July 9, 2006
Fairway to heaven
by Randy King, The Roanoke Times
High-caliber players have cursed course architect Pete Dye for decades for his controversial, ridiculously penal layouts that often have dispatched them on unpleasant trips to golfing hell and back.
That said, it's somehow only appropriate that the signature of the resident Dr. Kevorkian of golf-layout design now resides in the new name of the former River Course.
The Pete Dye River Course of Virginia Tech is the title of the place now. It's so fitting. After all, the course winds along 2 1/2 miles of the New River, which folklore accounts claim was known as the "river of death" by initial Indian settlers because of the raging currents that turbulently plowed beneath its surface.
How much tougher is the course now after a complete renovation by Dye compared to the previous layout? Ask Ryan Sypniewski, a rising senior on Tech's golf team who grew up only five minutes down the road.
"Totally different course now. It's all you can handle, no doubt," said Sypniewski, a proficient enough player to make the VSGA Amateur semifinals in 2004 and 2005.
"We've played it back on the tips, where it's near 7,700 yards. What's it like? It's hell, basically."
"Challenging" is the word used most by Dye. The world-renowned 78-year-old course designer said his job wasn't that difficult, thanks to some groundwork laid long before he showed up on the site in January 2004.
"No doubt about it, this is definitely one of the best pieces of land I've had to work with," said Dye, whose most notable designs include the TPC at Sawgrass (Stadium Course) in Ponte Vedra, Fla.; Crooked Stick (Carmel, Ind.); Harbour Town (Hilton Head, S.C.); and The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C.
"I've never had anything better than this piece of ground as far as the ambiance of the golf course. I give the fellow upstairs an 'A.' I don't know how you're going to grade me. I might get an 'F,' but the man upstairs gave us an 'A.'"
Wanting to utilize the land where its 18-hole campus course was located, the Virginia Tech Foundation acquired the Pulaski County course in 2002. Soon thereafter, Richmond's Bill Goodwin recruited his longtime friend Dye to redo the layout. The well-heeled 1962 Tech alum picked up the entire $3 million renovation bill.
Starting in January 2004, Dye and his crews went to work. They moved some 400,000 cubic yards of earth, constructed 18 new greens and 90 new tee boxes, completely redirected holes Nos. 4 and 5, and planted 3,500 new trees before the course reopened last Aug. 21. Eight fairways run parallel to the river, and all but four holes offer panoramic views of the water.
"How often do you have this?" asked Dye, pointing at the New River. "You don't have this in Indiana [his home state]. We tried to focus on the river. You'll see that most of the holes point back towards the river."
The course is bisected by an 80-foot rock cliff, which allowed Dye to build two different but similar nine-hole loops that will start and finish near a new clubhouse overlooking the 18th green and river. Clubhouse-building plans have been drawn and the launch of construction is imminent.
The refurbished layout includes five sets of tees measuring from 5,142 (ladies) to 7,665 yards (championship), offering various degrees of difficulty for all calibers of golfers. The public fees course located off Virginia 114 is open to all players.
"The other course was fine," said Dye, referring to the original design by the Ault, Clark & Associates, a Maryland-based golf architect group. "Mr. Goodwin wanted to go the next step, though, as far as the university was concerned, and it was never built for that."
Tech golf coach Jay Hardwick, who hopes the facility will help him recruit better talent that will enable his program to compete at a higher level in the tough ACC, said the venue will give the school the "potential to host championship tournaments on a regional and national level."
Sypniewski sees it happening sooner than later.
"Mr. Dye, I think, built it for a championship and it's going to host one soon, no question," he said. "It's still young and they need the grass to grow in better. But it's going to happen.
"You basically have to do everything well to score well. Mr. Dye would give anybody a run for their money on that course and the way he designed it. He designs courses to test every aspect of your game. You've got to think as well as play well out there.
"The first time I played it, I think I shot even-par. Since then, though, I've cursed him a little bit."
Join the crowd, kid.