Renowned architect Pete Dye was born in Urbana, Ohio, but has lived most of his life in Indianapolis. Much of his seminal work took place in his adopted hometown. His most highly regarded creation there is Crooked Stick, where an unknown John Daly rocketed from anonymity to stardom thanks to an out-of-nowhere victory at the 1991 PGA Championship.
Crooked Stick is very private, but Indianapolis is peppered with some fine examples of public-access venues where the traveling golfer is welcome. Grab a National Rental Car at Indianapolis International Airport, and explore some of Dye’s hometown creations. Now he’s a Hall-of-Famer, but back in the day, he was an insurance man-turned course designer, and a golf tour around Indy offers some fascinating insight into the majestic career that would unfold in the ensuing decades.
The Fort is easily one of the most memorable and challenging golf experiences in greater Indianapolis. It’s located within an hour’s drive of a million citizens, but it’s an isolated entity unto itself, not a roadway crossing anywhere, not a home on property, or even on the periphery. Fort Benjamin Harrison was a military installation dating from World War One on Indianapolis’s east side. It closed in 1996. The state of Indiana purchased the property from the federal government—2,000 acre Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park, and the military-only golf course contained therein. Pete Dye was called upon to renovate the existing course, which was slated to open to the general public. He magnanimously charged the city fathers a single dollar, not even the price of a Big Gulp soda.
A big gulp is what most golfers will be taking, after a couple of easier warm-up holes, when they stand on the tee of the swooping par-4 4th, nearly 480 yards from the tips, a full 440 from the penultimate markers, narrow and tree-lined. It’s a wakeup call, as the Fort is as rugged and hardy as the military personnel it once served. The golf course is almost 240 acres in size, a scope and breadth that is nearly double the acreage of an average course. Central Indiana is generally flat as a Scrabble Board. But this heavily wooded, heaving and rolling parcel, rife with wetlands, gullies and ravines, and teeming with wildlife, is a geographical aberration.
The final four holes are the most demanding on the course. The 15th is nearly 450 yards, followed by a true three-shot par-5 of 560 yards, which sets the stage for a 230+ yard par-3. The final hole plays uphill, more than 425 yards, unless play is being conducted from the tips, in which case the mileage swells to some 475. It’s safe to assume that many a good-looking scorecard have been defaced in the final hour.
One of the most unique courses in the Midwest is The Brickyard, where Dye actually put four golf holes (numbers seven through ten) within the confines of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the remainder winding their way around the spacious grounds outside of the fence line. Because the property is so massive, and the use of trees and mounding so clever, even from within the oval it’s sometimes easy to forget about the one-of-a-kind location. But the irony is that the proximity to the grandstand is never closer than outside the oval, on the property’s northeast corner. An errant approach to the long par-5 twelfth, or a pulled tee shot on the tough par-3 that follows could potentially clatter into the stanchions supporting the stadium-style bench seating on the infamous third turn. Making birdie on this hole, with railroad ties left and the always-lurking Little Eagle Creek to the right, is high excitement. But it’s a mere trifle, say veteran race patrons, compared to the thrill of some three dozen super-charged race cars roaring down the mile-long straightaway at nearly 200 mph, prior to the turn.
Although not quite in Indy proper, the Kampen Course at Purdue University is definitely worth the fifty-mile drive to Lafayette. This is one of the best college courses in the nation. Dye took agronomy courses at Purdue as he was learning his craft, and decided to renovate the course that had been on site for decades. Much of this heavily bunkered, fescue-laden course is routed around a natural marsh known as the celery bog, to the right of the brutally long par-5 sixth hole. The greenish bog is home to all sorts of birdlife, and thanks to the sophisticated filtration and recycling system Dye devised, the course’s water runoff goes through several stages of cleaning before entering the bog.
Just off the eighth tee, a tough par-4 with waste bunkering down the entire right-hand side, is a sign for the Turfgrass Research and Diagnostic Center, which is housed in a building just a long iron from the hole itself. It showcases the symbiotic relationship between the course and the Purdue agronomy students who take care of it and study it on an ongoing basis.
“It used to just be a farmer’s course,” explains a longtime golf course employee. “It was long, flat, back-and-forth, with almost no features whatsoever. What’s transpired here is amazing. It’s a great course, very challenging and full of contour. The 17th is a wicked par-3 over water, two hundred-plus yards, often into the wind. The last is an exhausting par-4, a driver and then a 3-wood, where you’re just hoping to reach in regulation. But the fact the renovation was done so inexpensively, so quickly, and using student labor with no prior golf course construction experience, makes the end result almost hard to believe.”