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HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT – CROOKED STICK

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.

Revisionist History

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.

The Course

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.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

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


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THE MAN, THE MYTH – KYLE HEGLAND & SAND HILLS

Sand Hills Golf Club was more a myth than a real place for me.  Located in Nebraska, Coore & Crenshaw’s modern masterpiece sparked a golf architecture renaissance that has fueled my passion for the subject, and the game itself.  I had heard stories that one could write a polite letter to Sand Hills’s owner, Mr. Youngscap, that might result in a once-per-life invite to visit.  Not sure whether or not that was true, I hadn’t mustered up the courage to give it a shot.

While sharing holes from my Coore & Crenshaw’s Great 18 post on Twitter, people kept bringing up Sand Hills.  My repeated response was, “I can’t include that hole because I haven’t played it yet.”

And then I got the message.

Superintendent Kyle Hegland reached out and invited me to come to Mullen to make the myth a reality.  I remember sitting in front of my laptop for a minute, both dumbfounded and elated.  At the end of the following summer, my day came.  As much as I built the course up, it more than exceeded expectations.  My September to Remember post is a fuller expression of my thoughts with photos.  Here, I will simply say, Sand Hills is perfect.

Several things caused me to reach out to Kyle recently (on Twitter at @KyleHegland3) with a message of my own.  First, I listened to his terrific interview with Andy Johnson on The Fried Egg Podcast.  Second, a trickle of Sand Hills photos has been coming out from Jon Cavalier since his 2017 visit, and I was looking for an excuse to see a whole batch of them together.  And finally, Kyle is a stellar dude who does great work, and I was hoping that he would let me put him in the spotlight.  He graciously agreed to answer my questions, as well as provide hole-by-hole commentary.  As always, generous to a fault.

Enjoy Kyle’s thoughts and Jon’s photos.  If you have not already been, I hope that some day, the Sand Hills myth becomes reality for you too.


THE INTERVIEW

How did you get introduced to the game of golf?

I loved baseball when I was younger and I needed a job that would allow me to make it to my afternoon Babe Ruth baseball games.  Plus, I had a couple buddies who thought working on a golf course would be cool.  I took a job on the grounds crew at Edelweiss Country Club in New Glarus, Wisconsin.  I had never played golf until I started working there.   It did not take long before I was playing pretty regularly.

When did you know that the game had a hold on you?

I knew the game had firm grasp on me when I started planning all my leisure time around seeing more golf courses.  Not always playing but if it was old and interesting then I wanted to see it.

How did you get into the business?

I started working on a golf course in high school.  I grew up in rural south western Wisconsin, and the only thing I really knew was that I did not want to be a dairy farmer.  My Granddad was a dairy farmer and he would have gotten a kick out of the fact that I am basically a glorified farmer.  After a couple summers at Edelweiss CC my boss asked me if I ever thought about being a Superintendent.  At the time I did not even know what a Superintendent was.  After some time, research, and soul searching I decided I was “all in”, headed to Michigan State to study Turfgrass Management, and here I am.

Who have been your biggest influences, in and out of golf?

Inside the game of golf, I have been really fortunate to have Dick Youngscap and Doug Petersan as my biggest influences.  These two men have shaped me so much both personally and professionally, and I am forever indebted to them both.  I believe I worked hard to get to where I am today.  With that said I have been incredibly lucky to have such great mentors who challenged me, pushed me, but ultimately wanted me to succeed.

My mother is an amazing lady, who always encouraged me to be myself.  Without her love, support and encouragement I never would have had the confidence and strength to move halfway across the country to pursue my dreams.

Who is your favorite Golden Age architect, and why?

For reasons I cannot fully explain I have always been really enamored with Seth Raynor, maybe because it is just too cliché to say Dr Mackenzie.  I love how Raynor’s style seems to still fit into the landscape in an entirely different way than Dr. Mackenzie’s.  I think you can love Chicago Golf Club and how that fits your eye, and turn the page and marvel at Cypress Point.  Truth is I need so see more of the Simpson’s, Langford’s, and Macan’s that the world has to offer.

Where were you before Sand Hills, and what were some of your key takeaways from those experiences?

I was lucky enough to go work for Doug Petersan at Austin Golf Club (AGC).  I started as a lowly intern and left as Doug’s Assistant.  Prior to my arrival at AGC I had never worked with warm season grasses.  Couple that with bentgrass greens in the deep south and it proved to be a wonderful learning experience.  Doug always pushed me to ask questions and solve problems, I was pretty lucky to have such a great learning environment.

