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The Prince Of Dirt

Continued (page 2 of 3)

At the moment the conversation is hopping around TPC Sawgrass, Dye's second great architectural swerve. The first came at Harbour Town, in the late 1960s, where, teamed with a rookie consultant named Nicklaus, he made a conscious decision to concoct an alternative in the South Carolina lowcountry to Robert Trent Jones. Short and strategic, Harbour Town was the anti-Jones incarnate, a revelation with its priority on finesse and its premium on ingenuity above power, the exact kind of golf the Dyes, superb shotmakers both, enjoyed playing and played so well. The greens were small. The fairways were wide, but deceptive. Railroad ties and cedar planks offered visual contrast & and something to think about; so did the stunning view to the sea and the lighthouse to highlight the heroic finish Dye would become synonymous with. The construction was so hands-on that Dye -- with Alice in her customary role as editor of his manuscript -- was still touching up the morning of its debut as the site of the first Heritage Golf Classic in 1969.

"Trent was the prime guy then," says Dye, and Dye was such a Jones devotee in his early days that he sought out Jones for a job, which he didn't get, and advice, which he did. "I copied everything he did," says Pete. "He became a good friend of mine. I was closer to him than his boys were. But he just built the same course everyplace he'd go. He was smarter than hell."

Like Jones' boys, Dye was also born into the game. His father Paul -- aka Pink -- coaxed a nine-hole course from family land in Urbana, Ohio, shortly before his son Paul -- aka Pete -- was born. As Pete grew into a hot young stick, Pink introduced him to such tour de forces as Scioto and Camargo, but the kid was far more interested in his play than the playing fields. "I recognized that some courses were better than others," he says, "but why they were didn't dawn on me."

pete dye

Clockwise from top left: Alice on site during construction of the TPC Stadium Course at PGA West; Pete in the 82nd Airborne during World War II; Pete (second from left) in the early years of Harbour Town, the course that put him on the design map; Pete building his first green, at a Holiday Inn in Indianapolis in 1959. Photos Courtesy of Pete and Alice Dye.


Stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., during World War II, Dye got to play nearby Pinehurst No. 2 a lot when he wasn't tending the sand-green course on the post. He got to meet Donald Ross. More meaningfully, Dye was fascinated by Ross' angles of play on No. 2 in a way he hadn't been about other designs he had seen.

By 1946, Dye was out of the Army, playing in his first U.S. Amateur, and attending Rollins College outside of Orlando, where he met Alice, a future two-time U.S. Senior Women's Amateur champion and qualifier for 12 U.S. Women's Opens. They married in 1950 and moved to her hometown of Indianapolis where he became a star insurance salesman. He's always been a salesman. "He has such charisma. He charms people," says Coore. "He treats everyone -- the people he works with and the people he works for -- the same. He gets them to believe in his vision."

Which hadn't yet formed by 1959. That's when he decided he would prefer peddling himself as a maker of golf courses rather than insurance policies.

"Pete's boss couldn't believe he could do such a thing," recalls Alice. "Nobody ever heard of a golf course architect then." In fact, when Pete first used the term, Alice's father, an attorney, told him he couldn't; he didn't have an architectural degree. (Or any other, for that matter; he left high school, college and law school shy of a sheepskin.) "But I never doubted for a moment that it wasn't gonna be OK."

At first, that's all it was -- OK. Pete didn't have a style yet, just enthusiasm and ambition. He placed small advertisements in Golf World and knocked on doors. Some jobs around town answered, and his friend Jones told the University of Michigan to hire him to stir up an 18 to complement the 18 MacKenzie had crafted years earlier. "The damned thing I did looked so much like Trent had done it," Dye chortles, "that he always told me it was one of my best."

Then came 1963 and the revelations that would change him & and golf. Pete qualified for the British Amateur at St. Andrews, and the Dyes inhaled linksland's charm. Each course they visited presented possibilities they had never imagined. "It blew my mind," he remembers. "Everything for me changed dramatically."

At Turnberry they were stunned by the dunes, the openness and sheer vastness, all so foreign to golf in the Midwest. Prestwick introduced them to railroad ties as visible obstacles and contrasting textures. Carnoustie made plain the need to control the drive and the challenge of uneven terrain. Dornoch presented the openness of the greens and the enchantment of the sea. And, at St. Andrews -- "I thought it was the worst golf course I'd ever seen the first time I played it," remembers Pete, "and then I was lucky enough to win a few matches and keep playing it enough that I came to see how this thing was set up" -- they embraced the beauty of clean playing lines and how the land's movement and features govern strategy.

Already working on Crooked Stick, "When I came back to the States, I had the idea I had to try to make it look like some of those courses over there. Now, you're in clay dirt here. You're not in sand. You're fighting city hall." He fought it anyway. "I tried to change." Did he ever.

The man who would re-route American design had crossed the threshold to his future. By going all the way back to golf's cradle, Pete Dye found his way.

"Given the railroad ties and some of the other features," says Doak, "some people think of his work as pop art. They think of it as New Age. They don't think of it as retro. But his inspiration is in the Old World."

Urbina: "He's taken the classical templates, disguised them, and made them his own. His angles are classical. His strategy is classical. His courses are classical. But you don't see it until you really see it."

You don't see it right away because what would be the fun in that? Design is mystery, and the better the player, the more intriguing the mysteries Dye presents. Like a magician, he redirects attention. How can you zero in on the flag when all you see are sandy waste areas and rows and rows of railroad ties? How can you keep your eyes on business when the sea is calling? How can you keep your mind on the green when it's surrounded on all sides by water?

"Pete used illusion and deception to a much higher level than the game had seen in years," contends Weed. "His design is probably more mentally challenging than any other architect's."

For Dye, it's simple, really. "The thing that gets to a good player is fear," he says, and his work, on the surface, instills it. "I try to make things look hard, but play easy," he says. "I think people misinterpret what I try to do. My courses aren't really that hard. They just look hard."

Consider TPC Sawgrass' Players Stadium Course.

Based largely on his admiration for Harbour Town, former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman sought out Dye in 1979 to find a golf course in the Ponte Vedra muck that could annually test the greatest players in the galaxy. To this day Beman maintains that the Stadium Course has never fully gotten its due. Remember the hubbub when it first opened? How the players hated it? How they thought the greens -- that Dye had already tempered twice -- belonged in a Coney Island fun house? How Ben Crenshaw -- Gentle Ben, for goodness' sake -- dubbed it "Star Wars golf created by Darth Vader"? How Jerry Pate, who won the first Players contested there, offered visual critique at the trophy presentation by tossing Dye and Beman into the pond beside the 18th hole before diving in after them?

It's all part of Sawgrass lore -- "I was glad for it," says Dye. "It put us on the map" -- but to Beman, it only clouded Dye's achievement. "This course and Pete's job here is well recognized," he emphasizes, "but underappreciated."

Unless you accepted his intent. "He wasn't trying to be popular," stresses Nicklaus. "He was trying to challenge the game of golf."

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July 28, 2014

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