This week, before the sports world was turned on its head by the COVID-19 virus, Ron Green Jr. caught up with Rory McIlroy to discuss the tempestuous relationship he has had with Pete Dye golf courses, and how the world’s No.1-ranked player negotiated a peace with Pete’s diabolical designs. The story was relevant at the time and will be again. In the meantime, we present it as an illustration of just how quickly life as we know it can change.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | Rory McIlroy remembers when he agreed to a peaceful coexistence with Pete Dye-designed golf courses.
McIlroy turned up at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, the fever-dream Dye design perched with all of its man-made bumps and rolls on the edge of Lake Michigan, and hated what he saw. Nothing about it appealed to McIlroy.
Still, there was a major championship to be played and McIlroy told himself to love it for a week. McIlroy wound up finishing T3 that week, one stroke out of a playoff, and he had turned a psychological corner. He didn’t have to love Dye designs, but McIlroy didn’t want to be beaten before he teed off.
Ultimately, McIlroy won the 2012 PGA Championship on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, one of Dye’s most dramatic designs, he captured a FedEx Cup playoff event at Dye’s Crooked Stick near Indianapolis and, of course, he won the Players Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass last year.
To borrow a line from a country song, it ain’t love but it ain’t bad.
“I’ve started to quite like them,” McIlroy said. “They’re like beer when you’re younger. You sort of don’t like it but then you think it’s cool to drink it and then you sort of acquire a taste for it.”
The Stadium Course might be Dye’s Mona Lisa, a masterpiece of modern design that serves as an exceptional golf theater, asking as many mental questions as physical ones. Before committing to a shot, almost every hole forces players to make a decision about what they want to do, weighing often severe consequences against the value of being aggressive.
When the wind blows, it can be both frightening and ferocious. On softer days, the Stadium Course is vulnerable to low scores. Either way, it forces the game to be played on two levels – between the ears and between the hazards.
“(Dye’s) golf courses are visually disturbing, they look more difficult than they are, and I think he forces you into hitting shots that you wouldn’t normally hit because of that,” said Jim Furyk, who was runner-up to McIlroy at the Players last year.
Only Augusta National might be more familiar to golf fans than the Stadium Course, where the Players Championship has been played since 1982. Augusta has Amen Corner. The Stadium Course has its three-hole finish, swinging around two different lakes, where one swing can change everything.
From the start, though, the Stadium Course delivers what its late designer wanted: An examination of shotmaking skills and course management.
On the surface, the 423-yard, par-4 first hole looks mundane. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.
“You stand on the tee, it’s uncomfortable, it’s tough to pick a target, and it looks like you’re hitting to about a 15-yard wide fairway. Then you get out there, and I miss the fairway a lot, and I look around, and I go, sheesh, this fairway is pretty big, it’s 35 yards wide,” Furyk said.
“Then I look at the green, and I go, my goodness that’s a tiny green. There’s a big bunker on the left, and visually it’s disturbing. And I miss the green and I get up there and I go, this green was plenty big enough to hit with an 8-iron, how did I miss it?
“It seems like that’s kind of (Dye’s) unique trait is everything looks tougher than it is.”
David Duval, who won the Players Championship in 1999, points to the par-5 16th as an example of how Dye challenges players. At 523 yards, it’s reachable in two shots by every player in the field and usually plays as the easiest hole on the course. Still, it asks a specific set of questions.
“The little things that are hidden from your view that make you feel like it’s there but you can’t see it. It just plays little tricks in your mind.” – David Duval
“It’s right to left off the tee, then you need to move it left to right into the green. There’s a little area left of the green to bail out but you can’t see it because of the tree and because of the area under the tree that’s raised up. You can’t see the right side of the green because of the bunker that’s kind of pushed up. You can’t see the sand but you know it’s there,” Duval said.
“The little things that are hidden from your view that make you feel like it’s there but you can’t see it. It just plays little tricks in your mind. To me, that’s kind of the essence of Pete Dye and what he tried to do to a player.”
Scroll through the list of champions at the Stadium Course and it’s difficult to find a common thread. Big hitters such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and McIlroy have won there. One of the shortest hitters – Fred Funk – also won there. Craig Perks was the ultimate long shot when he won. Grinders like K.J. Choi and Webb Simpson have won there.
It’s possible to overpower the Stadium Course in the right conditions but it’s a dangerous approach, the ultimate risk-reward equation. It’s all part of the game Dye sought to create on what was once a Florida swamp.
“Every hole out here has a bait-and-switch nature to it. Every single hole has some psychological confusion built into it where he’s asking you to take a risk. You think you should take that risk but you shouldn’t take that risk,” television analyst Brandel Chamblee said.
“Pete just showed up and he had no precursors and nobody could even copy him. Nobody even tries. He was a complete original and that’s genius.”
After enjoying success at Pete Dye designs, Rory McIlroy says he has acquired a taste for them. Photo: Cliff Hawkins, Getty Images
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