They all have one. A golf course architect will never pick favorites – it’s like asking a mother which child she loves most – but even so, most designers have a soft spot for one above all others.
Alister MacKenzie had Pasatiempo, a course he loved and tinkered with throughout the last years of his life. Despite having designed Augusta National, Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne, Lahinch and Royal Adelaide, MacKenzie spent most of his time in Santa Cruz, Calif., at Pasatiempo, living just a few feet away from the sixth fairway until his death in 1934.
Donald Ross, the most prolific architect of the early 20th century, who designed Brae Burn, East Lake, Seminole, Broadmoor and hundreds of others, lived in Pinehurst and dabbled with No. 2 for decades.
For Robert Trent Jones Sr., it was the university course at his alma mater, Cornell; for Jack Nicklaus it’s the Bear’s Club; and for 87-year-old Pete Dye, the game’s most cheerful sadist, the first among equals is a stretch of Caribbean coastline in the Dominican Republic called Casa de Campo, a place where Pete and his wife Alice have been spending their winters since the early 1970s.
Dye designed four courses in the 7,000-acre resort, but the most famous was the first, a layout he originally called Cajuiles after the spate of cashew trees on the property. But by sheer chance, he heard the locals referring to the craggy rocks along the shoreline as “diente del perro,” and he instantly knew that he had a new name for his masterpiece: Teeth of the Dog.
To hear him tell it, that was one of many accidents that led to the creation of Casa de Campo.
“When they asked me to come down there, they originally wanted to build a course near the capital, Santa Domingo,” Dye said in his typical chipper manner. If the man has ever had a bad day, you would never know it from his demeanor when he’s talking about the game.
“I told them that it was a mistake. There wasn’t any water around there and people weren’t going to come. So, I went back home and didn’t hear anything for awhile. Then I got a call to come back and look at some other property. These were some of the largest sugar producers in the world, so they had land all over the place, but most of it was for sugar cane.”
A spot not used for cane was on the coast near La Romana, a spot too dry to grow sugar but with plenty of ocean views.
“There was no bridge over the river at the time, so it was about a two-hour drive from the capital down these narrow dirt roads,” Dye said. “But I finally convinced them that that was the spot.”
Dye built Teeth of the Dog the old-fashioned way, with hand labor, shovels, and ox-drawn carts. “I started at the water and worked my way in from there,” he said. “I guess I’m crazy, because I build what I design. I won’t just draw it and walk away. I build it.”
What he built in La Romana was an instant classic, a model for later Dye signature courses like TPC Sawgrass and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. Teeth of the Dog is what golfers now expect out of a Dye design. You can hit most of your drives 100 yards offline and still have a shot, assuming you have hit it off line in the proper direction. But from 150 yards in, you better have your A-Game. False fronts, runoffs, collection areas and bunkers that look like dried wells gobble up errant approaches and can make you look silly if you are the slightest bit off target. It is not unusual to make double bogey from the middle of the fairway more than once per round.
That is what makes Dye’s designs so tantalizing and so maddening. Safe play yields all the bogeys you want. But to reach down deep and go for a number, you have to be fearless and precise. Great shots will yield plenty of pars and birdies, but a slight mishit – a minor miscalculation in distance or wind or alignment – and you will be lucky to finish the hole.
For good or bad, many of those same traits can be found at courses all over the world. But the things we now think of as Pete Dye features, or Dye-type holes, didn’t originate at Harbour Town or Crooked Stick. The genesis was Casa de Campo.
Teeth of the Dog became the cornerstone for a resort that now has three public courses and one private course, a 245-acre shooting club with clays and live birds, polo fields, a private airport, a 400-slip marina that can accommodate 250-foot yachts and a stone amphitheater that opened with a concert by Mr. Frank Sinatra. But golf remains the biggest draw, not just because of Dye’s original design, but because of the commitment and passion he continues to have for the place.
“When I first got the (director of golf) job down here, Pete called me to congratulate me,” PGA Master Professional Gilles Gagnon told me during an outdoor dinner at La Cana, one of the resort's restaurants. “He also said, ‘Here’s my number. Call me if you have any questions or if you need anything.’ Then he said, ‘I expect you’ll be calling me a lot.’”
Dye chuckled at that story. “Yeah, I think I first went down there in 1968,” he said as if recalling what he had for lunch. “Four golf courses later I’m still there. I just can’t seem to get away.”
At age 87, there’s no rush. He knows it; Alice knows it. And the folks at Casa de Campo certainly know it. They are all quite comfortable with Pete hanging around and tinkering as long as he possibly can.