RIVERIA MAYA, MEXICO - P.B. Dye loves his dog. This would be unremarkable except for the fact that P.B. Dye is a celebrity golf architect, which means his dog sometimes gets his own private jet. All courtesy of one of the international tycoons eager to wow the man who will design a golf course that average hackers will be expected to pay $250 to play.
"The private jet we came down on was full," Jean Dye explained. "We couldn't fit our dog on it. So they turned it back around after and picked him up. I think he had the whole jet to himself."
Jean Dye laughs. P.B.'s down-to-earth wife tells the tale of the pooch's private plane ride in a mix of bemused pride. She knows how ridiculous it sounds on the one hand. But she's also understandably proud that multimillionaires are so taken with her husband's work on a golf course that they insist on using their plane to fly dog Dye around the world.
The Dyes' dog did have his own plush leather seat on that particular trip to the Dominican Republic. No word on whether he slurped on some in-flight champagne in a golden bowl.
Which, come to think of it, might explain some of that five-bill price tag. Okay, maybe it's unfair to put any of the rising cost of green fees on celebrity architect indulgence. After all, Gulfstream lifts for canines and a few hellaciously decadent Las Vegas nights are not likely to influence a golf baron's bottom line one way or the other.
However, it does bring up the bigger issue of the celebrity golf architect obsession. There's no denying this rules the game today with more force and impact than Tiger Woods. The fate of a new golf course, the way it's perceived, gets largely determined by what big name is credited with the design. Having a living blueprint legend to place on the marquee does not guarantee success, but not having one can often seal doom. Or at least, a designation as a nice "niche" course. These days many golfers base the decision of where to play almost solely on the architect. Are you a Fazio, a Dye or a Nicklaus man? It's like declaring allegiance to Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays back in the day.
Or maybe you're one of those quirky guys who just wants to be different, so you breathlessly trumpet a Michael Hurdzan (the Duke Snider of celebrity golf architects) or another supposed genius as "underrated."
Regardless, it's all about the architect. A fun play? Course conditions? Customer service? An actual inventive take? Yada, yada, yada. Just let us know who came up with the routing, or in many cases who had someone on their staff come up with the routing.
When I wrote about a course in Phoenix and failed to highlight the architect's existential statement on the par 3s, one reader bombarded my e-mail inbox with cries that he needed to know more about the designer before he could ever commit to playing a course. Golf courses might as well be jeans now, with dedicated hackers playing the role of teenage consumers blindly following the latest designer labels.
The phenomenon has become so extreme that even some of those who benefit it from it most have moments where they wonder if it's good for the game.
P.B. Dye's father, Pete Dye, probably started the whole celebrity architect phenomenon and P.B. himself is acutely aware of how it's increased the fees and prestige of the entire profession. Still, when a golf writer P.B. is sure should know better asks him about what he sees as the signature hole at his new Playa Paraiso Golf Club, this laid-back, fun-loving, self-dubbed "dirt mover" noticeably bristles.
"Signature holes" is one of those celebrity architect terms P.B. Dye despises.
"Signature holes are something Jack Nicklaus made up," Dye said, all but rolling his eyes at the ceiling. "It's a marketing deal that Jack came up with so he can say he signed his named to a hole. What's a signature hole? I've always thought you should try to do your best with every hole. What do you do on a signature hole? Try a little harder?
"Signature holes are for guys who don't really design their own courses."
Which is another tenant of the celebrity architect system: Have name, will delegate. Nicklaus has so many courses with his name on them now that even he realizes nobody's going to believe he had anything to do with designing them all. So he's come up with Nicklaus signature courses, those elite tracks where the Golden Bear is actually supposedly hands on.
It's not just Jack either. Arnold Palmer is notorious for showing up at the openings of his Palmer designs and being utterly clueless about yardages and seemingly surprised by certain holes. The King's photo still looks great in the brochure though!
This isn't an indictment of Nicklaus, Palmer or any of the other big name pros who hang out a design shingle. In many ways they're pioneers in sports, legends who found lucrative new careers out of competition and increased the public's knowledge of an entire golf field.
"We all make more money because of Jack Nicklaus," P.B. Dye said.
The tour pros turned designers aren't the only ones who sometimes build courses in name only. Check out the number of new tracks turned out by some of the biggest name architect-only architects year after year. P.B. Dye estimates he spent 65-70 nights staying on site in the Cancun corridor working on Playa Paraiso. Other architects churning out a dozen courses at a time have no way of fitting such hands-on toil into their schedules.
Yet, golfers still fixate on the name on the course, like it means the same thing every time. That's not only ridiculous but, looked through the prism of golf history, it's comical.
Even Donald Ross wasn't a celebrity golf architect in his time. Ross could only get a four-page spread in a major general magazine, like he recently did in Sports Illustrated, 57 years after he died.
Now this may have robbed Ross of the chance to have a chauffeured Model T, but it didn't seem to hurt how Pinehurst No. 2 came out.
Maybe golf doesn't need architects who command fees as high as $2 million a course and fancy themselves as rock stars. Everybody loves the fact that Pete Dye can still bounce onto a stage in his leather jacket at 79 and cut up a crowd of bigwig investors. But is the golf world better off for all the carbon copies faking the attitude while showing none of the care for the craft?
Is the game served by having a host of hackers following designers with the same awareness as the rats who trailed after the Pied Piper? Couldn't green fees go down and real golf appreciation go up if every course didn't feel the pressure to spend big on a name designer?
Of course, I know a certain pooch thinks I'm crazy.
It turns out P.B. Dye's dog has developed a taste for limo rides as well.
"When we got picked up in a limo, he jumped straight up and settled into the cushiony seats, all spread out," Jean Dye said with a laugh. "Now he sort of looks disappointed when he sees our regular car."
This dog's no dummy. Not so sure about the golfers.
July 25, 2005