Commentary

At 82, Dye receives recognition for his designing touch

Originally Published: November 10, 2008
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

Ask the greatest living golf-course architect what he does for a living and he'll tell you in all seriousness that he doesn't draw, he just digs holes.

That's what Pete Dye told PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem in May, when Finchem called Dye's Delray Beach, Fla. home to tell him he had been named to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeThe 17th green of THE PLAYERS Stadium Course
Caryn Levy/PGA/Getty ImagesThe famed 17th island green at TPC Sawgrass, which is really a peninsula, underwent renovations in 2006.
•  Zoom gallery of Dye courses
Dye, a modest man, said to Finchem: "My Lord, you dipped to the bottom of the barrel and there I was. You pulled out a dirt digger."

Three years earlier, in a phone call to the Dye home under less celebratory circumstances, Finchem complained that the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass that Dye built 25 years earlier was no longer draining well. Dye's response was to travel to Ponte Vedra Beach; dig up a large, moist plug of Stadium Course turf that showed years of organic buildup; and deliver it to Finchem's desk.

"When he came in and saw that thing dripping all over his desk he was about ready to kill me," Dye recalled. "I told him, 'Mr. Finchem, it used to drain [just fine.]' "

The result of that encounter was the renovation of the Stadium Course, directed by Dye, to coincide with the 2007 shifting of the Players Championship from March to May.

Dye might tell this story Monday during his hall of fame induction ceremony at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla. Or he might recount any one of hundreds of tales he's collected in his nearly 50 years as a course designer and 82 years of living.

There's the story of Dye's father, Paul "Pink" Dye, an Urbana, Ohio, businessman and postmaster who was traveling to Washington, D.C., in 1923 when his car broke down in Uniontown, Pa. Pink, while waiting for his car to be repaired, stumbled upon a 9-hole course on Mount Summit. Although he had never gripped a club, he borrowed some sticks, played a few holes and was firmly hooked. Back home, Pink recruited some friends and built the 9-hole Urbana Country Club on farmland owned by his wife's family.

It was there that young Pete learned the game. More significantly, he developed a fondness for course maintenance. So when the course greenskeeper went off to World War II in 1942, Pete, who was 17 at the time, took his place manicuring the course.

"I just loved that part of it," he said.

[+] EnlargePete Dye
Pete Fontaine/Icon SMIPete Dye, above, becomes just the fourth golf course designer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. The others are Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Alister MacKenzie.
A couple of years later, Dye joined the Army. Eventually, he ended up at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he served as greenskeeper at the base golf course.

It was Dye's good fortune that one of the country's finest golf courses was a 30-minute drive from Fort Bragg. Dye played nearly every day at Pinehurst No. 2. There, he befriended course designer Donald Ross, who advised him on how to maintain the sand greens at Fort Bragg. Ross, in 1977, became the first architect admitted to the hall of fame. Dye is the fourth, with Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Alister MacKenzie being the other two. Pinehurst No. 2, says Dye, is his favorite non-Pete Dye course.

After the war, Dye moved to Indiana, joined the insurance business and became a fine amateur golfer. In 1950, he married an even better golfer, Alice O'Neal, who has won more than 50 amateur championships. The Dyes had two children, Perry and P.B., and settled into a comfortable suburban life in Indianapolis.

Dye's insurance career boomed. He became the youngest life member of the Million Dollar Round Table. He also played a lot of golf and, as he puts it, "fussed" around with some basic design changes at his local country club.

Around 1960, out of the blue, a local developer asked the Dyes to build a 9-hole course in south Indianapolis. For fun, they accepted the challenge. The course, called El Dorado, was the first to utilize new greens substructure specifications set down by the USGA -- which tickled Dye's agronomic mind.

The course featured 13 creek crossings. That brought some good-natured ribbing from some of their golfing friends. Pete and Alice Dye felt otherwise.

"We thought we had Oakmont for sure," Pete said.

Once the course was completed, the Dyes returned to their normal lives -- until the day Harlan Hatcher stumbled upon El Dorado while driving through Indianapolis.

Hatcher, the University of Michigan president, loved the course. At the time, he was planning a links for the UM campus and was weighing whether to hire Robert Trent Jones Sr. or Dick Wilson, two of the country's top architects at the time.

Instead, he chose the Dyes.

To this day, Pete Dye remains astounded that Hatcher picked him, a neophyte, for the job.

If I hadn't started with Pete [Dye], I'd be a different designer today. Or not a designer at all.

--Jack Nicklaus

"It changed my whole life," he said. "I was about to take over the Connecticut Mutual Insurance Co. Instead, we ended up doing the Michigan course, and we've been digging up other people's property ever since."

Dye had no formal training, so he did what most beginners do: He copied other architects. For the UM course, called Radrick Farms, he borrowed from Jones Sr. -- so much so that years later Jones Sr. kidded Dye about it, saying, "Pete, I believe you've done a lot of fine work, but I believe that course at the University of Michigan is your best."

Dye knew he needed to develop his own style. Once he and Alice committed to the profession -- they were in their mid-30s at the time -- they studied the East Coast courses, like Shinnecock Hills, and then left for Scotland, where they played all the famous courses, and many of the lesser-known ones as well.

At Prestwick, Dye saw for the first time how railroad ties -- called "sleepers" there -- were used as bulkheads to keep eroding sand in place. He marveled at the pot bunkers, the natural grasses, the undulating fairways, and the small, quick and sharply contoured greens.

