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Crooked Stick Golf Club: Pete and Alice Dye's True Home

book-coverNext week, the U.S. Senior Open commences at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, IN. This is a perfect time to place the course and club in the spotlight, and all the more so given the recent publication of Chris Wirthwein’s definitive club history.

The great golf architects often have one course so close to their heart that they make it their home. For Alister MacKenzie it was Pasatiempo. For Donald Ross, Pinehurst #2. And for Pete Dye, the father of modern golf architecture, it’s Crooked Stick.

Wirthwein, an advertising executive and former sports reporter, has done a tremendous job of bringing this colorful story to life. In joining us for a Q&A, he shows how Dye did practically everything short of selling hot dogs at the turn to make the course and club a success.

For more information or to purchase the book, please visit crookedstickbook.com.

O&B: You describe Crooked Stick as “one of Pete Dye’s lesser known works, yet it is perhaps the course that has more Dye in it than any other.” Why is that the case?

CW: Lesser known of his “well known” works might be more accurate. And I think that’s why many people don’t realize the extent of Pete and his wife Alice’s involvement with Crooked Stick. We all know it’s common for a designer to be hired by a landowner or developer, etc. to create a course for that person or entity. That wasn’t the case at all with Crooked Stick. It was Pete’s idea from start to finish, and he’s still actively involved to this day. But let’s go back to the beginning.

It was the early 1960s, and the idea of creating a true golfer’s club in Indianapolis (Alice’s hometown, and Pete’s adopted one) had been rattling around in Pete’s mind for a few years. The Dyes were accomplished amateur players, well known on both the regional and national level. They played their golf at Country Club of Indianapolis (a 1914 Tom Bendelow design, later revised by Bill Diddel and also Pete Dye).

And while the golf was good, CCI was a “Country Club”—swimming pool, tennis courts, Friday night dances. It wasn’t Pete and Alice’s idea of a true golfer’s club. So Pete began looking for land and thinking about a way to bring a new club into being. It took him several years, but he rounded up the land all by himself, by knocking on doors out in the country and signing options to buy with the farm owners. The particulars of this part of the story are fascinating to me and I describe them in detail in the book.

1Once he had the options, Pete hatched a scheme to raise the money to buy the land and build the course—this time with a small group of like-minded golfers. He and Alice then commissioned a course drawing (pictured left) and Pete went around town, drawing in hand, rounding up commitments of $6,000 a piece. (The method was the very same one used by Bobby Jones at Peachtree in Atlanta in 1945.) Once he hit a target number of investors, a bank loan was secured to pay for construction. Pete staked out the routing, then literally hopped on a tractor and did much of the shaping (discarding the earlier drawing) and doing it by eyeball and feel. That was forty-five years ago, in 1964.

To this day, he spends most of his time (when not out designing courses) at Crooked Stick. He and Alice live on the 18th hole and every day Pete’s in town, you’ll find him walking the course with his dog, Sixty. Alice still plays and loves the game as much as ever. In fact, I had lunch with her ten days ago and she was giddy having just shot one stroke better than her age (an 81).

Pete knows every inch of the place. He hits balls on the range. And he spends a heck of a lot of time with Superintendent Kirk Richmond. You’ll see them out roaming the course eyeballing things all the time. You know he’s thinking something. At 84 he never stops thinking about the place. Crooked Stick is Pete Dye and Pete Dye is Crooked Stick. From the day he conceived of it right up to today, Crooked Stick is a constant part of his life and work.

O&B: This is one of Dye’s earlier courses. Architects without much of a track record sometimes face unusual obstacles and/or employ unorthodox working methods to get the job done—were there any examples of this at Crooked Stick?

CW: When he began building Crooked Stick, Pete had about ten courses under his belt. And he’ll be the first to tell you he was by no means an expert at his craft. So “unorthodox” is a fair description of how he built the course. What surprised me as I spent time with Pete was how simple and practical his approach was. For instance, when I asked him how he decided on the routing for the back nine (which he built first) here’s what he said (I’m paraphrasing a bit): “I started in the woods and went down the field to where there was a big tree. I stopped there and put a green. Then I turned and went the other way. I figured I better work my way around the perimeter and end up back where I started, so that’s what I did.” That approach typifies how he created Crooked Stick—no blueprints, no maps—he made it up as he went along. Same thing with the front nine.

Except for one man, his crew was made up of vagabond farm workers who had never built a golf course. The earth moving equipment was borrowed from a guy who was new to the business—and even he didn’t know how to operate it—so he let Pete and his crew practice with it. Pete even practiced his technique for shaping humps and rolls in the fairway in the front yard of his home. He ripped up the yard and ran around on a tractor with a farm disc on the back—with Alice’s blessing. In the book, I walk the reader through the course construction, hole-by-hole. Most holes at Crooked Stick have something goofy or unusual in the way Pete built them.

