Pete Dye: Genius, not always by design

He’s the architect who listens to no one, yet he has trained more disciples than anyone in the business. Pete Dye infuriates clients, at the same time winning their lifelong friendship. He’s the kindest man in the game when it comes to his time, yet no one revels more in making people suffer when they step onto his courses. People love him or hate him, usually both.

What’s not to respect in a designer whose game is good enough to have qualified him for a U.S. Open? He knew Sam Snead, Donald Ross and Ben Hogan, and he played golf against Jack Nicklaus. He has 12 layouts on the Golfweek America’s Best list of top 100 modern courses, including four in the top 10. He has two sons, Perry and P.B., in the design business. And his wife, Alice, is a successful designer in her own right, as well as a Curtis Cup team member and two-time winner of the USGA Senior Women’s Championship.

Not bad for a former insurance salesman.

An icon of design

Pete Dye, the game’s Marquis de Sod, is the only course architect ever to outspend an unlimited budget. He’s the man who won’t – or can’t – work from a topographic map, and whose written plans come after the fact, to document what he did in the field.

“We had numerous extended conversations,” said Dick Youngscap, who hired Dye in 1982 to build Firethorn Golf Club in Lincoln, Neb. The course opened in 1985 and is ranked No. 76 on the Golfweek America’s Best list of top modern courses. “It was the only low-budget project he did in those days, and we both worked hard to make sure the course worked within those limits.

“He’d walk through these woods, and you couldn’t see 15 feet around. But he kept seeing these golf holes. It’s like he had the whole property map in his head. He knew exactly where all the boundaries were. And here it is 20 years later and I stay at his house when I’m visiting him at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. So I guess all that fighting was worth it.”

It’s been said that Dye is more sculptor than architect, responding to his own creations – usually by changing them, often after they’ve been grassed. If he works instinctively, by feel, he also surpasses his colleagues in imagination and creativity. That’s what has enabled him to fashion a pantheon of world-class courses, including Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C., the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Pete Dye Golf Club in Bridgeport, W.Va., and Whistling Straits in Mosel, Wis., which will play host to the 2004 PGA Championship.

Dye’s iconographic landscapes have imprinted themselves on the minds of modern golfers – many of whom lie awake at night replaying their tortured encounters with his railroad ties, island greens, boxcar bridges, 16-foot-deep greenside bunkers and 300-yard-long ponds. Nobody is better at tempting golfers to go for landing areas they have no business attempting. He doesn’t build blind holes or features – he throws them in your face and dares you to play the short side of the hole, invariably the one flanking all of the danger. He usually also gives you lots of room to play safely, if you’re smart enough to turn away and play there.

An early path

It took a while for Dye to figure out his life calling. Born in 1925 in Urbana, Ohio, he picked up the game at age 3. He had free run of nine-hole Urbana Country Club, a course his father, Paul Dye, built with some friends. Dye remembers working on the maintenance crew when he was 7 years old. At first, he helped water the course, then mowed greens and fairways. By the time World War II arrived, Dye was recruited as the club’s greenkeeper, a post he held while attending high school until 1944, when he signed up as an Army paratrooper.

He was stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C. When the commander asked if anyone could tend the base’s course, Cpl. Dye stepped forward. Within two weeks, he and three officers were making regular afternoon trips 20 miles away to a resort named Pinehurst. There they played golf, much of it on Pinehurst No. 2, and had long talks with resident golf professional and course designer Donald Ross.

During his Army days, Dye began drinking routinely. His father had been what Dye calls “a functional alcoholic.” Gradually, Dye began to follow. The steady drinking continued for nearly 30 years.

“I was never to the point where I couldn’t get out of bed and go to work, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t an alcoholic,” said Dye. His drinking continued until the early 1970s. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous, though the visit was to help an unnamed close acquaintance. Dye immediately realized the symptoms described all pertained to himself.

“Walked out of there and never had a drink since,” he said.

After World War II, Dye majored (briefly) in business at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. That’s where he met Alice O’Neal, the lead golfer on the women’s team. The two married in 1950, then both went to work as agents for Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance. She became the youngest member of the quarter-million-dollar roundtable. He was the youngest member of the million-dollar roundtable. His sales strategy was simple.

“I played golf all summer, and never once mentioned a word about insurance,” Dye said. “Then I’d put the clubs down on Labor Day, and over the next few weeks, call everyone I had played golf with. Sold like crazy.”

He also played like crazy – with a flat swing and a draw that enabled the ball to run. He qualified for match play three times at the U.S. Amateur. In 1956, he played an exhibition match at Urbana CC against Sam Snead and a 16-year-old phenom from Columbus named Jack Nicklaus. Dye qualified for the 1957 U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where he shot 75-77 and missed the cut by two shots. The next year he won the Indiana Amateur, then went to the Trans-Mississippi Amateur at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., where he played against Nicklaus.

