“Oak Tree was on the verge of almost being too severe,” said
Dye, 88, in a phone interview. “I worked on some of the greens on the back nine
(which will be holes 1-9 for the championship) a few years ago and slowed them
down so people can putt them. I hope it works out all right for this year.”
One could almost sense a note of concern in Dye’s voice.
Perhaps it’s because he is well acquainted with several of the principals in
the championship, among them the members of the so-called “Oak Tree Gang,” who
are members there – players such as Bob Tway, Scott Verplank, Gil Morgan and Willie
Wood, all of whom are playing something of a “home game” this week.
“I’ve been friendly with them and watched them play through
the years,” said Dye. “I was also a good friend of Ernie Vossler and Joe Walser
Jr., who started that golf course.”
Notebook: Champions Return to Oak Tree
Dye first worked with Vossler and Walser, the founders of
Landmark Land Company, when he designed a course for them at Sedgefield Country
Club in Greensboro, N.C., in 1974. He went on to build Oak Tree National in
1976, then added two more courses at the adjoining Oak Tree Country Club, which
opened in 1981.
“There’s a house out there by the 14th hole [on Oak Tree
National] where my wife [Alice] and I stayed while we built the other two
courses,” said Dye.
When Dye was retained to build Oak Tree, Vossler and Walser
famously asked him to build “a championship course with no compromise.” Oak
Tree hosted the 1984 U.S. Amateur, which was won by Verplank, and the 1988 PGA
Championship, won by Jeff Sluman for his only major victory. Before that PGA, one
golf magazine labeled Oak Tree the hardest golf course in the world, and to
accentuate the label, the club dangled a hangman’s noose from a tree near the
In 1988, Oak Tree played 7,015 yards to a par of 71, and its
USGA Course Rating™ of 76.9 was the highest in the country, along with the
highest possible Slope Rating® of 155. This week, the 50-and-older competitors
will play a course listed at 7,219 yards with a Course Rating of 76.3 and a
Slope Rating of 154 (the Course Rating is 79.3 for members from the back tees).
Sluman, who understandably harbors fond memories of the
place, discussed Oak Tree on Tuesday after his second visit to the course since
winning there 26 years ago.
“It’s going to be a stern but fair test again,” said Sluman,
who said he remembered nearly every shot from his final-round 65 in 1988, which
included holing out for eagle from 115 yards on the fifth hole. “I think there
are a few new tees, but it is the golf course I remember. You’d best know where
you’re hitting it or it’s going to be a long day for you.”
The reason it’s the course that Sluman remembers is that
some changes to the layout that were instituted several years ago have been
undone. Dye returned to Oak Tree and, as he described it, “I put the holes
pretty much back to where they were – and rebuilt the greens.” In 2009, course
architect Tripp Davis completed the bunker, green and the work that Dye started.
As Dye explained it, “When Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open at
Merion [in 1950], the greens measured about a 6 on the Stimpmeter. In 1988, the
Stimpmeter rating was about 9. Today, they want them to be 12, so when I went
back, I modified the greens so they could putt them at 11 or 12. I can tell you,
the first hole was the worst. I built that green and it was terrible – it was
way too severe.”
Dye recently returned to The Golf Club in New Albany, Ohio, another
of his renowned early designs, and did a similar renovation. “It’s the same
golf course, the same holes,” he said, “but the greens and bunkers are modified
so that an average guy can go out and play it. It’ll be a lot more enjoyable;
at least that’s what I hope.”
Dye’s designs have hosted several notable USGA
championships, including the 1998 and 2012 U.S. Women’s Opens (Blackwolf Run in
Kohler, Wis.), the 1994 Women’s Open and the 2009 U.S. Senior Open (Crooked
Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind.), and the 1994 U.S. Amateur (TPC Sawgrass in
Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.). This year, Dye has a USGA trifecta of sorts, with the
U.S. Senior Open being followed by two more championships on his courses in
September: the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur at Harbour Trees Golf Club in
Noblesville, Ind., and the USGA Men’s State Team on the Dye Course at French
Lick (Ind.) Resort.
“I’ll get out there for a day or so at each of the
championships,” said Dye, who is working on several current projects, including
new courses in Charlottesville, Va.; Savannah, Ga.; and Jacksonville, Fla. “I
always love watching a tournament at one of my courses to see what they do.”
Ron Driscoll is the
manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.