May 5, 2008

Pete Dye: The Man And His Work

"If you love what you do, you'll never have to work a day in your life"... Were they talking about Pete Dye?

Pete Dye is only the fifth course architect ever named to the World Golf Hall Of Fame.

Pete Dye is only the fifth course architect ever named to the World Golf Hall Of Fame.

When Pete and Alice Dye went to Scotland in 1963 to play and study the classic links in hopes of absorbing some inspiration for their fledgling golf-course design business, they were intrigued by the variety of bunkers. Some of them were vast and supported by wooden planks. Others were no larger in diameter than a throw rug. By the end of the trip, in order to remember the hazards, Pete had put Alice in nearly all of them.

"I took a lot of pictures of my wife standing in those bunkers," Dye said the other day from his Indiana home. "She said it was awful and told me next time we go over there, 'I'll put you in the bunkers and I'll take the pictures.' "

For Pete, that trip to Scotland was part of a learning curve on his way to becoming one of the most influential course designers of the last 50 years, a legacy that was cemented Tuesday with the announcement in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., of his selection to the World Golf Hall of Fame in the lifetime achievement category.

"They're putting me in there with a lot of people who have done a lot for the game of golf," said the 82-year-old Dye, who will become the fifth person to be enshrined for his work as an architect, joining Robert Trent Jones, C.B. Macdonald, Alister Mackenzie and Donald Ross. "They got me while I'm still upright, so that's pretty good, too."

There may be no figure in any walk of golf who has gone about his business as enthusiastically as Dye, whose down-to-earth personality is counter to the celebrity status of many of his courses. Whoever said, "If you love what you do, you'll never have to work a day in your life" could have been talking about Dye, an Ohio native who left the life-insurance business to pursue a passion.

While his courses are among the most talked-about in the game -- from Harbour Town to the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass, from Crooked Stick to Whistling Straits, from Casa de Campo's Teeth of the Dog to Kiawah Island's Ocean course -- Dye started small, with a nine-hole course called El Dorado in Greenwood, Ind., in 1959. He was armed only with his love for -- and skill at -- golf, a fascination with agronomy and a can-do, hands-on attitude that he has never lost.

When he and Alice were building their first course, as he described in his 1995 memoir, "Bury Me in a Pot Bunker," they grew the bentgrass for the greens in the front lawn of their Indianapolis home. "We bought a sod cutter, lifted up the sod, and separated the dirt from the roots," Dye wrote. "We then wrapped the sod in burlap bags and stacked them in the trunk of our Oldsmobile. Neighbors used to kid Alice that they could tell when she had a load of bent in the trunk because the front end was raised so high the car looked like a motorboat!"

Recalling his first project the other day, Dye laughed at the memory. "We thought we had built Oakmont, but it wasn't quite." A friend of Alice's, Richard Tufts, the president of Pinehurst and a former USGA president, chided her about a rendering of their first effort. "Alice had won the North and South Amateur and they were good friends," Dye said. "He wrote back, saying he thought 'It was great of of you kids to build this course, but don't you think crossing the creek 13 times in a nine holes is just a little too much?' "

Still, that initial job led to other offers, including one from the University of Michigan, which considered Jones and Dick Wilson but hired Dye and jumpstarted his second career. "I've been digging in the dirt ever since," Dye said. "I haven't drawn up a set of plans yet. I don't know how." (He sketched TPC Sawgrass on the back of a placemat.)

Motivated by what he had seen in Great Britain and keen on building courses that didn't look like what other designers (notably Trent Jones) were producing, Dye established a style that included smaller greens, pot bunkers, dramatic mounding and hazards lined with railroad ties. "Mr. Jones did a great job after the war, putting together a plan to build courses a certain way," Dye said. "He came up with a formula that was really great, a lot of long tees that could all be built with big machinery. I got into it and tried to create a different identity. A lot of the 'ups and downs' in Scotland were done by hand. Since I was doing the actual construction, I kept fooling around with different types of machinery to do things on a smaller scale than what Mr. Jones had done."

By the 1980s, Dye's courses not only were getting a lot of attention but swaying how other architects were doing their jobs. As Ron Whitten and Geoffrey Cornish wrote in "The Architects of Golf," "Even his chief competitors were building courses that were either a reflection of his style or a response to it."

In time, many of Dye's competitors were men such as Bill Coore, Tom Doak and others whose design education included having worked in the field for him.

Dye remains busy, whether it's shooting his age or creating courses. "I've got one of the biggest jobs of my life going right now in southern Indiana at the old French Lick Hotel," Dye said. "I've been working on that for two years and have got one hole to go."

Before Dye has stopped digging dirt he'll be revising some of his earlier work to keep up with the grasses and the mowers that are at least as good as the balls and clubs. For a tricky green, Dye used to build three inches of slope every 10 feet; now he is down to an inch and a quarter because putting surfaces are slicker. "Only thing we've done is reduce the slopes and get 'em faster," he said. "I went out to Crooked Stick today and looked at the fairways; they almost look like greens. For a higher-handicap player, that's a tougher shot, but for a professional, it's like finding gold."

His courses have always made the pros work hard to earn their treasure, but behind the beastly designs has been a prince of a guy.