EDMOND, Okla. – Perhaps growing older has mellowed even Pete Dye.
The acclaimed – and sometimes reviled – golf course architect known for designs such as TPC Sawgrass, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island and Whistling Straits has earned monikers such as Marquis de Sod and Dye-abolical through five decades of course design. Among his trademark features are small greens, pot bunkers, railroad ties as bulwarks and visual intimidation (see No. 17 at Sawgrass, the famed island-green par 3).
Now hear this: Dye has gone back to rework some of his courses to soften some of the edges and make them more playable, including Oak Tree National, the host site for this week’s U.S. Senior Open.
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.
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 16th green.
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 email@example.com.