Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called the “pledge.” A magician shows you something ordinary. A deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see if it’s real, ordinary. But of course it probably isn’t.
Discussing The Golf Club with fellow architecture enthusiasts elicits one word, in my experience, more than any other: “subtle.” This word has long been distasteful to me — a former music publication editor, reviewer, and acknowledged writing prig. “Subtle” is a word I frequently saw used as a crutch, translating the realization that one enjoyed what they had just listened to or seen...but were not sure why. It is easier to describe the flavor behind a Coke because it’s packed full of sugar...a Burgundy wine, on the other hand, well...that’s “subtle” (“robust” is another word I distrust). There’s no need to scrape it from your vocabulary, as there is certainly subtlety to be had in golf course architecture. I have played many fine putting surfaces that are subtle in relation to Walter Travis’s baroque greens. That said, the cynic in me is often on guard when reviewing reviews for The Golf Club; is its status as a World Top 100 truly defined by subtlety? Or do many of us dodge the question of what merits this status, only because we’re not really sure? Is there a chance that many acclaim The Golf Club simply so that they don’t look like fools by taking a risk and going against the grain?
You may recognize my opening paragraph from the film ‘The Prestige.’ If The Golf Club’s greatness was indeed a trick, calling its bluff would require identifying the blind, a distraction that allows a magician to lead rational people into buying irrational results. Many swanky country clubs employ this tactic to distract from ordinary golf via doting staff and delicious dining. Indeed, as a diabetic, the waiter’s offer to provide me “sterilization” supplies following an insulin shot was customer service on a level I’d never experienced anywhere. But I kept my eye on the prize.
And keeping your eye on the prize is exactly where Pete Dye gets you, once you’re finally on the golf course. “Subtlety” is not the word for The Golf Club. The word is “trickery.” The Golf Club operates as a magic trick, and Pete Dye is the magician.
I won’t make you wait for the verdict: The Golf Club is an incredible golfing experience because of this trickery.
A common complaint against The Golf Club is its relatively flat property. It’s an overstated issue. I had planned on a pancake property but ended up getting bacon; maybe not as uneven as a pile of scrambled eggs, but certainly enough roll to satisfy my morning urges. Many holes playing flat are accompanied by Blacklick Creek or other engaging features, such as the top handicapper at No. 6, a pièce de résistance for the switchback strategy Dye adopted from his idol, Donald Ross.
But what to do with No. 10, Dye surely thought to himself. A slight grade down from the tee, through a relatively well-treed portion of property next to the clubhouse. A simple dogleg left could have sufficed...but it also would have been painfully similar to the previous hole (which itself is perhaps the weakest on the property). And so Dye waved his wand. Tee off to a wide fairway and you’ll see an approach to a wide green, clearly raised atop a berm...the twin staircases at either end indicate there must be a rise. Leaving it short is not an option, I told myself. There is a bunker running along the front. But there is not. I had looked at the yardage guide. I had looked at the course on Google Maps. All rational thought pointed to it being a safe layup. I could not convince myself otherwise...the steps mirrored those coming out of The Golf Club’s signature par three — and one of Dye’s signature holes — an intimidating mess of stacked bunkering and railway ties. But once you’ve come to terms with the lack of bunker, you can consider approaching the very wide green, which stretches from the far-left staircase to the far-right, nearly 35 yards. But again, it does not. The green, perhaps 15 yards wide, is angled so that the kidney bean resembles a Raynorian cube from where you stand, considering the next shot. Like Penn and Teller, Pete and Alice Dye know the numbers you are thinking, and they have programmed the course to defy what you know should be.
I could run through a bulleted list, but I’ll stick to two more examples, both water-based. No. 8 is a Dye pseudo-Redan, playing to a green higher at the front, down to a lower platform at the back. Fair enough. But, there are also a series of three dammed pools, flowing downward from left to right. Gravity insists that the highest pool must be at the left, if the waterfalls continue to the right. And yet the lower level of the green appears even with the highest pool, while the higher area of the putting surface seems to sit flat with the right-most pool. Perturbing, especially to those trying to pick a club at the tee. Take a close look at the leftward pond as you approach the green at No. 13 as well. It’s not the fine cocktail from the clubhouse doing this to you, my friend.
Perhaps the “subtlety” everyone sees is a contrast to the Dye they have played before. Like the character played by Hugh Jackman in 'The Prestige,' Dye progressed from these sleight-of-hand tricks to giant, buzzing electro-balls...his visual intimidation defined more by monolithic landscapes than minimalist trickery.
Assessing course design is a cumulative summary of what the architect finds in the landscape and what they conceive by sheer creativity. Some courses, like Riviera, are hailed as masterpieces for the sheer strength of the latter force, weighted down by the former. I would be so bold as to suggest The Golf Club receive similar consideration.
Dye shows you a hole, asks you to inspect it, to make sure its ordinary. But it probably isn't.
Date: May 18, 2021