Pete Dye 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 belied a genius that reached into golf’s past and made it relevant for the future.
More by accident than design, he proved himself to be a genius.
Known best for wooden railroad ties, deep bunkers and one particular island green, the Hall of Fame golf course architect, who discovered his craft in the form of a self-made second career after a brief but successful stint as an insurance salesman, passed away Thursday at the age of 94.
Dye was a skilled golfer and fearless experimenter with turfgrass, design forms and courses that bedeviled generations of golfers from the 1960s on. In an era when modern, post-World War II design was defined by the narrow, demanding, aerial power golf of the unchallenged master of his day, Robert Trent Jones Sr., Dye came along and did everything differently. He ran his business with a minimum of documented construction plans and seemingly innovated in the field when he decided that what he saw just didn’t work and needed to be redone.
One story mid-way through his career reveals something of the infectious madness that charmed colleagues, clients and golfers alike. It was 1984, and he was just beginning work on a dead flat site in the desert of La Quinta, California, on land that eventually would become PGA West’s Stadium Course. Dye was, as always, assembling a work crew for his standard operating procedure of building the course himself – what’s called “design-build” in industry parlance. He was never much for detailed planning in advance and would leave the paper trail for others, often after the fact. 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 of white golf shirt and khaki slacks usually would get filthy in the process.
As an apprentice named Brian Curley approached Dye for the first time to meet him on site, 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 a car interior that somehow was caked with mud.
That, in a nutshell, is Dye’s career. He did everything upside down and inside out. He’s been called the nutty professor and the Marquis de Sod and the only architect who could outspend an unlimited budget.
Back in 1969, Gulf & Western handed him the keys to 400,000 acres (625 square miles) of the Dominican Republic to find a course routing, and when Dye came back with his 18-hole plan it turned out they needed to buy an adjoining 15-acre parcel to complete what would become Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog.
Dye always was more sculptor than architect, responding to his own creations – usually by changing them, often after they were grassed. He worked instinctively and by feel, and along the way he surpassed his colleagues in imagination and creativity. In the process he 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.).
It took a while for Dye to figure out his life’s calling. Born in 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 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 progressed to mowing greens and fairways. During World War II as the town’s labor force depleted, Pete 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 narrated in his typical Midwest tang 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, North Carolina, the commander asked if anyone could tend the base’s course. Dye stepped forward. Within two weeks, he and three officers were making regular afternoon trips 30 miles to a 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 rolled the ball forever, Dye was a fine player, captaining the Rollins College team near Orlando in 1947 and competing against fine collegians such as Harvie Ward, Art Wall, Mike Souchak and Arnold Palmer. He was good enough to have qualified for the 1946 U.S. Amateur at Baltusrol, the first of five times he played that event. He also played in the 1957 U.S. Open at Inverness and won the Indiana State Amateur in 1958.
Dye never did finish at Rollins College. He got distracted by golf and a co-ed from Indianapolis, Alice O’Neal, the lead golfer on the women’s team, whom he married in 1950. She went on to an impressive amateur golf career: nine-times an Indiana State Amateur champion, winner of the U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur in 1978 and 1979, a Curtis Cup team member in 1970 and captain of the 1992 U.S. Women’s World Amateur Team. Alice passed away in 2019 at age 91.
After they wed, the pair settled in Indianapolis where they became successful insurance agents and staples of the local amateur circuit. She gave up her business career to raise their two boys, P.B. and Perry, and when Pete finally got the bug to give up insurance for designing golf courses, 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 dabbled in turfgrass research with faculty at Purdue University. When he became green chairman of the 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. And an experiment in weed control on part of the first fairway – members confined his experiment to the ill-fated “Dye half” – also did not pan out.
Undeterred, Dye slogged on, including making visits to Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Midwest golf architect legend Bill Diddle to solicit 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. Pete and Alice built the course themselves, Pete having taught himself to operate a bulldozer. The greens were likely 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 that they hauled in the trunk of their car.
In 1963, Pete and Alice took a month-long tour of classical Scottish venues, a trip that changed their 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 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 raised. They also were impressed how the North Sea was visible from almost every hole, an effect they later emulated at the Ocean Course at Kiawah, where they gave every hole a look out to or along the Atlantic Ocean.
The big revelation was the Old Course at St. Andrews, where Dye played the 1963 British Amateur. He hated the course the first time around, finding the holes 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 began to see the holes aerially in his mind, as if looking down on them, and was drawn by how the lines of play and strategies were suggested not by towering trees that hemmed you in, as in the U.S., but by modest vertical upsweeps of bunkers or dunes. He was intrigued by how so many ground features dead-ended into hollows and misled a player’s eye. He also saw how changes in vegetation texture would allow you to read the terrain – if you paid attention.
These were lessons he went on to incorporate in his most powerful and iconic landscapes, and he did so by personally overseeing a site from beginning to end.
This, says course designer Tom Doak, might be the most valuable lesson of Dye’s work. Doak went to work for Dye on Long Cove in 1981 for $4 an hour on a construction crew in searing heat.
“A week into Long Cove,” Doak said, “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 (to) make sure it was the way I wanted.’ ”
It was a lesson Dye conveyed to other future designers who worked on Long Cove: Bobby Weed, Ron Farris and Scott Poole. And it’s a lesson conveyed to a whole generation of architects who worked under Dye in his half century of design: Dave Postlewaite, Lee Schmidt, Bill Coore, Jason McCoy, Brian Curley, Tim Liddy and Dye’s own two sons, P.B. and Perry.
The experience of watching John Daly obliterate his Crooked Stick course in the 1991 PGA Championship nearly proved traumatic for Dye. For the rest of his career he was adamant about trying to defeat the long-ball hitter and grew increasingly frustrated that, in his view, the USGA wasn’t doing enough to limit the distance modern golf balls traveled.
Tired of watching Tour-quality players hit driver and wedge to virtually every par 4, Dye became the first architect to champion extra-long par 4s, often in the range of 470 to 490 yards. He virtually dispensed with mid-range par 4s of 400 to 450 yards, relying upon a handful of short par 4s and the rest long par 4s.
In the last few years, Dye slowed down physically and mentally. But that didn’t stop him from maintaining a considerable workload, much of it undertaken with the help of his longtime associate, Liddy. In the last few years Dye completed Chatham Hills in Westfield, Indiana; a major renovation of the Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, Georgia; a complete rebuild of Full Cry at Keswick Hall Golf Club near Charlottesville, Virginia; yet another overhaul of the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium course; a revitalization of his iconic The Golf Club in New Albany, Ohio; and a second course at Nemacolin Woodlands in Farmington, Pennsylvania, called Shepherd’s Rock.
After more than seven decades in the field, Dye was extending a legacy that will force players to think for generations to come.
– Bradley S. Klein wrote for Golfweek for 30 years, has worked with several other publications and is the author of multiple books on golf course design.