H Rider Haggard described the hidden cave in King Solomon's Mines as being 'hewn from the living rock.' Pound Ridge, Pete Dye's latest course, which took 12 years from start to opening, is drawn from the same effort and inspiration. The golfing jewels are there for the taking by visiting golfers, but they will need to make a number of visits to fathom out the deep strategy which Dye pours into his courses.
The land, historically occupied by Native Americans, was purchased in 1640 for 12 coats, 12 hatchets, 12 hoes, 12 knives, 12 mirrors, two kettles and four fathom of white wampum or beads. It became a farming community, then fell into a period of decline following the Civil War until millionaire Hiram Halle bought up a number of estates and restored the area which had declined, as it was not on the railroad map. Performers such as Tallulah Bankhead, Jessica Tandy and Benny Goodman moved into the area which has the feel of being in New England despite being close to the big city. It retains a beauty and serenity, indeed an 'away-from-it-all' feel which will be appreciated by visiting golfers.
At the opening ceremony, Dye applauded the patience and investment of developer Ken Wang, whom he compared to Job. The site was a combination of wetlands, rock and trees, not the ideal combination for the creation of Dye's first course in New York State. His son, Perry, spent a vast amount of time on site and the end result is now available for green fee play at US$235 per round. "This course will never become private," says Wang, who estimated his investment in the facility at around US$40 million.
Wang says he had long felt there was a market for a high-end public course in Westchester County. His family has owned the land for over 30 years and had previously operated a nine hole course there. If Dye hadn't accepted the brief, Wang says he doubts he would have developed the course.
Wang told me why he'd wanted Dye to design Pound Ridge. "The first time I walked onto one of his courses, at Sawgrass, I had the feeling of being in the middle of a giant maths problem conjured up by a master of geometry," he says. "I was struck by the precision of the choices I was being presented with and I found that feature to be absolutely fascinating. I absolutely feel it is at the core of his genius.
"Golf courses to me are really links in a chain and what happens on every hole should depend on what has happened before and what is going to happen after.
I notice rhythm even more than I notice the quality of the individual holes. That's another thing I like very much about Pete's courses. Somehow the rhythm always seems perfect." Dye spoke with attendees prior to their playing the course. He had nothing to fear as the experience reinforces his impressive reputation as the most cerebral of architects. There are courses which one plays which do not send out beckoning messages to make a return visit. Pete's layouts have the opposite effect, that of wishing to go straight out again and figure out how to make a better fist of the challenges which are subtly but persistently present in the strategy of the holes.
Perry Dye described how the routing was dictated by the presence of the wetlands and the restrictions imposed by the local planning authorities. The rock features also had a major influence on how the holes worked.
Dyes senior and junior were quick to pay generous tributes to shaper Mike Langkau, who Pete describes as an 'artist,' who operates the bulldozer while overseeing the course design vision on site. "In my early years I was fortunate to work with Pete on a daily basis," says Langkau. "I feel that gives me an advantage to understand the subtle hand gestures and language that a new shaper who has limited exposure to Pete can't possibly comprehend. The holes at Pound Ridge were the toughest 18 I've shaped in my 20 year career because of the quantity of the rock. I think the blasters ran out of dynamite here!" Langkau adds that he is delighted that Wang chose to keep Pound Ridge open to all: "I enjoy building Dye courses that are available for everyone to play." The course starts gently enough, lulling the player into a deceptive feeling of overconfidence.
The course's full extent is discovered on the fifth tee when the panorama opens up, encompassing three holes and over a thousand yards of winding fairways and undulating greens, evoking memories of the superb vista from the fifth tee of Sunningdale's Old Course. The par five seventh is one of my favourites, not surprisingly due to my birdie there, the first ever recorded (since the course's inauguration was minutes earlier), but probably not the last! The hole winds its way gently uphill with a sweeping fairway. Delicate approach play is the order of the day.
The par three eleventh is target golf at its best, offering multiple pin locations and a hole which could vary in length considerably for each visit. The 13th is a magnificent par five with 'Pete's Rock' standing guard over errant or miscued tee shots. The fifteen is a testing short hole with the green between a rock and a hard place – the latter being a swamp! Dye says those whose shots bounce off the rock onto the green will applaud his design, while the others, whose ricochets disturb the frogs will curse the architect "for the worst goddamn hole I've ever seen in my life." The par 72 layout measures 7,171 yards from the back tees but can be played all the way down to a more user-friendly 5,180 yards. Visitors will see native trees populating the site that are common to the New England hardwood forest: varieties of oak, maple, birch, beech, hickory, white pine and spruce. Orioles, red winged blackbirds, deer, foxes, coyotes and wild turkeys abound at Pound Ridge. Extensive wetland plantings preserve the eco-friendly ambience of the surroundings.
Pete Dye has delivered another superb course to add to his already rich collection of world class destinations. Long may he continue to do so for the delight of golf connoisseurs worldwide!
Golf consultant Richard Wax is a member of the GCA editorial panel, and has been involved with many course developments over the last thirty years, including Kingsbarns in Scotland.
This article first appeared in issue 14 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2008.