Sport Golf

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Pete Dye has created a piece of golfing heaven at Whistling Straits

Webb Simpson of the United States walks up to the 16th tee during the second round of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits
Webb Simpson of the United States walks up to the 16th tee during the second round of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits

Dermot Gilleece

While negotiating the seriously undulating terrain of Whistling Straits today, I was struck by the beauty of the place. And its difference from anything I’ve encountered on this side of the pond.

Granted, these perceptions were heightened considerably by glorious sunshine and a gentle breeze sweeping out to Lake Michigan. But there was no doubting the magnificence of architect Pete Dye’s creative genius, especially when one considered he was 73 years old when completing this particular assignment in 1998.

And it struck me that in all the frantic golf-course construction of the Celtic Tiger era, no developer thought of Dye. Nobody had the imagination to seek out this hugely gifted man and ask if he would be interested in applying his inimitable stamp to Irish terrain.

The chances are that they might have found a receptive ear, despite the fact that the only work of any significance he has done outside of the US was in the Dominican Republic where he designed the magnificent “Teeth of the Dog.” Golfers love difference.  That is why they were attracted to this country in the first place – to savour the dramatic changes of elevation at Ballybunion and other links courses in the south west.

Yet, because of an obsession with construction, developers looked upon golf courses as simply a focus for residential houses. Granted, they aimed in most cases at decent designs by competent, even gifted architects. But all the while,  these money men didn’t really know what they wanted: they were guided by the established criteria of the day, which had the inevitable effect of delivering sameness.

Dye is not about sameness. Dye is about spectacle, the sort he delivered at Kiawah island and even more notably at Sawgrass where he transformed a Florida swamp into the greatly respected Stadium Course with its iconic 17th hole. And you could imagine golfing tourists, Americans in particular, flocking to play an Irish Dye. Simply because of a difference that would be virtually guaranteed.  

Given that the great man will be 90 in December, it’s too late now. But it could have been done, given the views he expressed in a long chat I was fortunate to have with him.

"The spread of golf in Ireland has been unbelievable,” he said, “but it is also true that where you were once paying $2 in green-fees, the cost is now closer to $200."  He went on to explain that prior to embarking on his work at Whistling Straits, he and the owner, Herb Kohler, made several visits to Ireland and took in all the leading links courses. Probably 25 in all.

In fact Kohler made a bid for the Carne Links at Belmullet but, as he said, “they wouldn't sell it to me."

So, instead of being indulged with an Irish links project, Dye had to settle for replicating one at Whistling Straits. And as we’re seeing this week, the fruits of his labours are truly memorable.

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