What particular challenges does your course create from a maintenance perspective?

Let me state this very clearly, the climate at Sand Hills during the golf season is pretty ideal for a Superintendent, and believe me, that is not lost on me.  With that said the biggest challenge is the wind and large temperature swings.  The large fluctuations in temperature can be detrimental to turfgrass especially in the winter, as our biggest challenge each year is getting through the winter and into the growing season.  The wind is just relentless.  There are few places as consistently windy as we are, and it can be particularly damaging in the winter.  Our bunkers are natural blowouts for the most part and in the winter the wind can really do some damage.

Why do you think it’s important for a Superintendent to be a student of golf course architecture?

I think it is!  I am not saying you have to be a full-blown golf architecture dork but if you have a general understanding of golf architecture it will only help you be a better Superintendent.  I encourage anyone in the golf industry to pick up a few books on architecture – it’s simple, it’s inexpensive and I guarantee that it will help everyone understand the game a little better, which I think makes you a better Superintendent.  A Superintendent can also do themselves a favor and just play more golf.  It really helps with understanding golf and golf architecture.

What do you wish players understood more about the work you do?

I think for the most part Superintendents are a little too hard on golfers.  What I think is tough to understand is how much work goes into keeping the playing surfaces consistent.  The weather is constantly changing.  If it has been hot and dry, it is pretty easy to keep the surfaces firm and fast.  It is much more difficult to do that after a rain event.  Playability is the engine that drives our philosophy here at Sand Hills.  We work really hard to make sure Ben and Bill’s vision is on display as much as possible, but if mother nature wants to mess that up…. well… she is still undefeated last I checked.

What do you love most about practicing your craft?

Watching the sun come up, knowing you have the golf course dialed in – that is pretty special.  What I really love is how unpredictable each day can be, as a Superintendent you are forced to make all kinds of decisions and rarely have all the variables.  We think that we are pretty good problem solvers here and that gets challenged every day.  I love that challenge.

Which course(s) do you most want to see next?

There are few things I like more than seeing a golf course for the first time – it’s enchanting.  I have never been to the north east and Myopia and Old Sandwich are right at the top for golf courses I want to see.  At Austin Golf Club, there are three pictures of Australian sand belt courses in the maintenance facility.  I have dreamed about seeing those places too many times to count, so heading to Australia (and surrounding Islands) is probably at the very top of the list.

Other than Sand Hills, if you could only play one course for the rest of your life, what would it be, and why?

If we’re talking just about the golf course, then it is pretty easy for me to say National Golf Links.  That place just fits my personality, my game and I am pretty confident it would keep me interested for the rest of my life.

Any exciting projects on the horizon for you?

We are just about done with our major bunker work that we started about six years ago.  We have done it all in house and are really proud of that.  Other then that we have some really exciting news on the horizon but I am not at liberty to share just yet, so you will have to stay tuned.

When you aren’t working or playing golf, how do you spend your time?

I have a lovely wife (Ashely) and two kids (Riley who’s 9 and Carson who is 5) that keep me pretty busy as a husband and father.  We love being outdoors and playing pretty much any and all sports.  If the weather is good we get to the lake as much as possible.  Living in a small community we are also dedicated Mullen Bronco fans and enjoy watching our boys and girls compete during the school year.


SAND HILLS GOLF CLUB

There are many reasons why Sand Hills is a 108 in 48er for me.  Chief among them is the strength of the holes throughout, as well as the walkability of the routing.  Sand Hills flows, from the first tee to the eighteenth green.

Beyond Mr. Youngscap, Bill Coore, and Ben Crenshaw, nobody knows Sand Hills better than Kyle.  His hole-by-hole commentary follows.

HOLE #1 – Par 5 – 521 yards

A ridiculously underrated golf hole, you can get away with a couple loose or misplaced shots until you get ready for your third shot.  Mishit that shot and you will pay dearly for it.  A severely tilted back to front green – above the pin can be diabolical.

 

HOLE #2 – Par 4 – 368 yards

Swallow your pride and get a tee shot into the fairway so you can place your approach shot onto the proper tier of this two-tiered green.  The wildest of the green complexes on property, if you miss the proper tier, a two putt is a great escape.  Not golf related, take time to head to the northwest corner of the green surround.  This is one of my favorite places to collect my thoughts.  If you don’t think you can spare the minute for reflection, then you need more than a minute.

