Dye builds legacy by getting hands dirty

Pete Dye and his German shepherd Sixty at Gulf Stream Golf Club in Delray Beach, Fla.

Pete Dye and his German shepherd Sixty at Gulf Stream Golf Club in Delray Beach, Fla.

Pete Dye was at it again.

It was 1984, and he was just beginning work on a dead-flat site in the desert of La Quinta, Calif., on land that eventually would become PGA West’s Stadium Course. Dye was assembling a work crew as part of his standard operating procedure to build the course himself – what’s called “design-build” in industry parlance.

He never was much for detailed planning, and would leave the documentary record for others. He was much more at home playing in the dirt. Often that meant hopping on a bulldozer or Sand Pro to shape the features himself. His standard-issue work outfit – white golf shirt, khaki slacks – typically got filthy in the process.

When an apprentice named Brian Curley approached Dye for the first time, the recent college graduate did a double take. There was Dye, taking a hose to his rental car to clean it off. Actually, to clean it out. All four doors were open. Dye was blasting away at an interior caked with mud.

That, in a nutshell, is Dye’s career. He has done everything upside down and inside out. He has been called the nutty professor, the Marquis de Sod and the only architect who could outspend an unlimited budget. Back in 1969, Gulf & Western handed him 400,000 acres (625 square miles) in the Dominican Republic to find a golf course routing, and when Dye came back with his 18-hole plan, the company needed to buy an adjoining 15-acre parcel to complete the project.

It has been 50 years since Dye, now 86 years old, opened his first 18-hole golf course, Heather Hills Country Club, now known as Maple Creek Golf & Country Club, in Indianapolis. He has been more sculptor than architect, responding to his own creations, usually by changing them, often after they’ve been grassed. He works instinctively and by feel, and along the way surpassed his counterparts in imagination and creativity. In the process, he has transformed the American golf landscape and

established himself as a certified legend – one of only four full-time course architects enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame (joining Charles Blair Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie and Robert Trent Jones Sr.).

The agronomic disasters

It took a while for Dye to figure out his life’s calling. Born Dec. 29, 1925 in Urbana, Ohio, he picked up the game as a young boy when he had free run of nine-hole Urbana Country Club, a course that his father, Paul Dye, built with some friends. Dye helped out on the maintenance crew when he was 7 years old. At first, he helped water the course, then mowed greens and fairways. When World War II depleted the town’s labor force, Dye found himself, at age 16, as de facto greenkeeper.

Then came the first of his many career agronomic disasters. In those days, it was common to fertilize greens with sulphate of ammonia mixed in a water barrel and then tossed on a green from a sprinkler can. Impressed with his initial results and laboring under the theory that if a little is good, more is better, he increased the concentration. Sure enough, the greens reacted. In a pacing of speech that would serve a stand-up comic well, Dye describes in his Midwest twang what happened next. “Those greens turned light green to dark green to real dark green to black and then brown, and soon they were straw. And the next week, my dad shipped me off to the Army to be a paratrooper.”

During a stint at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., the commander asked if anyone could tend the base’s golf course. Cpl. Dye stepped forward.

Within two weeks, he and three officers were making regular afternoon trips to a nearby resort named Pinehurst. There they played golf, much of it on Pinehurst No. 2, and Dye got to meet Donald Ross.

With a flat swing and a draw that caused the ball to roll forever, Dye was a fine player, captaining the team at Florida’s Rollins College in 1947. He competed against some top collegians – Harvie Ward, Art Wall, Mike Souchak and Arnold Palmer.

Dye was good enough to qualify for the 1946 U.S. Amateur at Baltusrol, the first of five times he played in that event. He also played in the 1957 U.S. Open at Inverness and won the Indiana State Amateur in 1958.

Dye never did get his degree from Rollins. He got distracted by golf and by a co-ed from Indianapolis, Alice O’Neal, the lead golfer on the women’s team, whom he married in 1950. She also had an impressive amateur golf career: nine-time Indiana State

Amateur champion, a Curtis Cup team member in 1970, winner of the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur in 1978 and ’79, and captain of the 1992 U.S. Women’s World Amateur Team.