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O&B: Pete and Alice Dye’s trip to Scotland in 1963 has been well-documented, and that experience would have been fresh in their minds when they returned to Indianapolis. How did they translate the links concepts they learned about to an inland setting, and in general, which features at Crooked Stick are most reminiscent of the Scottish game?

CW: Initially, the course had very few trees. The land Pete bought was mostly bare, flat farm ground (the 1966 news clip pictured left shows the club’s rustic beginnings.) And with a slim construction budget, few trees (if any) were planted. That certainly gave it a stark, Scottish look that was shocking to some people in the early days. And I think Pete and Alice knew it was visually shocking. “We desperately wanted people to like it,” is what Alice told me. The treelessness also brought the wind into play more so than on the tree-lined courses that were popular at the time.

Humps, rolls and swales in the fairways were another Scottish feature Pete tried to emulate. It’s common to end up in the middle of a fairway at Crooked Stick and have a less than perfect stance over the ball. You get subtle sidehills, downhills, uphills in many of the fairways. Numbers 1, 7, 9, 14 and 18 are good examples of this. And remember, many of these hills and hummocks were shaped by Pete himself. Although it can be frustrating sometimes while you’re playing, it’s also fun to think about Pete on the tractor as you stand over the ball in a bit of a contorted stance.

O&B: In your book, you also cite the Camargo Club, a 1920s Seth Raynor design in suburban Cincinnati, as having an influence on Dye’s thinking at Crooked Stick. How so?

CW: Pete, an Ohio native, played a lot of amateur golf at Camargo. Looking at pictures of Camargo—  I’ve never played it—I get hints of Crooked Stick. Greens pushed up out of the ground. Deep greenside bunkers. The big, wide open feel. You see all those features at Crooked Stick as well. Pete still talks often of Camargo—the golf course and the club. I think he very much liked the feel of the place. The emphasis was on golf—not parties, dances, etc.

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Echoes of the Golden Age: Crooked Stick's fifth green

O&B: What’s your take on Pete Dye’s evolution as an architect? Do you see significant differences between his early courses (Crooked Stick, The Golf Club) and his post-Sawgrass works?

CW: I’ve played many of Pete’s courses, and I don’t know any of them as well as I know Crooked Stick. However, one thing I know from working with Pete on this book project is that he is a borrower. For instance, at Crooked Stick, he’ll tell you there were only two greens on the course when it opened that weren’t copies or replicas of something he had seen elsewhere. He was and is a big admirer of MacKenzie, Ross and Raynor. And he used their ideas in his work, certainly in the early days. Yet from an evolution point of view, it might be fair to say that over time, Pete’s own ideas began to flourish and take shape—yet still in the context of a feeling he had experienced elsewhere. At Whistling Straits, for instance, you get an Irish or Scottish feel as interpreted by Pete Dye. It isn’t a dead-ringer copy anymore.

I will say that The Golf Club and Crooked Stick seem more subtle to me, perhaps, than some of his later, more dramatic work.

41O&B: To track back to an earlier question: A course that has a lot of Pete Dye in it is bound to have a lot of Alice in it, too. How does the course set up for the women’s game–both for day-to-day and tournament play?

CW: Pete and Alice want their courses to be playable for all everyone, yet hard for the very best players. Alice was truly a high level amateur player, but she also recognized that few women could compete at her level. No question she puts in her two cents worth with Pete as he builds a course. Also, most people don’t know that Crooked Stick had several women among its founding members.

Along with Alice and Pete, Crooked Stick had accomplished players in the early days. Together, they all wanted holes that challenged the top players—men and women. They wanted the best golf course around, not a country club. Yet Pete and Alice were practical as well. A course that was too hard would soon have few members. So they gave beginners and less accomplished players a way to play the game on their courses.

On most holes at a Pete Dye course, you won’t find forced carries. Pete and Alice give high handicappers a way to roll the ball onto the greens. And at Crooked Stick in particular, they provide generous driving areas. They do narrow a bit for the better players, but they are still quite generous. Crooked Stick gets hard for the accomplished player as you approach the green. You’ve got to know how to work the ball into the correct places on the green—and avoid some nasty up-and-downs when you miss. You must know when to avoid a pin and where to miss. I play to about a 2 or 3 handicap and mostly what I think about at Crooked Stick is where I want to miss. (Maybe that’s why I’m not scratch!)

