History of Austin Country Club

A showcase forged by history, legends

This was before South by Southwest was born and the Pennybacker Bridge stood completed in all its glory, before Austin was “Silicon Hills” and a national rage on everyone’s “best” list, before it was cool to be “weird” and before Loop 360 was open.

But in 1980, Rod Whitman, a Canadian with a keen sense of adventure, liked the vibes at this construction project on which he began working near Lake Austin in Texas’ state capital.

This was before Ben Crenshaw owned a Green Jacket, before Tom Kite had conquered Pebble Beach and before Harvey Penick had morphed from a swing coach into best-selling author.

Yet Whitman appreciated that there was something special when these Austinites would be welcomed at the construction site by the boss building this new Austin Country Club, Pete Dye.

“I met Mr. (Harvey) Penick a few times and I do remember on my first day meeting Tom (Kite),” said Whitman. “Ben (Crenshaw) would make some visits and they would all like to walk with Pete Dye and they’d talk about golf courses, especially the greens.”

Whitman laughed softly.

“Pete loved an entourage – and he often had one.”

Consider the dynamics of that foursome, even back then, well before the Lords of St. Augustine opened their doors. Penick, Crenshaw and Kite – with passion for all things Austin, especially when it involved golf – and Dye, whose uncanny imagination allowed him to not only see forests through trees, but brilliant golf holes, too.

World Golf Hall of Famers, each of them, and as if that isn’t enough to sprinkle great historical flavor upon Austin Country Club – that “construction site” by Lake Austin where their paths crossed so many times – there is the finished product itself. Now 34 years old, Austin CC will play host to the World Golf Championships Dell Technologies Match Play for a third time and Whitman is a proud observer.

“Absolutely, I am. I walked around and watched a lot of golf with my wife for three days (in 2016 when Austin CC hosted for the first time). Mostly, I watched players try to get it up-and-down around some of those greens. They weren’t as successful as you might think,” said Whitman, who was Dye’s construction supervisor when Austin CC was built in the early 1980s.

“Players gave the golf course a lot of respect. I’m very proud how it played.”

Given that golf is a sport that cherishes history, Austin Country Club fits perfectly into the landscape. The club dates to 1899 and is considered the first true “country club” in the state of Texas. That’s no minor detail when you consider that Texas might have a legitimate claim to greatest golf state in the country.

While there have been three locations for Austin CC, what connects all of them is the indomitable legend of Penick. An 8-year-old caddie at the original Austin CC, Penick by the early 1920s moved from shop assistant to assistant pro to head pro, a position he maintained when Austin CC moved to Riverside Drive. That is where Penick nurtured the likes of Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth, Crenshaw and Kite.

Though Penick was officially Professional Emeritus and well into his 70s when the current Austin CC was developed and opened (in 1984), it was the humble teacher everyone stopped in to see when they came on site.

“I remember bringing Chuck Cook (today, one of the game’s foremost instructors) to meet Mr. Penick and they would talk for hours,” laughed Dr. Lou Cannatti. “Chuck told me, ‘He’s got more parables than Jesus.’ “

You can include Dye in the parade of Penick fans.

“I still have pictures of Pete and Harvey,” said Alice Dye, who was on site for many of the days when her husband was building Austin CC. “Pete loved talking to Mr. Penick. I have vivid memories of Mr. Penick sitting in his chair, listening and talking.”

If Penick – who died in 1995, the week before Crenshaw would win his second Masters – was one of a kind and a throwback to a bygone era, in Dye he had a soulmate. Eschewing detailed blueprints and topography maps, which by the early 1980s were part of the business, Dye went about his work with boots, dirty hands, and imagination.

“He would always say he was a ‘golf course builder’ not an architect,” said Alice of the man she married in 1950 and subsequently joined to help build some of the sport’s most renowned courses. “He just got in the dirt and started working.”

That Dye ended up with the Austin Country Club job was in large part owed to a former club president, Dr. Lou Cannatti. Entrusted with the future of Austin CC at a time when it was in transition – seeking more land, the club chose to accept a deal for free land and move to the Davenport Ranch near Lake Austin – Cannatti did his due diligence and had interviews with other designers, “but Pete was the one I wanted.”