The two settled in Indianapolis, where they became successful insurance agents and staples of the local amateur circuit. Alice gave up her business career to raise their two boys, P.B. and Perry, and when Pete got the bug to design courses rather than sell insurance, she reluctantly agreed – then threw herself into the task for the next half-century as his business agent, co-laborer and design associate.

Dye had been dabbling in turfgrass research with the faculty at Purdue University. When he became greens chairman at Indianapolis Country Club in 1955, he put his newfound expertise to work. He oversaw tree plantings to replace the hundreds of Dutch elms lost to disease, eventually creating shade issues. The bridges he built got washed out. An experiment in weed control on part of the first fairway – what members called the ill-fated “Dye half” – also did not work out.

Undeterred, Dye slogged on, visiting with Jones Sr. and golf architect Bill Diddle, then a legend in the Midwest, to solicit their advice. Eventually, his contacts paid off with a call to design and build the nine-hole El Dorado Country Club (now called Royal Oak) in Indianapolis. The routing called for 13 creek crossings and had out of bounds along the right on the majority of holes. The Dyes built the course themselves, Dye having taught himself to operate a bulldozer. El Dorado’s greens likely were the first set in the country built to the U.S. Golf Association’s then-nascent plans for perched water table, sand-based construction. The Dyes grassed the greens with sod cultivated on their front lawn and hauled in the trunk of their car.

The lessons of Scotland

In 1963, the Dyes took a month-long tour of classic Scottish venues, a trip that changed their design outlook entirely. At Turnberry, they were impressed by the vastness of the holes. At Prestwick, they discovered railroad ties shoring up the bunkers and slopes so steep that Dye measured them with a surveyor’s transit. The long ride north to Royal Dornoch paid off when they discovered how the greens there allowed for ground entry along low, scooped-out terrain that made the putting surfaces appear to be raised. They also were impressed at how the North Sea was visible from almost every hole – an effect they were later to emulate at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, where they gave most holes a view of the Atlantic Ocean.

The biggest revelation, however, came at St. Andrews, where Dye played the 1963 British Amateur. He hated the course the first time around, thinking that the holes were indistinct. But by his seventh tour of the course – he made it to the third round

of match play before losing to a professional roller skater from Glasgow – he was fascinated by the place.

He had begun to see the holes aerially in his mind, as if looking down on them, and he was drawn by how the lines of play and strategies were suggested not, as in the U.S., by towering trees that hemmed golfers in, but by modest vertical upsweeps of bunkers or dunes. He was intrigued by how so many ground features dead-ended into hollows and misled the eye. And he also saw how changes in vegetation texture would allow golfers to read the terrain – if they paid attention.

These were lessons he would incorporate in his most powerful and iconic landscapes. And he did so by personally overseeing the sites from beginning to end.

This, says Tom Doak, might be the most valuable lesson of Dye’s work. Doak worked on the construction crew for Dye in 1981 at Long Cove Club on Hilton Head Island, S.C., for $4 per hour in searing heat.

“A week into Long Cove,” recalls Doak, “Pete said to me, ‘I tried to draw plans, and it just didn’t work out that way for me. It didn’t come out the way I wanted. The only way was to be right there, surprise, make sure it was the way I wanted.’ ”

It was a lesson Dye conveyed to other future designers who worked at Long Cove: Bobby Weed, Ron Farris and Scott Pool.

Dye’s work has not been without its excesses. His penchant for moving dirt and keeping fairway drainage separate from rough areas has led him to rely too much on catch basins – as is evident at The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, where one-third of all rollouts into low surrounding areas end up requiring a drop from a drain cap. And in his zeal to counter long-ball hitters, he has had to be reminded that everyday golfers need to be able to get around a course, too.

Dye has made a career of knowing that most golfers are easily seduced and that the brain is the weakest club in the bag.

His self-effacing, aw-shucks approach to the game belies an artistry that reached into golf’s past and made it relevant for the future. More by accident than design, he has proved himself to be a genius.

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