Pete Dye, who died recently at the age of 94, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, was arguably the most influential golf architect of the second half of the twentieth century.
Born in Ohio in 1925, Dye came to golf design in his 30s after an early foray into the insurance industry. Along with his wife Alice (who predeceased him last year), his lifetime partner in both business and family matters, he built a number of courses in the Midwest before a seminal trip to Scotland in 1963 changed his outlook on golf design, with subsequent courses incorporating features such as pot bunkers, railway sleeper-supported bunkers and gorse-like vegetation – but also focusing closely on the strategic element he found on the links.
Dye transformed the industry, not once but twice; first in the 1960s with designs like Harbour Town, which broke the mould of the large-scale championship courses favoured by Robert Trent Jones Sr and his followers, and later in the 1980s, when his TPC at Sawgrass in Florida ushered in a new era of specially built ‘stadium’ courses for professional events. He also proved the most successful ‘design mentor’ in the game’s history, with architects such as Bill Coore, Tom Doak, Brian Curley, Bobby Weed, Chris Lutzke and Tim Liddy learning their trade at his feet.
Bill Coore told GCA: “He and Alice had made such an amazing team in life and golf. I would say that Pete Dye was one of the most influential golf architects in the history of the profession. Pete was the only golf architect that changed the course of golf architecture twice, first with Harbour Town, an old-world design with characteristics totally opposite to the contemporary golf architecture then in vogue. Then, he and Alice redirected golf architecture again with the creation of TPC Sawgrass, a course that would dictate the direction and style of golf architecture around the world for the next two decades. Personally, I can say Pete Dye was one of the most influential people in my life. Golf, golf architecture and I will miss him.”
It wasn’t just Dye-trained architects who owe him a lot. Jim Nagle of Forse Design said: “I would not be sitting here today if it were not for Pete Dye. When I went to school at West Virginia, studying landscape architecture, Pete was building the Pete Dye Golf Club. The father of a classmate of mine was building it for him, and I wanted to get into golf architecture, so I asked my friend if I could go meet her father. I drove down to the course, and I met Pete. Pete was very generous with his time and allowed me to follow him round all day, teaching me things. Next thing I know, I’m interning with his son Perry. That chance meeting with Pete Dye opened so many doors for me. Perry used to have these manuals for courses that his father had designed, which explained the strategy of the holes; what was the best line to play. You could see how closely Pete maintained classic strategic principles. Now, his architecture may have looked completely different, but the principles that underpinned it were the same.”
Like Nagle, Forrest Richardson encountered Pete before becoming an active golf architect. “I remember distinctly reading an article and seeing pictures of what he did at the Golf Club in Ohio, and I was mesmerised by what he had done,” he said. “When I started playing golf courses, I felt that every hole looked the same, but when I saw Pete’s work, I realised they didn’t have to be like that. At Long Cove, for example, you come to a hole and it doesn’t look anything like the ones that came before it, and that energises the golfer. I first met him when I was doing some work – not golf design – for Disney, doing logos and signage for a resort, and Pete was doing one of the golf courses there. One day I went into the site office and Pete was there, and the project manager introduced me. He immediately broke off what he was doing and said, ‘So where are you from?’ I said Arizona, and he immediately stopped and turned to the agronomic guy and the construction guy and said, ‘He’ll tell you we don’t need any peat moss in the greens. Last thing they put in the greens in Arizona is peat moss. Isn’t that right?’ to which I replied, well yes actually it is, Mr Dye. And he said ‘Well, what did I tell you?’ to the other guys.”
Bobby Weed said: “I first met Pete in the 1970s at Amelia Island Plantation. That was the start of a 45-year relationship. We built Long Cove together in 1981, and I’ve been building golf courses ever since. I can hardly approve a feature without feeling Pete’s influence. Pete was always ahead of his time. How many golf designers could that be said about? As much of a legacy as his courses will be, the impact he had on those fortunate to work with him may be more enduring. The stories and memories are plentiful but seem insufficient. We all have someone who took hold of us and set us on our life’s path, maybe without our even knowing it. For me, that was Pete. Everything I hold dear in golf took root from my relationship with him. Not bad for someone that lived to be half of 188!”
Ron Forse said: “I first saw his work at The Golf Club in New Albany, Ohio. Knowing how early it was in his career, and how soon after visiting Scotland, it was fascinating to see how visiting Prestwick had been so influential on the design; also the degree of imagination which he brought to bear on what was really a pretty flat site. But after four or five holes, I just started laughing, because it was almost comical; this stuff was so brazen, so bold and so iconoclastic. It was almost like golf humour – ‘Look at all this new stuff, I’m going to make you freak out; you can’t figure out what I’m doing.’
“One thing we learned was that he always wanted earthmovers who knew nothing about golf – because he wanted to change the rate of change. His ‘children’ may not build courses that look like his, but in spirit they do – they do it with his sense of strategy and his sense of natural randomness. Pete went to Culver Academy, where they have a nine-hole course by William Langford. Langford built plateau greens with undulating, rolling contours, often with three high points. When I went to see TPC Sawgrass years ago I saw lots of things that reminded me of Langford.”
Bruce Charlton of Robert Trent Jones II said: “There was a period of about ten years when Bobby Weed, Brian Huntley and I were the golf committee for the ASGCA so I got to decide who played with who – and who I played with! Once we were in Charleston and playing the Ocean course at Kiawah, and Bobby [Jones] said to me, ‘Let’s you and me play with Pete and Alice’. So, we did, and for eighteen holes there was a constant dialogue between the two of them, Pete would say ‘Ah, why d’you do that Alice?’ and Alice would explain ‘Well, Pete...’ and the banter would continue back and forth between them. I really do believe that Alice was a great balance to Pete’s whackiness, and Pete’s whackiness was a perfect fit with Alice’s more sensible approach. Alice was the one that brought Pete back down to earth.
“One of my favourite things about Pete’s designs is that he and Alice were geniuses about moving golf holes. You would see a hole that moved left to right, and they would always offset the green right to left. Pete inspired us all to think outside the box. He really enjoyed making the best players in the world struggle. I told him to his face that I had played holes of his where – in the same hole – I thought he was an absolute genius and a lunatic!”
Read more: Christoph Staedler talks about the influence Pete Dye had on his career.
“What I admired most about Pete is that he really didn’t have much ego; he was just as happy working on a golf course in a housing development as he was on a big tournament site, as long as the client didn’t restrict his creativity,” said Tom Doak. “He liked to tease people, and he treated everyone the same, from the lowliest guy on the crew to the billionaire client to Jack Nicklaus.
“I was fortunate to be tagging along with him the week of the first event at the TPC at Sawgrass in 1982, when every professional golfer wanted to take issue with his design of the course. He didn’t do press conferences and try to cash in on the attention. He listened to the players’ criticisms, but he also went out to watch them play, and see how the course worked. We would go to one hole after another, and wait for one of the players to get himself in a terrible predicament, and then watch him hit a spectacular recovery to save par, and Pete would say, “Well, that hole’s playable,” and we would go on to the next one. When asked about the controversy, he said, “Golf is a controversial game, and I’m glad to be part of it.
“Too many people nowadays try to measure greatness by how many top-ranked courses an architect produced in his career, but Pete did a lot of his work from flat desert or swamps, so top 100 lists are a poor measure of his ability. He could create a greater impact with a single, abrupt contour than most architects can by contouring a site from wall to wall. When he did have a great site, at Teeth of the Dog, he nailed it, and that was always his favourite course.
“I think his legacy is in teaching a whole generation of designers that the secret to success is to get out on site and be creative, and really work at making each project worthwhile.”
Bruce Hepner, who, as a result of years working with Tom Doak, is part of the Dye ‘family tree’ said: “Pete wasn’t necessarily an architect but an infield designer. He taught the guys he mentored how to build golf courses: how you analyse the land in the field. There’s not a lot of drawing, it’s all in the field. Pete was a genius with drainage – which is the most important thing – and that taught us how to get our ideas into the ground. Tom [Doak] always told us that changes in the ground are really cheap as long as you do it while you’re still working in the dirt. And that’s something he learned from Pete. Twenty-five years ago, the first time I met Pete, he told me, ‘Fast greens are America’s dirty little secret. Good players want fast greens because they’re giving tons of strokes to high handicappers, who hate them.’”
Tim Liddy, who worked very closely with Dye until the last years of his life, said: “His designs matched his personality: strong, bold, smart and creative. He was a mentor to so many, a true legacy of his genius and compassion. He was my mentor and his love of golf and golf design was infectious.”
Lester George said: “I first met Pete in 1990 before I was in the ASGCA. I had conversations with Pete and Alice before I built my first golf course – I made a phone call to them one night and spoke to Alice about forward tees. I actually met Pete through Alice.
“About six years ago I was at Country Club of Florida working and he was at Gulfstream. I called Alice to ask if I could take them to dinner, but she said, ‘No, he always gets home late’, and told me to go over and see him. So, I went over, and we spent two and a half hours talking, him asking my opinion about what he’d done. Alice, she told me she loved everything I’d done at CC of Florida, except this one bunker she couldn’t get out of. I said, ‘What do you mean you can’t get out of it, you’re the best player in the Society’, to which she replied, ‘No, it’s too deep, I can’t physically get out of it.’ My favourite Dye course has to be TPC Sawgrass, that one to me has the ultimate teeing options, angles, long hazards – to me it’s the best shot values, the best variety of par fives and par threes.”
Read more: ASGCA members discuss the influence of Pete Dye
Andy Staples said: “When I was a kid, thinking about getting into the business, I remember seeing pictures of the Golf Club in Ohio, with all the railroad ties. But, being from Wisconsin, my first actual exposure to his work was when he started building Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. His courses look harder than they actually do play. I’m very drawn to his early stuff – which Pete didn’t like that much, he referred to them as his ‘mistakes’. One of the things you never see with Pete is a driveable par four – he said that a driveable hole is a par three. But yet he still had some of the best strategic short fours I’ve ever seen. On all his short fours, he tries to bait you into going to a particular spot, from where you’ll have a very difficult approach.”
Richard Mandell said: “I first encountered his work on television, watching the TPC. When I started working for Dan Maples in 1990, I was driving back from Miami and I went around Long Cove. The fifth at Long Cove is kinda blind and it’s one of my favourite holes. Pete always talked about the grey area – not everything was black and white, and that’s how to confuse the good player. I think in the same terms.”
Brandon Johnson of Arnold Palmer Design Company emphasised the strategic quality of Dye’s work. “Harbour Town was very important to me,” he said. “First of all, just watching it on TV as a kid and realising that it looked so different from all the other courses the Tour played, but when I eventually went there, realising how tight it was, and how Pete had woven it through a housing development. You’ve got to plot your way around that golf course like no other. TPC Sawgrass was my home course for a while, and I learned a lot from playing that course over and over again.”
Steve Forrest also brought to mind Dye’s strategic excellence. “Pete might use fifteen bunkers where two would do, but you can always guarantee that the strategy of the hole will work,” he said.
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.