Remembering Pete Dye

By James A. Frank

 

Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (Photo by Kevin Murray)

 

Pete Dye picked me up at the airport. It was 1988 and I’d flown to Palm Beach to interview him. He told me he’d have a rental car because he and wife Alice were on the road so much they didn’t keep a car at their Florida home, just rented whenever they were there.

He’d find a place to talk, he said. First, he thought the locker room at Seminole, but then decided on the locker room at Old Marsh, a course he’d recently designed that was opening that very weekend. It was about a 20-minute drive, but as soon as we entered the club, rather than going to the clubhouse, Pete took a quick turn and we were driving on the course because he wanted to show me a few things.

Well, not on the course exactly, but two wheels on the edge of new fairway, the other two almost in a creek, or maybe it was a ditch. Pete was talking, pointing, driving with one hand, and looking out every window except the front one, telling me to look at this and notice that.

That was how he designed golf courses, somewhere between immaculate turf and imminent destruction. Convincing golfers they were always about to topple into an unescapable hazard, but if they exerted the right amount of control, they’d be not only fine but better for the experience.

He passed away at age 94 due to the effects of dementia. It sounds disrespectful—which is the last thing I’d ever be regarding Pete Dye—but his having dementia was the ultimate irony. For years, golfers said he must be crazy to design what he did—those cavernous bunkers at PGA West, the island green at TPC Sawgrass, the sheer impossibility of the Ocean Course at Kiawah. And many, myself included, used mentally tinged terms to describe him and his creations: Dye-abolical, the Marquis de Sod, and Evil Genius. He loved them all.

Pete Dye
(Photo by Getty Images)

 

Pete truly was a genius. He pushed at conventions and taught us to look at and think about courses in new ways. He is the link between the big-course philosophy (a la Robert Trent Jones) that dominated post-World War II America and the old Scots game. Every story about Pete talks about how he and wife Alice made a tour of the classic Scottish courses in 1963, a trip that would eventually bring us pot bunkers, railroad ties, and golf played along the ground rather than through the air. Almost everything we think of today as part of modern architecture began in the U.S., one way or another, with Pete Dye.

Look at the courses he designed: Harbour Town, Teeth of the Dog, Whistling Straits, Crooked Stick, Oak Tree, The Honors Course, and 100 or so others. Consider the people who worked with or for him: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Doak, Bill Coore, Jim Urbina, Bobby Weed, Rod Whitman, and many others. Every one of them will tell you how generous he was with his time and his thoughts, and how encouraging.

A dozen or so years ago, I rode in a cart and played 18 with Pete. It was an outing somewhere in Florida, and while I don’t remember the course I do remember that Pete talked the entire time—fascinating, funny—and that late in his 70s he still piped every drive, hit every green, never broke a sweat. And he wasn’t even the best golfer in his marriage.

That title belonged to Alice, who passed away last year. They were partners in life and in course design—Pete was always the first to give her credit for many of his famous ideas, like the island green at Sawgrass. And while I didn’t know them very well personally, I have to bet she was the one who ran the house, paid the bills, raised the kids. Although I’ll also bet Pete wasn’t nearly as absent-minded as we thought. More crazy like a fox.

The obits and remembrances of Pete Dye are filled with stories. We all have them. One of my favorites was calling him after I’d been to Israel to play the only 18-hole course in that tiny country, Caesarea Golf Club, which Pete (actually his associate Tim Liddy) redesigned around 2008. I wanted to talk to him about the course, but he was busy, so Alice talked to me and said that when they went to Israel, they spent a little time on property but a lot of time in Jerusalem. Pete, she explained, was fascinated by how water moves (and not only on courses), so he walked and walked around the oldest parts of that ancient city marveling how they were able to get water in there thousands of years ago.

Only Pete. We’ll not see his kind again.