5O&B: Which hole (or sequence of holes) do you believe best express the course’s essential qualities?

CW: I think the stretch of holes from 12 to 14 truly capture the flavor of Crooked Stick and the genius of Pete Dye.

Twelve (pictured left) is a 424-yard par four from the championship tee. It’s a hole I’ve never seen before or since. It almost defies description, but I’ll try. Imagine a huge fairway with a hill almost like a banked track occupying the right side. Left of the fairway is an expanse of rough. And that’s where you must aim your tee shot. You’ve got to aim at the rough—and then carry it—to have any chance at a level lie and a look at the green with your second shot. It’s positively disorienting. You see this huge fairway, but that’s not where you’re supposed to hit it. Fabulous!

Thirteen is a short par three, 182 yards from the back. It looks benign, but it’s not. A creek in front. Tall trees surrounding the green. Swirling winds that constantly shift direction, before, during and after your swing. And a green that moves off in both directions from a spine that runs through the middle. There’s even a front left hole location that hides most of the pin from the player teeing off. A beauty.

Fourteen was going to be a replica of MacKenzie’s par five 13th at Augusta, but Pete ran out of room and had to settle for a long par four (483 yards from the back). Shaped like a boomerang, the hole demands a long (and bold) tee shot that carries the creek, or you can bail out safely to the right and face a 200-230+ yard shot to a modified Biarritz-style green with an impossibly small front shelf that tumbles into a valley, only to rise up again at the back. Getting the ball close to this pin happens very rarely. It’s a hard par, and birdies are a near-automatic skin with the guys I play with. Great hole.

3O&B: The club hosted the 1991 PGA Championship (John Daly’s coming-out party) and is now gearing up to host the 2009 US Senior Open. Given that the club has hosted a major before, and that the USGA and PGA of America seldom “share” championship venues, is there a sense that the Senior event is a “test run” for a future US Open?

CW: I don’t have “inside” information on this. (I’m just the club historian.) But I think it’s a fair bet to say the USGA is checking out Crooked Stick as a potential US Open site. No Pete Dye course has hosted one. Those who know Crooked Stick, who understand what it means to the golf world and how special it is to Pete and Alice, see it as a fitting place for the National Championship. In the book I talk about Crooked Stick’s quest for an Open. For many years, the club was quite active and open in its pursuit of it. If they are actively pursuing it, they are certainly more reserved in the way they’re doing it.

O&B: Sometimes one of the most rewarding things about researching projects like this, poring over old archives, etc., is unearthing some little anecdote or tidbit of information that’s surprising or amusing, even if you’re not sure how it fits into the scope of the project (if at all). Did you encounter anything like this in the process of writing this history?

CW: A couple of things stand out. First is the realization that the course really hasn’t changed a whole lot since it was created. This may surprise many people and I know there are plenty of folks who would vehemently disagree with me about this. The standard rap on Crooked Stick is that Pete has monkeyed with it too much, that he won’t leave well enough alone. Here are the facts: Other than the first tee and the greens on 17 and 18, the layout and main features of the course are very much the same as they were when the course opened for play (the back nine in 1965, the front nine in 1967). Yes, Pete has added bunkers. Yes, he’s stretched holes and built spectator mounds and elevated some of the tees and made the lake on 18 bigger. But as far as the big stuff is concerned, this golf course is the same one that was played 45 years ago.

cs-logo-349465One thing from Pete amuses me every time I think about it. I don’t think it has much to do with anything so I didn’t put it in the book, but it makes me laugh. Here goes… For some reason Pete is obsessed with the fact that Crooked Stick’s logo shows a crooked golf club. This irritates him to no end and it doesn’t take much to get him agitated about the subject. As I sit here, I can almost hear Pete grousing as he jabs at the club logo: “That’s not a crooked stick. That’s a crooked club. What in the world are we doing with a crooked club for a logo? The name of this place is Crooked Stick, not Crooked Club.” It bugs him, but I doubt if the club will ever change it.

There will never be another Pete Dye—he’s one of a kind. He dreams up golf courses in his head, and then builds them on the fly. He does things his own way. He’s a charming, effusive and utterly entertaining genius who’s put forty-five years of his heart and soul into Crooked Stick. Maybe we ought to cut him some slack and change that logo! •

(Photos courtesy of Chris Wirthwein/Crooked Stick Golf Club.)

The view from Pete and Alice's porch.

The view from Pete and Alice's porch.

Discussion

One comment for “Crooked Stick Golf Club: Pete and Alice Dye's True Home”

  1. Great interview. I look forward to reading the book.

    Posted by Gregg Vincent | October 5, 2009, 9:05 am

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