 

HOLE #3 – Par 3 – 216 yards

Always plays a little longer than the yardage and often is into a breeze.  When the wind is at your back play it safe and leave it on the left side, but don’t be long.

 

HOLE #4 – Par 4 – 409 yards

Smash your drive and then execute a precise approach.  A difficult green to hit, especially downwind.  Miss to the right and not the left on your approach as a massive blowout guards this green.

 

HOLE #5 – Par 4 – 387 yards

Do me a favor and play this from the “super” back tee at least once on a visit.  This might be the most strategic tee shot on the golf course.  You have places to miss but you are rewarded for a drive that hugs the right side, while avoiding the bunkers.  Your reward is a clear look at the green – a green that I marvel at daily.  Keep your shot on the same side of the spine as the flag and make a birdie.

 

HOLE #6 – Par 3 – 198 yards

A massive green dominates the view.  A ball on the proper quadrant is ideal, short and left is way better off than short-right.  If you are long, make sure the pin is in the back or you’re going to stare at a big number.

 

HOLE #7 – Par 4 – 283 yards

Left is dead, especially if the pin is in the front, so put your driver away and hit something in the fairway and let your wedge game get you a birdie.  The massive blowout bunker dominates your sight and psyche – stay away and you’ll be fine.  If you’re feeling like a stud hit driver, just don’t miss and do not go long.

 

HOLE #8 – Par 4 – 293 yards

From the member tee’s I think it is actually pretty easy.  Hit a driver and see what happens.  Guarded almost completely by bunkers, use the kick boards short to make the approach easier.  If you’re playing from the back tee, it’s pretty straightforward.  Get a tee shot in the fairway and depending on where the pin is, you now have literally a million options depending on where the pin is and how creative you can be.

 

HOLE #9 – Par 4 – 371 yards

A devil of a hole, and the only blind tee shot we have.  Take a little off your tee shot and get one in the fairway.  The 9th green is diabolical, no one has hit more putts on this green than me and it still confuses me frequently.  Side note is if there are people on the porch I can all but assure you they are betting on whether or not you’re going to make that putt.

 

HOLE #10 – Par 4 – 426 yards

The tenth is a brute….club up on your second shot and hit it up the left side and let the natural contours funnel the ball to the green.

 

HOLE #11 – Par 4 – 348 yards

A very strategic hole where hitting the fairway is essential to hitting the green with your approach.  This green is very exposed and when the wind is up can be a real challenge to putt while also playing the wind.  A green that is often missed, it’s better to be short and safe than long and dead.

 

HOLE #12 – Par 4 – 354 yards

A “hog’s back” fairway that is easily hit, a premium is placed on keeping your shot on the top of the hog’s back, being rewarded with a clear view of the green.  A large green guarded by a fierce blowout on the right side.

 

HOLE #13 – Par 3 – 185 yards

What I think is the most difficult hole on the golf course, a large green with not a lot of safe play options.  Getting the ball up the hill to have a clear view of the putting surface is ideal.

 

HOLE #14 – Par 5 – 475 yards

My favorite hole.  A short par 5 that really can be an easy 5 and an even easier 6 or 7.  A long tee shot is greatly rewarded, but do me a favor and just lay it safely short and left of the green side bunker, to ensure a great opportunity at birdie.  Be aggressive and miss and you will pay dearly for a poorly struck shot to a tiny green.

 

HOLE #15- Par 4 – 453 yards

The back tee offers another of my favorite views of the golf course.  Lots of room to hit your tee ball but a massive reward if you can hug the right side that is guarded by bunkers.  A large green that is easy to miss, if you’re just short of the green use a putter.

 

HOLE #16 – Par 5 – 563 yards

Another of my favorite spots to sit awaits on the back tee box.  A great tee shot must clear the blowout on the left side on this long down hill par 5 that plays long.  I love the tiny mound that guards the front of the unbunkered green – it’s maddeningly fun to try to navigate.  On your green approach use the slope and kickboard on the left to help you funnel your shot to the green.

 

HOLE #17 – Par 3 – 150 yards

A pretty little par 3!  Club up and make sure you get it to the green – any mishit will offer a great opportunity at bogey on this little devil.

 

HOLE #18 – Par 4 – 432 yards

A brute of a closer,  with the massive blowouts on the left which are as visually appealing as they are strategic.  If you leave a shot in either it’s worth a shot at best.  Play it up the right side and a little longer than you think and let the natural contours bring the ball down to the green.

 


Additional Geeked On Golf Interviews:

 

 

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf