culver Academies course and Maxinkuckee Country Club, she cemented the bold approach that would epitomize the pair’s courses for years to come.

The Little Club on the Lake

A short drive south from South Bend, IN is a lake named Maxinkuckee and on that lake is a town called Culver. Not exactly remote, but certainly out of the way. Like many towns throughout the Midwest, Culver is known for its natural, bucolic beauty, attracting residents and vacationers to its quiet life of recreation since the mid-19th century. What makes this town quite a bit different than most is that it is also home to Culver Academies, a world-class boarding school, and its associated summer camp.

The Academies had a grand plan to build a resort with 36 holes of golf designed by Chicago architect William Langford and his partner Theodore Moreau. The first nine opened in 1920, showcasing the duo’s magnificent architecture on a piece of land that is half open, half wooded and rolling throughout. Sadly, the additional 27 holes would never be completed.

The home hole at Culver Academies

At the same time, just down the road, the membership at Maxinkuckee Country Club was catching the golf bug. They built a rudimentary little course on a hillside parcel of land with a creek meandering through it and began play in 1921. Culver being a small town, those early golfers were well aware of Langford’s work and when it came time to expand their course, they naturally turned to the Chicagoan. Five holes were added, the others refined, and by 1925 play was in full swing on the course that would remain largely unchanged until decades later when the Dyes enjoyed and were inspired by it.

The Course

The first three holes at Maxinkuckee are not anything special by country golf standards, save a few noticeable flourishes on and around the greens. Upon reaching the tee at the par-3 4th with its contoured green set in a stand of old-growth trees, Langford devotees begin to get a sense that their perseverance will be rewarded. Players walk up to the top of the ridge that separates the two sections of the site, and from the 5th through the 8th, Maxinkuckee delivers a shot of bold features to the vein on par with Harrison Hills, Spring Valley and Kankakee Elks. Any person with even a passing interest in architecture or engineering has to stand and marvel at these creations and wonder, how did they do this? Pete’s Dye’s interest was much greater than passing, and he must have been enthralled.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

Sculpting with a Steam Shovel

There is something that just looks right about the forms that William Langford and Theodore Moreau built, epitomized by courses like Lawsonia Links and West Bend. It’s a subtle elegance that complements the bold style, striking a perfect balance on a natural landscape. After my first visit to Maxinkuckee, with the “how” question still burning in my mind, intriguing hints were delivered from two trusted sources.

First, Ian Gilley of Sugarloaf Social Club posted this aerial photo of the outstanding 5th hole with its green seemingly extended out onto a peninsula.

It is as stunning from the ground as it is from the air.

Second, Derek Duncan discussed Langford and Moreau and their approach to steam shovel architecture with Kye Goalby on the Feed the Ball podcast. Goalby is the consulting architect at West Bend Country Club and he said, “The first time I tried to build the Langford bunkers, I failed miserably…I started looking up steam shovels online and you start seeing how a steam shovel works.” He went on to explain in detail the difference between the function of an excavator, with its bucket facing and digging down, and a steam shovel with its upward facing bucket and extending arm.

Returning to Ian’s photo and Google Earth a flash of insight hit illuminating how Langford and Moreau went about their work. Although they had the might of the steam shovel at their disposal, like any skilled builders, they would have sought to conserve effort while producing the best possible holes. Sculptors fundamentally have two distinct methods from which to choose—start with a block and chisel, or build the form up from scratch—and both were brilliantly used to create Maxinkuckee’s 5th and 6th holes.

The 6th tee, the approach and green on the 5th, and a portion of the 7th fairway run diagonally along high ground.

The steam shovel, which rotates in an arc from a stationary base, was positioned at various points to carve away from the higher ground, creating the peninsula on which the 5th green sits. This was equivalent to chiseling a statue out of a block of granite. Some of the shoveled material was likely used to build the green and its surrounds up even higher to increase the scale.

The bulk of the material was moved to build the pad and surrounds for the 6th green, pushing it up significantly from the existing topography, in much the same way that a sculptor would build up a statue using lumps of clay. Once built, refinements were made with hand labor.

The artist’s vision was combined with the engineer’s efficiency to produce two green sites of equal greatness.

Pete Dye did not have YouTube to search for steam shovel videos like Kye Goalby and I did, but he would have noticed the features and landforms, leading a mind like his to ponder the how and why of it. His curiosity and willingness to tinker in the field was critical as he and Alice were often tasked with creating courses on less than ideal sites. It is one thing to be able to envision or sketch a hole. Figuring out how to build that hole is entirely another matter. Over the decades, the Dyes proved their genius in both aspects of the craft. Their tools were the excavator and bulldozer instead of the steam shovel, but their charge was the same as the architects who inspired them at places like Maxinkuckee—sculpt the earth to create compelling golf that stands the test of time.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf