HAVEN — Chris Lutzke doesn’t have a business card, doesn’t grant many interviews and has never been big on promoting himself. He’s most comfortable on a bulldozer or a loader, pushing dirt around, moving it here and there, sculpting the skeletons of golf courses.
You’ve probably never heard of him, but you know his work: Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic, the Pete Dye Course at the French Lick Resort in southern Indiana, Old Marsh in West Palm Beach, Florida, and many others.
Lutzke has been with Pete Dye for more than 30 years and has been a Dye design associate for more than 20. His loyalty to the legendary course designer stands out in an industry in which young hot-shot architects are quick to strike out on their own and draw attention to themselves.
The Kohler Co. hired Lutzke, fresh out of Valders High School, to pick up sticks and do odd jobs when Dye was building Blackwolf Run in the mid-1980s. Dye took notice of the kid who worked harder than everyone else and took him under his wing. Got him into Michigan State and paid his tuition. Took him around the world to build golf courses.
You wouldn’t know any of this because Lutzke prefers to stay in the background. He consented to a rare interview recently in the pub at Whistling Straits, where he is overseeing prep work in advance of the 2020 Ryder Cup.
“I’ve always stayed behind the scenes,” he said. “Rarely would I talk to a reporter. I just get up early and I go to work. And I get home and it’s dark. That’s my only secret, if you will.”
Lutzke has spent a lot of time at Whistling Straits in recent months, overseeing work to widen gallery corridors and enhance spectator viewing areas for the 2020 Ryder Cup.
He’s also keenly interested in a project a few miles to the south, in the Town of Wilson, where Dye drew a preliminary routing for a fifth Kohler Co. course on 247 company-owned acres just north of Kohler-Andrae State Park.
More than four years have passed since plans were announced for the 18-hole championship course. Because of opposition from local property owners and environmental groups such as Friends of the Black River Forest, Kohler Co. has done its due diligence and moved slowly through various hearings, permitting processes and DNR approvals.
While all this occurred, the 92-year-old Dye became largely incapacitated by the advance of Alzheimer’s disease. He is otherwise in relatively good health and still plays golf, Lutzke said, but has cognitive issues that prevent him from doing meaningful work or speaking publicly.
Lutzke said he started noticing changes in Dye as far back as 2016.
“He always came across as the nutty professor, so to speak,” Lutzke said. “He’d blurt things out all day long. Nobody understood what he was talking about. But what he always did is at the end of the day he’d sit down at a table and connect all the dots, from the first thing he blurted out at 7 o’clock that morning to the last thing he said at 8:30 at night, and you could put it all together.
“But when I noticed something was wrong is he’d blurt stuff out all day but we never sat down anymore and he never connected any dots. That’s kind of how I knew something was up.”
Eventually, the fifth course almost certainly will be built, though Kohler Co. president and chairman Herbert V. Kohler Jr. recently told Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella he wouldn’t break ground until after the Ryder Cup, adding, “We’re probably five years from playing golf on that property.”
The question becomes, who will finish the job Dye started?
Tom Doak, a Dye disciple, was rumored to have the inside track but took himself out of the running by committing to design a third 18-hole course for the Keiser family at Sand Valley, which Kohler considers a competitor.
Kohler might want a “name” architect to put the finishing touches on Dye’s routing but no one is more qualified than Lutzke, who could have gone out on his own years ago, after designing Eagle Eye in Bath, Michigan, with minimal input from Dye.
After Eagle Eye opened to rave reviews, Lutzke interviewed for a job in New Zealand that went to Ray Hearn, a crushing disappointment that caused him to think hard about his future in the business.
“I thought to myself, why would I ever walk away from a man like (Dye)?” he said. “My allegiance was always to Pete but at that point I made a conscious promise to myself that I’d stay with him until he asked me to leave. And I’ve been with him ever since.”
Citing respect for the Kohler Co., Lutzke declined to talk about the proposed fifth course, other than to say he would like to see it through to completion.
But it should be obvious that Lutzke knows how Dye works, how he thinks, how he tweaks a routing based on what his eyes tell him when he walks the land.
If the Kohler Co. wants a Dye legacy course that is true to the architect's unique design philosophy, then there is no better man for the job than the unassuming, 50-year-old Lutzke, who “grew up in a gravel pit and on a farm and in the dirt.”
“My pencil was a D8 (bulldozer),” he said. “How could I be any different from Pete?”