Reviews for The Golf Club often include one word more than any other: “subtle.” It’s a term long distasteful to me…as a former music writer, editor, and general writing prick. “Subtle” comes across as a crutch, communicating a realization that one enjoyed what they had just listened to or seen…but were not sure why.
If this pleasure was difficult to define, it must be “subtle.”
The Golf Club was not subtle. In many ways, it is Pete Dye’s least subtle design. It encapsulates the essence of Facebook’s founding mantra, packaged into a golf course architect: Move fast and break things.
But let me give fellow golf course analysts the benefit of the doubt, and assume there’s something to their “subtle” claims. Considering the context, there are certainly homes for “subtle” in golf course architecture. There’s a chance that those last-second breaks during putts at a Ross course are because he created a subtle green, versus a more aggressive one from Travis.
The inevitable comparisons between The Golf Club and the majority of Dye’s career create a contrast that perhaps comes across as relative subtlety. Although some have suggested that Dye’s work at The Golf Club fed into the modern appreciation of “minimalism,” he made the bulk of his money by moving thousands of tons of soil. Among others, Whistling Straits, TPC Sawgrass and Kiawah’s Ocean Course are examples of where Dye took land ill-suited for golf and created a golf course anyway. If you were to argue for the actual “art” in design, Dye would rise near the top for dreaming up both the courses and the landscapes they sit upon.
Accordingly, there is a temptation to describe The Golf Club, the foil for this aesthetic, as “subtle.” The parkland setting certainly seems idyllic compared to the thousand-bunkered monolith at Kohler.
Consider a different context, however. Instead of “Pete Dye’s designs of the ‘90s vs. Pete Dye’s designs of the ‘60s,” look at it in terms of just “Pete Dye during the ‘90s vs. Pete Dye during the ‘60s.” In the former case, you’ve got a guy who was both an established earthmover and earth-shaker, eagerly sought out by plumbing and lumber magnates to build blank-check monuments to the game. He had a brand.
In the latter case, Pete and his wife Alice had laid out the front nine at Crooked Stick, which was not yet enough for an architect to make a name on. Fred Jones bought a huge chunk of land — with less roll than Ohio’s other top-ranked courses — and ended up hiring Dye, largely on account of an acquaintance with the architect’s mother. Although Alice Dye described the club’s founder as a “lovable dictator,” Pete recalled that he was given free rein.
“Mr. Jones told me I was the man, answering only to him, and he wouldn’t bother me at all except to put up the money,” Dye said in an interview for the club’s history.
Jones may have been a fool for such faith. Regardless, the trust in his gut proved priceless. The Golf Club was an eye-opening experience for this enthusiast in a way that no other course has yet been.
Part of this is Dye’s brilliance, and part of it is the inability for most to describe exactly what is so brilliant about The Golf Club (the “subtle” problem). I’ll note that the following few paragraphs are not intended to rebut the “subtle” claims but rather to give more concrete definition to Dye’s approach to creating The Golf Club, after which I’ll present my claims against its alleged subtlety.
As mentioned, “subtle” often comes into use when the explainer is not quite sure what they’re explaining. They’re not wrong for the not-quite-sure; a better adjective for The Golf Club may be “deceiving.”
The optic nerve conducts the conversation between the eyes and the brain, and this dialogue is imperfect. The eye sees what the mind knows cannot be true, yet it struggles to convince the eyes — and the rest of the body — to make a swing accordingly.
The green at No. 10 is not 35 yards wide and it does not sit above a large cross bunker. It is 20 or so yards wide; a kidney bean and not a Raynorian square. The yardage guide tells you all these things. Dye isn’t the first to use smart angling to create deceptive width on a green, but his placement of two short staircases up the berm takes the trick to the next level. These stairs occur only in bunkers elsewhere on the course, and they are positioned precisely to frame what only resembles the entrance to a 35 yard-wide green. I have little doubt that Dye stood 160 yards out from the downward grade and confirmed the location for these staircases as to fulfill his effect.
The par three at No. 8 offers a similar trick. Dye’s first flirtation with a “pseudo-Redan,” the front of the green sits higher than the back level. At the same time, a series of three dammed pools flow into each other from left to right. Gravity insists that the highest of the pools sits at the left, which flows down in the lowest, at the right. And yet the left pool seems even with the lower portion of the green, and the right pool seems to sit even with the rightmost pool. There’s what your rangefinder tells you…and then there’s telling your arms to obey. Mind-muddling.
