The Dye is cast: Following in the footsteps of golf's legendary architectures

Courses and Travel

Cynthia Dye followed her dad Roy and uncle Pete into the golf architecture business, so NCG went to chat about her career and her latest design in Portugal...

The Cynthia Dye designed West Cliffs Golf Links is heralded as one of the most exciting courses being added to Portugal’s stunning Silver Coast – and as you can see from the gallery above, the newest course at the Praia D’el Rey resort promises a challenging array of holes and breathtaking views for sun-seeking golfers.

Cynthia is the daughter of architect Roy Dye and the niece of Pete Dye, famous for designing many world class courses across the world – most notably TPC Sawgrass, home of the Player’s Championship.

Having learnt from one of the best in the industry, Cynthia founded her own golf architect company in 2001 and has since gone on to design over 40 courses across the world.

NCG chatted to her about her creation at West Links and following in the footsteps of two greats of the industry…

What are the characteristics of a Cynthia Dye design? Have you taken on any features from your uncle?

As a youngster, after school I would go to my father’s office that he and my uncle Pete shared where the plans for the golf courses they were creating were produced. My father was also a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. I was given the jobs of tracing and colouring the routing plans used for presentations. Later as a teenager I was tasked with drawing the contours to create base maps.

I learned early on about the importance of understanding the topography of a site and the effects of grading golf holes. These factors have always been a major influence on my designs. Fitting golf holes into the existing topography and natural characteristics of a site is sometimes more important than the scorecard. Taking advantage of what the site gives you and incorporating those features into a sensible routing creates much more interest than forcing a certain yardage. Using these principles as a guideline, we are then able to apply design techniques that have been central to the Dye family for four generations.

Although these techniques and styles have changed through the years, due mainly to the evolution in golf clubs, the ball and maintenance practices, we have always been influenced by the original and unique features used on the Scottish and UK courses and their influence on the first courses built in the USA from the 1890s through the 1920s.

Cynthia Dye on site at West Cliffs

What should every golf course have? A driveable par 4, a short par 3?

I believe every course should have holes of a variety of lengths. If possible the golf holes should be routed in all directions of the compass. For example, at West Cliffs Links, our new course located on the Atlantic coast of Portugal, the prevailing wind is a major factor. Club selection when playing the par 3s will change daily, sometimes hourly.

Strategic short par 4s have always been used on Dye courses. They are a favourite of the touring pros. Today driveable par 4s have been incorporated into many PGA Tour events. This makes for exciting television. For the first time you will see one this year at a recently-revised hole at Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass during The Players Championship.

What are your best skills as a designer?

As I mentioned above, understanding land forms is an important skill. However, landscaping of the golf course and surrounding amenities is such an important factor that enhances the golfers’ experience as the golf course matures. At university I studied horticulture and landscape architecture. This knowledge has always influenced my designs. Knowing the Latin names of plant materials and trees has proved invaluable as it is the standard used no matter what language my clients and local venders are speaking. Understanding the local vegetation has allowed me to work comfortably all over the world.

How do you design around the huge leaps in technology and ball distances?

It’s key to understand the shot values and limit the targeted landing area for each shot. This can be done by narrowing the field of play for the long hitters with placements of hazards, roughs and contours that move the ball away from the ideal position. Single-handicap players are given choices but must consider the risk and reward factors. All of this must be combined with strategies of length and tee position that allow the other 80 percent of golfers – higher handicappers including men, women and youths – to enjoy a round of golf without frustration.

Cynthia Dye on site at West CliffsWhat has been your best decision as a designer?

Early in my career, it was to be selective with the projects I took on so that the travel and focus needed to create a golf course did not interrupt the responsibilities of raising my five children. Along the way I learned to be patient and listen. Today my decisions are driven by site characteristics and the need to design and build a course that can be played by all levels of ability, personalities and age.

And your worst decision?

There aren’t any regrets. Plus I’ve been at this long enough that some of my early works are now asking for advice on upgrading or renovation. I may be able to ‘sneak’ in and correct some of the things I wasn’t completely satisfied with the first time around.

Your uncle is probably best known for Sawgrass. Is it true that it was his wife, your aunt, who had the idea to have the island at 17?

That’s the way the story has always been told and there’s no doubt it’s the way it happened. Aunt Alice has always been at Pete’s side and a strong influence as they co-designed many great golf courses together. The Dyes are known to be hands-on architects and Alice was on the Sawgrass site when excavations of much-needed sand left a much larger cavity than expected. She suggested an island would work best for the green site.

So many courses are going back to original designs, which course would you most like to get your hands on?

Any course built in the USA during the period of 1890 to 1930. Most of these early courses were built on the East Coast and were created by golfers with previous experience in Scotland or the UK such as Donald Ross.

As the sport gained prominence in America, a new breed of American golf course architects including C.B. MacDonald, Devereau Emmit, George C. Thomas and others took up the cause. It has been very rewarding to research these courses and the original design intent.

I was selected to renovate and improve a course in Long Island, New York, that was originally built in 1896. This was an honour but also a great responsibility.

When the project was completed it was such a satisfaction to be able to bring back some of the original characteristics and solve the maintenance issues that had come with time and new ideas such as irrigation.

I prefer not to impose modern design thinking on these old masterpieces. Recreating the conditions found more than 100 years ago before irrigation and using them in out-of-play areas has become a way of balancing premium turf condition with sensible water use and habitat protection.

Talk about the process of how West Cliffs came about, it all looks very natural?

As I have explained my motivation above, the site characteristics dictated most of the process at the West Cliffs Links. These were: natural and exposed to all of the elements – sun, wind, seasonal storms; avoiding protected environments including plant species and dinosaur fossils; completely restricting site drainage to the beach and sea below; and ten years of careful planning with the cooperation of the local government agencies. All of these factors influenced the design and layout of the course, and it’s going to be an amazing golf experience.

 How has design changed in terms of doing the right thing for the economy?

In our industry of golf course development and operations, there are concerns today for the health and longevity of the game of golf. Every year the number of courses is in decline. Although every project is unique, in the design process we have to consider each project’s economic feasibility and performance. It must be viable to construct, maintain, operate and market. Time and cost to the players are key factors influencing these decisions.

The industry worldwide is under a general mandate to “grow the game”. So in the design process we are considering ways to attract the youth and new golfers, both men and women, to take up the game. We are looking at alternatives to the traditional 18-hole course including practice facilities with three or six holes. We hope to continue to play a role as this sport continues to evolve.

For more information, visit the West Cliffs website.

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