With the passing of Pete Dye, golf has lost perhaps the greatest course designer of the modern era. Certainly, nobody built better layouts over a longer period of time. Think Harbour Town and Teeth of the Dog, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island and the four tracks he crafted for Herb Kohler at Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run.
Then, there are the Stadium Courses at opposite ends of the country, at TPC Sawgrass and PGA West. The list is long and impressive, and so is the fact that the tracks that are part of the portfolio Dye has assembled over more than five decades of work, with notable assistance from his late wife and longtime design partner, Alice, have hosted more than 20 USGA championships, five PGA Championships and one Ryder Cup, with a second one set to be played at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in September.
“Pete had this amazing ability to create courses that worked for the best players in the world as well as recreational golfers,” says Kohler. “He was capable of really messing with the emotional framework of the touring professional as he also presented just the right amount of challenges and opportunities for everyday players to keep them coming back. Pete was the rare soul who could operate on both those levels.”
Elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2008, Dye attained elevated stature in the game as a result of his legacy as a mentor to a number of the game’s best architects. Among those who learned from him about the business and what it takes to construct a golf course before hanging out their own shingles include Tom Doak, Bill Coore, Rod Whitman, Bobby Weed, Jim Urbina and Tim Liddy. Dye also taught his sons, Perry and P.B., how to run bulldozers and backhoes, shape greens and dig bunkers, and they became accomplished designers in their own rights.
Kohler describes Pete Dye as “the consummate artist,” and a bare-bones one at that. “The only thing he really needed or wanted was a topographical map of the land. He’d take hold of that map and walk the land over and over, and then he’d start to do the layout. A dot for the tee. A dot for the landing area. A dot for the green. Then, he’d draw a line between the dots, and that was the hole. It was the only time that pencil met paper with Pete.”
Doak is just as effusive with his praise of Dye. “There were so many things I appreciated about him,” he says. “He treated everybody the same, whether it was the client or the lowest worker on the crew. He wasn’t afraid to borrow a great idea from someone else and use it, and he never pretended that he knew it all.
“I also liked that he didn’t suck up to his clients,” Doak adds. “And that most of them were actually a little afraid of Pete.”
Dye was an inveterate walker, and his designs were born of the hours he spent getting to know a piece of property. “Pete honed his ideas from being out on the land,” says Steve Friedlander, who was head of golf operations for Kohler when Dye built his four courses at Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run. “I remember when we were in the rough grading stages of the Irish Course (at Whistling Straits), and there was one spot Pete kept looking at from different locations. He walked around to maybe 14 different vantage points in a big circle so he could figure out the best way to approach the hole. He was willing to do whatever it took to make sure it looked right.”
Dye also believed in being on the job and was not someone who jetted in and out for quick consults with his project managers. “He’d usually rent a house near the site, and that’s where he would stay,” says Doak. “He preferred to work on one project at a time, and he taught all of us that that was the only way to do it. He taught us that designing a golf course was hard work, and that in order to do it right, you have to be willing to work hard.”
Dye always worked hard, but it never seemed like work to him. He loved being on the land, most times wearing a ragged golf hat and a pair of muddy boots, his dog Sixty by his side, his crew of eager, young shapers at the ready. “Another thing about Pete was that he was so upbeat,” says Weed. “And everyone on the crew fed off of that, which meant we had as much fun as he did. Every day was a great day because every day we were playing in the dirt.”
Dye was also famous for his sense of humor. “And you need that when you are building a golf course,” says Doak. “Construction is not glamorous. It’s a long and arduous process. You get tired and dirty. You get sweaty. You get attacked by gnats and mosquitos. Pete knew how to keep the crew happy and the momentum going with his ribbing and his jokes.”
Liddy laughs when he thinks of the way Dye made others laugh so often and so easily. “One time, when I was walking into a dinner at some function with Pete and Alice, Alice turned to me and asked, ‘How should I introduce you to people tonight?’ As Tim Liddy? Or as G**dammit Liddy, because that all I have ever heard Pete call you?’” he recalls.
