[By BRADLEY S. KLEIN
KOHLER, Wis. – Pete Dye, 83 years old and a month before his induction to the World Golf Hall of Fame, is bundled up and schlepping through the cold rain of a Wisconsin fall.
He’s tweaking his notorious Straits Course at Whistling Straits, the gem of the four courses he designed for the American Club. The Straits opened in 1997 and has gained rave reviews for its wild, duneslike formations, its 1,200-plus links-style bunkers and its fescue-laden fairways.
The Straits Course was home to the 2004 PGA Championship and the ’07 U.S. Senior Open and is slated for the ’10 and ’15 PGAs and the ’20 Ryder Cup. To keep the layout fresh and relevant, Dye is installing a few back tees. Unlike other designers, Dye places his back tees low. “The pros don’t need help seeing the landing area,” he says.
He’s also inserting a severe bunker into the front middle of the sixth green on the Straits Course.
He clambers down into the bunker, 14 feet below the green surface, to inspect the work and offer advice to superintendent Mike Lee, who is coordinating the construction. Six laborers listen, and the arm of a track hoe dangles overhead.
Some folks Dye’s age with his accomplishments would be more at home reflecting on their place in history. Dye, ever the tinkerer, is more comfortable in mud.
“They must have dug pretty deep into the barrel to come up with my name,” Dye said of his impending induction, where he’ll be introduced by former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman. Dye will be the fifth course architect so honored, joining Robert Trent Jones Sr., Charles Blair Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross.
Born in 1925 in Urbana, Ohio, Dye grew up playing (and tending) the town’s nine-hole course, which his father had built. Pete Dye went on to become a successful insurance agent and a skilled golfer – good enough to win the Indiana Amateur and to qualify for the U.S. Open in 1957.
His wife, Alice, also is an accomplished golfer, and in the mid-1950s the couple turned their love of the game into a fledgling business in the Indianapolis area designing, building and grassing modest golf courses.
The Dyes’ first break came in 1963, when the president of the University of Michigan became so enamored with a nine-hole layout they did called El Dorado Golf Club that he hired Dye to design an 18-hole course for the school – Radrick Farms in Ann Arbor.
Soon, other commissions tumbled in, notably Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., and The Golf Club in New Albany, Ohio. Dye’s work, based upon angles and dramatic ground contour, was dramatically influenced by a monthlong visit to Scotland in 1963. There he learned not to fear sharp angles and steep slopes.
In planning Harbour Town Golf Links in the late 1960s, Dye saw what Robert Trent Jones Sr. was doing a few miles away on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and simply did the opposite. Instead of huge, landing-strip tees, Dye built smaller teeing grounds. Rather than 9,000-square-foot, multilayered greens, Dye built them half that size and with virtually no contour.
Whereas contemporaries such as Jones, George Cobb, Joe Finger, Dick Wilson, Joe Lee and George Fazio were emphasizing power, length and strength, Dye built a course oriented around finesse. Harbour Town stood as a complete repudiation of that era’s design style.
Many in the business probably wish that Dye had stuck with the subtlety of Harbour Town. Instead, he has tended to welcome the challenge of a succession of clients to build severe, artificial courses.
“Of course they’re unnatural,” he said. “They have to be. If they were natural, you wouldn’t be playing golf on them.”
Dye builds iconographic landscapes with railroad ties, island greens, boxcar bridges, deep greenside bunkers, 300-yard-long ponds and shots that require players to line up toward a silo, storage tank or smokestack. He often gives lots of room to play safely, if players are smart enough to turn away and play there.
Dye’s peers thought enough of him to make him president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects – and then to award him their highest honor, the Donald Ross Award, in 1995.
He also was recognized by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America with its Old Tom Morris Award in 2003. Along the way, he has been a mentor to many young, aspiring designers and builders, including David Postlethwaite, Lee Schmidt, Bill Coore, Jason McCoy, Bobby Weed, Tom Doak, Tim Liddy and, of course, Dye’s two sons, Perry and P.B.
Over nearly a half-century, Dye’s designs turned the tables on power golf. His work reclaimed linksland traditions and resurrected the ground game. Along the way, he came to rely upon contrivance. But that may have been the only way to give undistinguished land some definition and character.
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Bradley S. Klein is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him e-mail [email protected]