With roots in Columbus, Ohio, Cannatti knew of The Golf Club, one of Dye’s earliest works and still considered a gem. Cannatti loved that golf course and he was a golfer with a keen appreciation for great layouts.

“I was an advocate of Alister Mackenzie courses. I played and loved the Scarlet Course (at Ohio State), which Mackenzie did, and when I served in the military and was stationed in Augusta (Georgia), I used to play Palmetto (where Mackenzie oversaw the transformation from sand to grass greens and lengthened the course),” said Cannatti.

“So, I got Pete down to Austin.”

Cannatti knew that in Dye he had a guy who would embrace tough terrain – and the old Davenport Ranch was certainly that. With big elevation changes, the land dropped steeply down toward Lake Austin where Cannatti said 70 acres were in a floodplain.

“When he first saw the land, Pete said something like, ‘I thought I had enough land for 10 golf courses – but I’m not sure I can get 14 holes.”

Said Alice Dye: “It was a terrible piece of property.”

Maybe, but that had never stopped Pete Dye, who in these years was also immersed in building THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in marshland. Whitman, who had worked on the maintenance crew with Bill Coore at Waterwood National in Huntsville, was recommended to Dye and became construction supervisor at Austin CC.

“I was there a year before we moved any soil. We worked the hillsides and built walls,” said Whitman. “There was no shaping at all that first year.”

There was, however, a lot of conversation between Cannatti and Dye. “We didn’t always get along,” said Cannatti. “I hired him, and I fired him, then I hired him back.” He can laugh now, because “we are great friends and he built a fantastic design,” but Cannatti discovered quickly that Dye, like Penick, was an original.

“I would tell him, ‘Let me see the plans,’ and he would hand me 18 sheets of paper.”

If Cannatti couldn’t exactly see where Dye was going with Austin CC, he discovered that patience was required. Alice Dye confirmed it was her husband’s way. “True, there were no plans. It’s just the way he worked.”

But she insists one thing is certain: Pete Dye was going to take this routing out along Lake Austin where an under-construction Pennybacker Bridge graced every vantage point.

“When he saw that bridge (which opened in late 1982, during construction of the golf course), he was just fascinated by that view. Bridges are very unique and Pete wanted that contrast,” she said.

Dye not only took on the challenge of building holes in the floodplain area, he wanted them early in the round to ignite enthusiasm. Without question, Dye succeeded, because Nos. 3 through 7 (in the tournament they flop the nines so it’s 12 through 16) are not only superb golf holes, but aesthetically pleasing.

Not that Dye didn’t succeed at all other corners of this property, because the transition into the more tree-lined holes in the hills, away from Lake Austin, present plenty of challenges and completes what is a brilliant golf course.

“One of the special ones in the state of Texas,” said Kite, who years ago would chip near the 16th green (No. 8 in the Dell Technologies Match Play) under the watchful eye of his coach, Penick.

Kite’s partiality to Austin CC is clear; he’s a longtime member, his father was on Cannatti’s committee and was helpful in hiring Dye, he lives nearby, and plays the course frequently. But the man has “creds,” as they say, when it comes to judging golf courses and so his opinion carries weight.

“We are fortunate in Austin in that we've got so many really, really good golf courses. This one is underrated, mainly because the membership of the Austin Country Club hasn't really sought out all that recognition. They're not promoting it, because our membership is full, and I think it's just a great opportunity to show this golf course off.”

Cannatti, a strong leader when Austin CC moved from Riverside Drive to Davenport Ranch, remembers the early 1980s as a difficult time for the club. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “It was quite a transition.”

He could harken back to those early days when “we would walk the property and I couldn’t see a golf course, but Pete had an unlimited imagination,” but Cannatti prefers to soak in the finished product as it prepares for its third staging of the Dell Technologies Match Play.

“Are you kidding, it’s absolutely beautiful. I’m so proud of it,” he said.

He was speaking to the golf course. Or maybe was he speaking to the club history. His comment works for both and he feels similarly proud on each count.