Pete Dye was a singular soul, to be sure, and his death leaves a void that is best filled with memories of the man whose life was very well led.
He was born Paul Dye Jr. on December 29, 1925, in Urbana, Ohio, which is just north of Dayton. Unlike his father, Paul Francis, who was also known as Pink due to his red hair, the youngster had no middle name or initial. People began calling him P.D., in part as a way of differentiating him from his father. Eventually, P.D. became Petey and then Pete.
Pink Dye was an insurance salesman and also an avid golfer who built a nine-hole course on his family’s farm. Pete learned to play on that track, which became the centerpiece of the Urbana Country Club, and swung his first golf club there when he was 5 years old. Soon after, he was mowing greens and fairways, and by the time he was 15, Pete had assumed the title of greenskeeper. Along the way, Dye became an accomplished enough player to win the Ohio High School Golf Championship. As an adult, he qualified for five U.S. Amateurs, one British Amateur and one U.S. Open.
Dye joined the Army during World War II and after basic training was stationed first at Fort Benning in Georgia and then Fort Bragg in North Carolina. While at Fort Bragg, he often made the trek to nearby Pinehurst to play golf, one time teeing it with the architect of resort’s fabled No. 2 course, Donald Ross. When his hitch was up, he moved instead to Florida, where he met a Hoosier who was studying at Rollins College outside Orlando. Her name was Alice Holliday O’Neal, and she, too, was a strong golfer who had won the Indiana Women’s Amateur and was playing on the Rollins golf team. It wasn’t long before they started dating. Alice headed back to her home in Indianapolis after graduating in 1948. Pete joined her there a year later, and they married on Groundhog Day in 1950.
Two years later, she gave birth to their first child, Perry O’Neal, whom they named after Alice’s father. At that point, Pete was prospering as an insurance agent for Connecticut Mutual and had become one of the company’s top producers. In fact, Connecticut Mutual was so pleased with his work that its top executives were preparing to give him an entire agency to run. But Pete had other ideas, and that was to make a living as a course designer. Alice fully supported the idea and was looking forward to assisting him in his new endeavor even as she raised Perry and a second boy born in 1955, P.B. (for Paul Burke). But Pete’s bosses at the insurance underwriter were so distraught with his decision that they sent a psychologist to try and get him to reconsider.
The first course Pete and Alice designed was the El Dorado Golf Club, a nine-holer that opened just north of Indianapolis in 1961. A year later, they built their first 18-hole course, at a place called Heather Hills, and their business grew from there. Today, they are recognized for having designed more than 100 courses around the world. And while Pete always got top billing, Alice was there every step of the way. “She was his partner, his critic and his sidekick,” says Weed.
Years ago, I asked Pete whether he considered himself an architect or a designer, and he responded right away. “Architects need to have degrees,” he said. “They have to be able to make plans and drawings. But I am not a drawer, and the only degrees I have are honorary ones. I did not finish high school. I did not finish college. My scholastic background is pretty thin, and I am too dumb to be an architect.”
But he was one hell of a designer. As a rule, he utilized different angles of attacks on his golf holes and did his utmost to create dramatic ground contours on his courses. Many of his works boasted Old World features, thanks to the lifelong influence of a trip he took to Scotland in 1963 to play in the British Amateur on the Old Course at St. Andrews, and subsequent journeys to the ancestral home of golf. He liked pot bunkers, small greens and undulating fairways, and he loved tempting players to take the risks he often presented to them. And he was not afraid to reinvent himself. In fact, he did that a few times in his career, and took golf course design with him.
The results were in most cases masterpieces. And those courses along with all the designers and architects he mentored along the way will stand as monuments to the man as well as his work.
May Pete Dye rest in peace.
Pete Dye during the final round of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run. Photo: John Mummert, USGA
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