Not a lot of golf course architects become household names. Pete Dye was one of them. His death on Jan. 9 at the age of 94 following a prolonged bout with dementia leaves behind a powerful legacy that reshaped architecture, maintenance and how the game of golf is perceived. Few of his colleagues – historic and contemporary – have close to such a significant presence.
It’s arguable whether anyone achieved that popular status during the Golden Age of Architecture, the era between the two World Wars when golf was just gaining a foothold on the American sports landscape. Donald Ross designed the courses for eight of the 13 U.S. Opens held 1919-1931 but was hardly a well-known figure outside of the client base frequenting the Pinehurst Resort.
In post-World War II America, Robert Trent Jones Sr. achieved a measure of public recognition thanks to a combination of factors: his design vision as an advocate of power golf; the growth of the game as a recreational pursuit of middle-class America; and his considerable marketing skills as a self-promoter.
Pete Dye managed to achieve the status of a golf icon whose name and style became familiar to golfers and non-golfers alike. Televised golf had something to do with it. Who could forget the image of that wacky island green at the TPC Sawgrass-Players Stadium Course when it debuted on national TV in 1982? Tournament winner Jerry Pate tossing Dye and PGA commissioner Deane Beman into the pond alongside the 18th green did a lot to convey the impression that here was someone who could take a joke. From then on, the references to Dye’s architectural style flowed through the pages of golf magazines as if common currency. He was Dye-abolical, the Marquis de Sod and master of railroad ties.
As Dye liked to say, there wasn’t much he did that hadn’t already been done in Scotland. OK, he had the ability to move more dirt than had ever been the case on any linksland course. But once the dust settled, the forms that resulted at a PGA West or Whistling Straits could find their counterpart at a Prestwick, North Berwick or Turnberry. And from the time he played in the British Amateur at St. Andrews during his first Scotland study trip in 1963, he learned the value of ground contour as a way of thwarting aerial power golf.
The odd bounce, the severe deflection – it was all part of a natural game that he would emulate. The difference is that Dye had to create it. And in an era when the likes of Robert Trent Jones, Dick Wilson and Joe Lee were forced to rely upon big earth-moving equipment and small construction budgets, Dye managed to convince owners to open up the purse strings and diversify the equipment arsenal. Knuckle buckets, skid steers, back hoes, hand shovels – these were the tools of architectural intrigue.
That’s what he taught a whole generation (or two) of aspiring designers who cut their teeth on his projects. The list of names is a virtual Who’s Who of the Second Golden Age: Bill Coore, Brian Curley, Tom Doak, Ron Farris, John Harbottle, Tim Liddy, Chris Lutzke, Jason McCoy, Scott Poole, Dave Postlethwait, Lee Schmidt, Jim Urbina, Bobby Weed, Rod Whitman. Player architects also learned from him – Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman.
And of course his own family got into the act. His wife, Alice, who died in 2019, was the savior of the business as well as an accomplished designer in her own right, and their sons Perry Dye and P.B. Dye were exuberant about proving their own prowess at outdoing their father in the scale of forms they built. A niece, Cynthia Dye McGarey, has proven herself a formidable design presence internationally, perhaps because her father, Roy Dye, Pete’s older brother, had a knack for design that he deployed (sparingly) across the American southwest.
Dye’s capacity to inspire those he worked with extended to everyday laborers and equipment operators. He was never one to design on paper and mail in the plans. Everything was done in the field, often scarped out first and communicated to novice workers who had never built or even seen a golf course before. Dye preferred it that way; he could teach them his method rather than have to undo what they had done elsewhere for another designer.
Along the way he never forgot his roots in rural Midwest America. He was adamant at times about letting the site convey the special character of the course he was building. It might be orienting a par-3 hole directly toward a distant farm silo, as he did on Meadow Valleys at Blackwolf Run. Or incorporating the iconography of the Indianapolis Speedway – the infield, the stands on the third turn, an adjoining railroad line or an old barn – into the design of Brickyard Crossing. At the Pete Dye Golf Club on an abandoned coal field in West Virginia, letting the mine shaft serve as a cart path and an old, exposed 200-yard coal seam loom over the fairway of a par-5. At Whistling Straits along Lake Michigan in Wisconsin he hung all of the par-3s over the edge of the shoreline and used the vast water hazard as an infinity-edge backdrop.
Pete Dye changed the American golf landscape. Small wonder word of his transformation became part of everyday conversation.
Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science) is a former PGA Tour caddie, a veteran golf journalist, a noted author (“Discovering Donald Ross” among others), a golf course consultant and the Golf Therapy columnist for Golf Course Industry.
Inset photographs by Holger Obenaus of The Ford Plantation (top) and courtesy of Bradley S. Klein.