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The Prince Of Dirt

Eighty-eight-year-old Pete Dye, whose Players Stadium Course provides a fitting center stage for golf's fifth major, is still busy doing what he does best: building memorable, challenging courses

May 5, 2014

Whoooooooooa, Nellie . . .

In the vortex of adventures that nothing adequately prepares you for -- take skydiving, for instance, or the luge -- riding shotgun in a golf cart with Pete Dye at the helm the day after his 88th birthday has its place. Trust me on this. He finds humps. He finds bumps. He finds swales. He skirts the edge of the Atlantic. He angles toward the drains; oh, how Pete dies for his drains. He waves to the paying customers on the fairways. On this crisp afternoon in late December, they naturally wave back.

Welcome to Gulf Stream GC -- between the ocean and the canal in Delray Beach, Fla. -- a place where everybody knows Pete Dye.

Of course, folks know Pete Dye, the game's most singular crafter of courses, wherever golf is played. But at Gulf Stream it's different. It's not one of the klieg-light affairs -- like TPC Sawgrass' Players Stadium Course -- that have accumulated 32 Players Championships with a 33rd on tap this month; five PGA Championships (Whistling Straits, the Ocean Course at Kiawah, Crooked Stick, Oak Tree); 24 USGA championships (including Harbour Town, Blackwolf Run, The Honors Course, Long Cove); five LPGA Championships (Bulle Rock); a Ryder Cup; a Solheim Cup and more hair ripped from the pates -- including Jerry's -- of more golfers than even Watson -- the computer, not Bubba or Tom -- can readily cipher. For Dye, this is home, a decidedly under-the-radar and relatively kind 18 designed by Donald Ross in the 1920s. "He made one trip and laid it out and had some other guy build it," Dye declaims incredulously. "He didn't spend time building courses."

Dye does.

It's his hallmark. Spending time. Discovering. Rediscovering. Planning on-site. Sculpting freely in the dirt. Pass after pass, that's where he finds the little things -- the contours, the slopes, the zigs and the zags -- that have been driving golfers crazy for half a century. In Dye's complex and creative mind, that is where courses are minted: in the dirt, not on paper. Good thing, too, because he's not much with a pencil. "Hell," he growls, "my dog can draw better than me."

Related: Closer look: TPC Sawgrass' 17th hole

Amazingly, it's taken Dye years to get his fingertips into this exclusive patch of Florida's Gold Coast, and he's made what Ross left at Gulf Stream even gentler. Longer, yes -- the 21st century, to his chagrin, has its demands -- but the greens and approaches are far more receptive, and there is even a beloved ocean view. Overall, the course plays, well, friendlier.

Wait a second: Pete Dye? Friendlier? The Pete Dye famously on record with, "Golf is not a fair game, so why should I build a fair golf course?"

Uh-huh. But let him explain. "I live here," he says, his eyes dancing. "They know where to find me."

pete dye

Dye at "world headquarters," his Florida dining room.

Pete and Alice, his wife and partner on and off the course for more than six decades, have been members at Gulf Stream some 30 years. "They took her in," he shrugs, both hands on the wheel. "They had to take me too, I guess." The club is so close to their winter front door -- in summer they're still back home in Indiana -- that Dye's cart is his prime conveyance from his driveway to his secret entrance behind the second tee.

Now to those drains. "You see," as we skirt another, "I knew this course was underwater, but I didn't give a damn, 'cause nobody ever asked me about anything. I've been on the green committee here forever" -- imagine, Pete Dye on your green committee! -- "but you know green committees. You try to tell them something, and they go like this." He mimes a pair of ships passing. So, he simply sat mum -- until they asked. They had a plan too. "But I didn't listen to anything." After all, they couldn't fire him; he wasn't getting paid. "I just do this for the hell of it. The place was a mess."

So, on we go, up one fairway, down the next, his renovation virtually done, the color commentary flying. "There," Dye points to a new bunker, "I don't know why I did that. I just know it makes it OK." And there, where a stand of trees once stood, "I took out a million of 'em. They almost came after me with an ax;" and there, alongside the eighth, "This used to be the worst hole in the world;" and, there, at a distaff foursome circling their putts, "They could buy the New York state bank." Reversing direction again, his mind, like his cart, keeps throttling past the acceptable speed limit until the former hits a roadblock and the latter hits the brakes.

Why, I've just asked him, is he still at it? Why, when most his age are content to put up their feet, is he still caking his with dirt and dust? (Just check out his shoes.) Why is he still flying off for days at a time to oversee renovations in Georgia and South Carolina and Virginia and Indiana, not to mention his own backyard, in the past year? Why is he wrestling with ideas for a new 18 through challenging gunk and forest north of Jacksonville (and, as 2014 progressed, a potential fifth course for patron Herb Kohler -- "Every time I spend a dollar, he has a heart attack" -- near Whistling Straits in Wisconsin)? What's left to prove?

The silence is eerie.

Then: "I don't know," he returns with a shake of the head. "I've got to be crazy."

As in: still crazy after all these years about what he does. "I just like to build," he says. "It's a big puzzle."

As adventures go, then, there's nothing remotely like this in golf, because there's nothing like being held captivated by that most wondrous of all human creations: a true visionary expounding on his vision with a chunk of that vision surrounding him.

pete dye

Going strong: With Alice, his wife and partner on and off the course.

That Dye is one of the most extraordinary architects in the game's history, one of only four in the World Golf Hall of Fame, on par with Macdonald, MacKenzie, Ross or any other name pulled from the pantheon, isn't news. Nor is his knack for drilling deep into the dark recesses of the golf mind to whip up the most visually intimidating, nail-biting, knee-knocking tests of the game anywhere. Who else shoulders such colorful appellations -- from Dye-abolical to the Marquis de Sod? Who else has mentored so many burgeoning designers under his expansive wing -- think, for starters, Bill Coore, Bobby Weed, Tom Doak and Jim Urbina -- that there is even a pun for that: the Dye-ciples, who have evolved into an important hands-on force spawned by Pete's preference for slow-cooking courses one at a time. "Pete never talks about designing a golf course," says Doak. "He talks about building them." Adds Urbina: "He's the instruction manual."

But all of that hardly scrapes the fašade off one of golf's true characters, a rare man whose character is as artful as the masterpieces he has coaxed -- and bulldozed, with himself at the controls -- from swamps (Sawgrass) and deserts (PGA West) and the edges of cliffs (Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic). "Whatever cloth they cut Pete from," assures Coore, "you can rest assured that was the one and only piece they had. I've never met anyone like him."

Who has?

As Coore says, "Nobody else has ever changed the direction of golf architecture twice."

Related: Birdies & Bogeys from the 2013 Players Championship

Here's another adventure for which there is no proper preparation: A casual sit-down with Dye, his dog beside him, in the Florida room overlooking his backyard to talk about golf and courses and his long romance with the game. The synapses snap. The sheer expanse of the conversation keeps you on edge; like in his cart, he takes so many twists and turns that you're breathless just listening. He's funny and he's puckish and there's no saccharine in his servings. He eschews rose-colored glasses; he sees clearly through lenses larger than some of the greens he's built. At 88 -- a Peanuts birthday balloon sits prominently beside the Christmas tree in the adjacent room -- Dye, a true lion in winter, may have lost a step or two in his gait and more than a few miles per hour from the swing that got him to six U.S. Amateurs, a British Amateur, and the 1957 U.S. Open (where he gleefully exhales that he tied Arnold Palmer and bettered Jack Nicklaus), but his aura and attitude? "He's the oldest teenager I know," says Weed. "He's the Energizer Bunny of golf."

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