Granted, that’s an optical illusion that you don’t necessarily realize during your first go-round. It may only impact you subconsciously. I suppose “subtle” may accurately describe such an effect.
But I’m not trying to sell you on The Golf Club as subtle brilliance. I’m trying to sell you on The Golf Club as a big splash from an architect who would become the biggest name in golf course architecture for the second half of the 20th Century.
And those big splashes exist across The Golf Club. Things that the average client simply would not have stood for, and that the average American architect simply would not have vouched for during 1967.
Begin with No. 3, the most photographed hole at the course, with good reason. Dye had gotten his fascination with railway ties — the first of many nods to old-world Scottish design at The Golf Club — rolling at Crooked Stick. He maximized it at No. 3. The left and back of the green are elevated above a bunker by the ties. And then another round of bunkers is stacked at the back of those bunkers, again with ties. It’s a borderline avant-garde aesthetic that Desmond Muirhead likely loved, but there’s a touch of logic to it as well: The bunkers farther from the putting surface are even with the green, which — for me at least — translates to an easier save, versus being down in the depths of the first layer of bunkers. This strategy lends itself to those more likely to miss the green by a wider distance. In other words, people who are worse at golf.
Strategy or not, that I used the term “avant-garde” to describe the hole implies just how bold the design remains. A borderline rookie architect employing a tactic new on these shores…logic suggests Dye would start small…a few planks around a pot bunker here or there. Instead he slathers the special sauce around No. 3, as I did with brown mustard on a blue-cheese burger at lunch (delicious, like everything else at the club).
Speaking of Scottish influence, Fred Jones would have experienced something largely foreign to American golf during the previous hole, teeing off across acres of waste to a blind landing area (another Dye deception: Don’t use the cart path as a target line). Dye hardly introduced blind shots to these shores, yet the practice has never become vogue, even with today’s minimalist furor. During the Robert Trent Jones era? Forget about it. The blind shot was a bold move unto itself, but creating the property’s largest sand complex to frame the fairway’s front tongue…that was a statement.
(A similar effect is created from the left set of tees at No. 15).
And then there’s the sheer scope of the place. The Golf Club opened with a back-tee yardage of 7,300 yards…unimaginable during 1967. That year’s U.S. Open, at Winged Foot, played just 7,015 yards. It’d be one thing if Jones, like many founders to come, asked his architect to build long for the sake of wooing such a tournament, but the bylaws at The Golf Club explicitly state that no events shall be hosted (and held that line when the USGA came calling). Call Dye’s distance foresight or call it audacity. It wasn’t subtle.
No. 14, a 630-yard par five, debuted as the longest hole in the country. For a more vain example of Dye’s boldness, get on Google Maps and check out the same hole. You’ll notice the tee boxes resemble a certain set of initials.
I’ve saved Dye’s final bold play for last, mostly because I’m not a fan. The final hole is a par four of moderate length, requiring a forced carry in the neighborhood of 50 yards across a pond to a long putting surface (which, admittedly, becomes the practice green at the back). One one hand, the forced carry operates in the same light as Tillinghast’s Great Hazard, killing scoring chances for those wayward off the tee. On the other hand, it seems a rather TPC Sawgrass approach to a course that avoided such comparisons over its first 17 holes. It also reflects the Stadium Course glint in its father’s eyes.
It’s tough to believe anyone who remembers walking off that green would choose “subtle” to describe The Golf Club.
But again: Context is everything. A golfer who has played The Golf Club during 2021 can’t be blamed for seeing this parkland property as relatively modest compared to the brutes Dye designed for professional play. And indeed, Dye’s work here required much less muscle on his part. Compare the minimal dirt Dye moved at The Golf Club — often just enough to create an impression of a “raised” green — to the 3 million cubic yards of dirt he moved at Whistling Straits. His championship designs continued to become bigger from this point on, both in terms of yardage and personality, perhaps peaking at the 8,100-yard French Lick during 2009.
But is it truly bold when such a course comes from a name so well-branded? If the result is — dare we say — expected?
The Golf Club may not have the same modern flash, but it reflects the mindset of a man looking to see how many of the rules established by the day’s design norms he could break. The Golf Club was the “big bang” event for a career’s worth of pushing the limits of design (and professionals’ patience).
Tough for me to call that, or Dye’s big moves at The Golf Club, “subtle.”