[+] Enlarge18th hole
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOne of Pete Dye's most memorable closing holes can be found at Harbour Town. The red and white lighthouse casts its shadow over the green as water hugs the left side of the home hole.
"You get a whole different concept of the game, a whole different concept of strategy, a whole different concept of how they maintain the courses and everything else," he said.

Back home, the Dyes quickly put their new knowledge to work by building Crooked Stick Golf Club in 1965 -- a taste of Scotland in Indianapolis.

Since then, the Dyes have built more than 100 courses. Some -- the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort; the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass; Whistling Straits; Harbour Town Golf Links; PGA West Stadium Course; and, his favorite, Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic -- are famously challenging tracks, even for the top pros. They have hosted Ryder Cups and major championships.

When the first Players Championship was held at the Stadium Course in 1980, the pros whined about the fast greens. Dye says they were only an 8 on the Stimpmeter -- 11 or 12 is not unusual today -- and points out that Jerry Pate won the first tournament at 8 under par. Still, after the second year, Dye modified the greens on two occasions.

Similarly, when the PGA Tour played the Bob Hope Classic at the PGA West Stadium Course in La Quinta, Calif., some players thought the course was unfair and vowed not to return, a promise many have kept. But the course remains popular with amateurs -- especially women -- and has hosted numerous other professional events.

Dye says he was bothered by the complaints, but soldiered on, determined not to change his style. Over time, the players softened their views. Today, Dye's Sawgrass course is universally admired.

Says tour regular and Dye fan Jerry Kelly: "Everyone complains about something different at first, until you learn to fall in love with the nuances that make it great."

Jack Nicklaus, a longtime friend, believes Dye has a singular, well-intentioned purpose.

"He wasn't trying to be popular," Nicklaus said. "He was trying to challenge [the players] at the game of golf. If someone is yelling at you, you must be doing something right. And his golf courses have produced some pretty good champions."

Kelly calls Dye "the original maverick."

"He changed golf architecture. Anyone can copy someone, but to be the first, that's pretty special."

[Pete Dye] wasn't trying to be popular. He was trying to challenge [the players] at the game of golf. If someone is yelling at you, you must be doing something right. And his golf courses have produced some pretty good champions.

-- Jack Nicklaus

As hard as Dye's courses are for the pros, they're clearly more difficult for the average golfer, a phrase he disdains. He says he builds his courses for players who want a unique and challenging experience -- an experience they will remember.

In 2007, more than 38,000 rounds were played at Harbour Town, a public course, and Sawgrass is hugely popular as a once-in-a-lifetime destination course for golfers who will gladly pay the $335 greens fees for the opportunity to play a track that hosts the best players in the world once a year.

Said Dye: "Whoever that guy is, that's the guy I build for. And there are a lot of them."

Arthur Hills, who is also on the short list of great golf course designers, had high praise for Dye's work.

"I think of Pete like Picasso -- somebody that has created a non-traditional design, whether it's a painting, a sculpture or a golf course," Hills said. "He was so innovative in a profession that is very traditional."

Numerous course architects working today have been influenced by Dye, including his sons, two nephews and a niece.

But his most famous pupil is Nicklaus.

"If I hadn't started with Pete, I'd be a different designer today," Nicklaus said. "Or not a designer at all."

Friends from their amateur golf days, Nicklaus first worked with Dye when Dye built The Golf Club near Nicklaus' hometown of Columbus, Ohio, in 1967. Soon after, Nicklaus secured the Harbour Town contract for Dye from a friend, Charles Frazier. Nicklaus served as Dye's consultant on the project, making 23 visits while playing a full schedule on tour. Dye, as was his custom, lived on site.

Nicklaus said neither he nor Dye made money on the project.

"But we learned so much and had a great time doing it," Nicklaus said

Dye's cohort, of course, from Day 1 has been his wife Alice. Perry, their eldest son, says it wouldn't have been a stretch for the Dyes to enter the hall of fame as a couple.

"But one person usually gets all the credit. And no one deserves it more than my dad."

But yet, he said, "My mom's opinions weighed heavily on a lot of the design decisions."

[+] EnlargeHarbour Town
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOne of Pete Dye's signature features is the use of railroad ties, such as those at Harbour Town. Dye got the idea when he and his wife visited Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland.
Alice Dye's most notable contribution was her input into the 17th island green at Sawgrass -- arguably the most famous hole in golf.

Pete, naturally, revels in telling the story.

"I told Alice we have this area where we're going to put the par-3 17th and we don't have anything but water," Dye explained. "She said to me, 'Throw a bulkhead out in the middle of it and put some sand and dirt on top on it.' A light went on, and that's exactly how it [happened]."

Come Monday in St. Augustine, another light will shine brightly on Dye. Nicklaus, the sport's most accomplished golfer, believes that one of the greatest designers has been ignored too long.

"I say better late than never, but later than it should have been. He's had an amazing impact on the game."

Dye will not hear of such talk. Getting him to comment on the honor is a chore.

Finally, he concedes, "I'm thrilled to be a part of it."

No matter his age or his accomplishments, immediately afterward, Dye will return to work. He's 2½ years into his latest job, a resort course in French Lick, Ind., which he calls his biggest project ever. Then he'll turn his attention to another TPC course in San Antonio.

After that, who knows? But if there's a hole to be dug, a pile of dirt to be moved and a course to be built, it will be hard for Pete Dye to say no.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.

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