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Course Design and Green Fees

Dermot Gilleece talks to Pete Dye, legendary course designer

Posted Apr 17, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

harbour town

It is always a treat to return to Harbour Town, and last weekend was no exception.  Apart from the charming setting, there was rich evidence that Pete Dye’s wonderful design skills show no sign of succumbing to new technology.  By leading the critical statistics of greens in regulation and putting, Carl Pettersson was indisputably the best golfer in the field.  And he won by five strokes.

With tight, tree-framed fairways and unusually small greens, Dye set an examination back in 1968 which is just as relevant today.  And we will see further examples of his enduring skills when the Players Championship fills its customary slot at TPC Sawgrass in a few weeks and when the PGA Championship is staged for the first time on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in August.

Though very different layouts, all three courses include a particular favourite design feature of Dye’s in the form of a par-three 17th.  The island green at Sawgrass, of course, has become an iconic element of the PGA Tour.  And those of us of a certain age, will recall the wonderful drama which the forbidding, short 17th at Kiawah created in the Ryder Cup of 1991, when it came into tournament play for the first time.

Sadly, Dye has never designed a golf course on the European side of the pond.  In fact the only work of significance he has done outside the US has been in the Dominican Republic where he did three courses in the Casa de Campo complex, the most dramatic being the famous Teeth of the Dog.  Interestingly, this is his favourite layout because of the significant revenue it has generated for the local community.   Regarding this magnificent golfing stretch, he said:  "The Man Upstairs built 10 holes, which meant I had only to build the other eight. But what really warms me is that there wasn't even a paved road when I went down there; now, 50,000 people have jobs as a result of golf."

Environmentalists, who can be a lot more extreme than Dye when promoting their particular viewpoint, might do well to consider such factors before condemning golf-course developments in these parts.  They might note that the Stadium Course at Sawgrass was once a Florida swamp and that the amazing Whistling Straits, scene of the 2010 PGA Championship, was once featureless land on the shores of Lake Michigan.

In a chat we had, Dye expressed his disappointment at how costly golf has become, largely because of an unrealistic emphasis on the condition of courses.  "While the spread of golf has been unbelievable, so has the increase in the cost of green-fees,” he said. "I hate to see this happen. Average green-fees should be from $35 to $50 dollars at most.  But here's the problem: rising costs have to do with the way we're maintaining courses nowadays.  I've been screaming about this but nobody appears to be listening."

He explained: "It seems like everybody these days is talking about green speeds.  I heard talk of a green speed of 12 during the first PGA at Whistling Straits (2004).  Ben Hogan won the US Open at Oakmont in 1953 on the fastest greens in the history of the United States and if they had a Stimpmeter at the time, those greens would probably have measured about five or six.

"Augusta National have a lot to answer for.  With a budget that would choke a mule, they present their course in superb condition for the Masters each year.  And every greens chairman from Milwaukee to New Orleans is looking at it on TV and wants to know why his own greenkeeper can't do the same.  So the greenkeeper does it to keep his job and maintenance costs go sky-high.

"When you cut greens low, you eliminate grain which should be part of the game of golf.  Professionals have a harder time putting on greens of seven or eight than they do on the really fast ones. On slow greens, you could have three different speeds, downgrain, up-grain and cross-grain, to contend with.  With mowers now costing $20,000, there's no question but that you could slash maintenance costs if you reduced the speed of greens.  It's like everything else in golf.  The demand comes from club members and their officers looking at the big events on television."  

He concluded: "If speeds of eight or nine were accepted as the tournament norm, a lot of grain will come into the greens,  which would be a gift to the good players.  But the real bonus would be that the cost of maintaining those greens would nose-dive."

Meanwhile, we have Harbour Town in all its tournament splendour. And you feel it it would be a crime if somebody started counting the cost.

- Dermot Gilleece

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