Tony Kowalski landed his first head superintendent position at a surreal place with a subterranean past named for an architect who transformed unsightly land near mountains, oceans, swamps and prairies into imaginative playgrounds.
Kowalski leads the turf care department at Pete Dye Golf Club in Bridgeport, West Virginia. Kowalski moved from densely populated northern Delaware, where he developed under the legendary Dan Pierson at Wilmington Country Club, to sparsely populated northern West Virginia to replace another legend, Gary Grandstaff, in early 2019.
Built on a former coal mine, Grandstaff became the superintendent before the course had a name. When Grandstaff retired, he had accumulated 30 years of service at Pete Dye GC, a remarkable feat considering all 18 holes didn’t open until 1994. Grandstaff witnessed years of back-and-forth between Dye and the club’s founder James LaRosa, a coal industry executive and local entrepreneur. The wrangling extended to every aspect of the course, including the name. Lore has it — and Grandstaff confirmed it during a conversation following Dye’s death earlier this year — that LaRosa approached Dye about attaching the architect’s name to the club as the course neared completion. Dye responded: “I don’t care what you call it. Just finish the damn thing!”
There’s only one course with Dye’s full name on it. That course sits 35 miles south of the West Virginia University campus in Morgantown and 125 miles north of the state capitol in Charleston. A chance to maintain that course brought Kowalski to a city with less than 9,000 residents.
“The name certainly got my foot in the door with looking at the place,” Kowalski says. “Honestly, it flew under the radar to me and I didn’t know much about it until the job opportunity came up. The selling point was the drive into the property and the whole experience. The first time you are here, you never forget that experience.”
The course that Dye and a team of associates, shapers and contractors spent 16 years building above where miners and foremen once toiled mesmerizes from a first tee bordering a pond to an 18th green flanked by a creek. Each hole has as much personality as the characters behind its construction. “There’s not a hole out here that’s not memorable in some way,” Kowalski says. A plaque outside the clubhouse reminds members and guests how Dye felt about the course. The architect considered Pete Dye GC “18 of the most exciting and memorable holes I have ever built on one course.”
Simpson Creek weaves through both nines, carts plunge into Pinnickinnick Mine on the ride from the sixth green to the seventh tee, an old mine wall frames the right side of the eighth hole, and coal cars and a tipple border the 10th fairway. The par-3 fourth hole plays over water, the par-3 seventh hole begins atop Pinnickinnick Mine. Subtle and sudden slopes make learning the greens as fun as studying the course’s history. Even the par 5s are enthralling, with the fifth hole using smokestacks from a nearby power plant as a second-shot aiming point.
“I have to imagine it’s up there in the uniqueness rating,” Kowalski says. “I haven’t seen enough of the golf courses of the world, or even this country, to weigh in on that. But it’s certainly the most unique of any that I have been able to see or have had any part of maintenance on.”
Kowalski has already heard hundreds of stories about the construction of the course from myriad sources, including Grandstaff and current owner and original club member Randy Buzzo. Kowalski, though, will never hear Dye’s direct version of those stories. Dye passed away on the ninth day of 2020, one of many low points in a year filled with negative news. Dye’s health was failing by the time Kowalski accepted the job as Grandstaff’s successor. The young superintendent never met the charismatic architect.
Kowalski and his team, which includes enthusiastic assistant superintendent Kody Frey, are entrusted with preserving Dye’s only work in the West Virginia coalfields. They are adding bounce to fairways and approaches while assessing the long-term viability of every tee, tree and tuft of turf. An interpretative question accompanies all agronomic decisions: What would Pete think of their work?
“I didn’t know Pete, but I have heard a lot of great stories from people who knew him intimately,” Kowalski says. “I would like to think Pete would appreciate what we are doing. From my aspect, I try to look at the place like Pete designed it. It’s part of his legacy. I don’t want to do anything to change that. We’re just trying to maintain the place as Pete intended. But Pete was also known for not being afraid to make changes. I try to balance those two thoughts.”
Preserve and further perfect Pete’s imaginative work. Quite a job description.
Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.