“Lost 4 and 3, or something. If I’d beat him, it would’ve changed the whole history of golf,” Dye said with a smile. “He would’ve gone home and I would’ve turned pro.”

Instead, Dye turned architect. He long had dabbled in turfgrass and design, including some work at the Country Club of Indianapolis, where Dye was green chairman. During his tenure, the club lost 4,000 trees, much of it to Dutch Elm disease. Dye planted new trees everywhere, something he regrets today. The club also was adjusting to its first fairway irrigation system and dealing with crabgrass that had infested its bluegrass fairways. Dye called upon experts at Purdue University in search of agronomic solutions. Among Dye’s innovations was construction of a putting green that was the first in the country to meet what would soon become USGA specifications.

In 1959, Pete and Alice landed an unpaid design job, for the nine-hole El Dorado Golf Club in Indianapolis. They built the course themselves, grassing the greens with sod from their front lawn that they hauled in the trunk of their car. Their first paid assignment came the next year, an $8,000 fee for Heather Hills Golf Club in Indianapolis, with 18 holes squeezed onto 80 acres.

More jobs followed, enough to lead Pete away from insurance. (Alice had quit earlier in order to raise their two small boys.)

In 1963, he and Alice took a month-long tour of classical Scottish venues, a trip that changed their outlook entirely. At Prestwick, for instance, they discovered railroad ties shoring up the bunkers. Elsewhere, they found smallish greens, tiny pot bunkers, sprawling waste areas strewn with sand and a wide variation in playing conditions owing mainly to the wind. They also found greens with 5-6 feet of vertical slope. Dye says he measured everything, “so when people accused me of being crazy, I could tell them they did it that way in Scotland.”

In 1964, he put together a syndicate of Indianapolis businessmen to create Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., a facility that went on to play host to the 1991 PGA Championship and the 1993 U.S. Women’s Open.

Then came what remains his most sophisticated work, The Golf Club in New Albany, Ind. There he used gracefully shaped fairways and diagonally arrayed, low-slung bunkers to create multiple angles for shotmaking. The course, opened in 1967, continues to beguile golfers today as an example of using modest vertical contour to create powerful imagery and definition.

An era of innovation

In planning Harbour Town in the late 1960s, Dye saw what Robert Trent Jones Sr. was doing a few miles away 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. This on a site that offered exactly 4 feet of natural elevation. There are greens at Augusta National with more vertical relief. With masterful shaping and the use of railroad ties, sharp edging and ornamental flourishes of Bahia and Pampas grasses, he was able to create enduring holes that register themselves on the minds of golfers.

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 entirely 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, totally artificial courses. “Of course they’re unnatural,” he says. “They have to be. If they were natural, you wouldn’t be playing golf on them.”

The best Pete Dye courses? Several candidates stand out. The Teeth of the Dog course at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic has features seemingly drawn with a surgeon’s knife. No mechanical earth-moving equipment was employed. A throwback to the classical era, it was built entirely with hand labor.

Enduring landscapes

The innovative work continued with the PGA West Stadium Course in La Quinta, Calif., a layout that opened in 1986. Dye built a course in the middle of a barren, dead, flat desert spawning a real estate revolution. His Brickyard Crossing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (1994) incorporates electric towers, railroad tracks, petroleum storage tanks, an on-site motel and the infield of the world’s most famous race track. He started the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., in 1989 on a hurricane-devastated beachfront under the considerable pressure of knowing it would debut two years later as host of the Ryder Cup.

With dozens of courses to his credit, Dye has been highly regarded enough by his peers that they elected him president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects – and then awarded him the Society’s highest honor, the Donald Ross Award, at its 1995 meeting in Scotland. He also has something of a soft heart when it comes to taking on people interested in learning the trade. Among the designers who got their starts wrestling trees on Dye’s construction crews are David Postlethwaite, Lee Schmidt, Bill Coore, Jason McCoy, Bobby Weed, Tom Doak, and of course, Dye’s two sons, Perry and P.B.

Dye’s designs turned the tables on power golf. His work reclaimed linksland traditions, resurrected the ground game and adapted classical golf to the playing characteristics of modern balls and clubs. Along the way, he came to rely – perhaps too heavily – upon contrivance. But that may have been the only way to give undistinguished land some definition and character. His designs are extreme, but they are true to his vision.

In life and in art, the cutting edge – by its very nature – teeters on the brink. Living on the edge creates innovation, but it also takes a toll. The challenge of a creative soul is to know when to step back and keep one’s art - and life - under control.

Pete Dye has done that, perhaps not always by design.

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