How Pete Dye taught one of our editors everything he knows

March 09, 2020
Pete Dye At Kiawah Island Golf Course

Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto

Pete and Alice Dye are gone now, less than a year apart, both in their 90s. They were my golfing parents, but I wasn’t an only child. They treated so many of us like their kids—praising us when we did good, disappointed in us when we failed, but always rooting for us. “Golf Digest still the best,” Alice wrote in a note that arrived home the weekend she died. Earlier, she wrote: “Pete doing just OK. He still hits balls, plays 18 some days and still kissing the girls. Just wanted to say hello. We miss you.” We all miss them now.

Over 40 years of friendship, Pete taught me everything I know about golf and a bit about living. Here’s the abbreviated version:

MARRY A STRONG WOMAN. Alice and Pete had an equal partnership, and it worked for their 68 years together. I once commissioned a portrait of architecture’s First Family, including sons Perry and P.B. If you looked closely, Alice was holding a machine gun.

AIM AT THE HAZARDS. On most courses, you steer away from bunkers, trees and water. On Dye courses, you do the opposite. Hit tee shots close to the danger, because that’s where Pete’s approach angles open up best. Isn’t life that way?

IF SOMEBODY GIVES YOU A PUTT, PICK IT UP. One time Pete and I were partners playing the seventh at Pine Valley when our opponents conceded me a long two-footer for a net birdie. “No,” I demurred, “I think I should putt this one out.” “I’ll kill ya,” Pete shouted, charging across the green. “Pick it up, you SOB.”

EAT A GOOD BREAKFAST EVERY MORNING. Pete’s favorite was poached eggs sprinkled with Grape Nuts, a side of chicken, plain yogurt and a Diet Coke.

WEAR THE SAME UNIFORM DAILY. Oscar de la Renta, his neighbor at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, sent Pete 100 pairs of khakis at a time. Pete wore khakis, a short-sleeve white or blue shirt, and work boots every day of his life. When dressing up, he put on a blue blazer.

DON’T BUY A CAR, RENT IT. This is one I didn’t follow, but Pete always drove rental cars. He beat up and muddied them so badly during course construction, some rental agencies kept his car on the back lot and delivered it to him at the airport in the condition he left it.

BE JOYFUL IN COMPETING. “Pete loved to play golf with you,” Alice wrote me toward the end. Despite competing in U.S. Opens and Amateurs, Pete derived joy out of beating a broken-down scribe, as he called me. Our last match was at Gulfstream in Delray Beach, Fla. We got to the 17th hole tied. I had a kick-in par left before Pete theatrically pitched in for a birdie 2 and cackled with delight all the way up the 18th hole to win 1 up.

GENIUS IS IN THE CRAFT, NOT IN THE ARMWAVING. “Pete doesn’t talk about designing courses,” said Tom Doak, another of his children. “He talks about building them.” It was typical of Pete to spend 150 days on-site. I once got up at 5:30 with Pete to check on the newly redesigned fifth green at the TPC Sawgrass before the turf was laid. He’d spent seven hours the day before riding around and around on a Sand Pro, a miniature tractor designed to rake bunkers. Every pass moved 1/16th of an inch of topsoil. Still unsatisfied, he rode the Sand Pro for another hour, and then began the tedious process of checking the contours with a surveyor’s transit. He called it “rubbing the earth.”

CREATE GREATNESS, AND YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT BUDGETS. Pete’s most famous patron was Herb Kohler, who invoked the words of Edward Bennett Williams after hiring George Allen to coach the Washington Redskins: “I gave him an unlimited expense budget, and he exceeded it.” Pete’s version: “Every time I broke a budget, Herb would have another heart attack.”

THE BEST HOLES HAVE HALF PARS. The great equalizers are the 2½, 3½, 4½. He wanted golfers to expect to make a birdie. Then he constructs the area around the green so challenging, an errant shot is unrecoverable. Good players don’t mind making a bogey with a 2-iron approach, but it drives them crazy with a half-wedge. “Now I’ve got those dudes thinking,” he said. “It weighs on their minds the hole before and the hole after.”

TIP LIKE YOU’RE RICH. Especially ice-cream servers who don’t expect anything. It makes them happy, and the ice cream tastes better.

GO WITH YOUR INSTINCTS. When Pete was working on Crooked Stick, he couldn’t decide whether to put a bunker or a lake right of the par-4 16th green and asked the board of governors for its opinion. The board voted to put in a bunker. Pete put in a lake. The club president asked him why he disregarded the board’s decision. Pete replied: “Because the board has never been right about anything!”

UNDULATION OVER SPEED. Pete told me the ideal green speed was no more than 9 on the Stimpmeter, and the challenge should be in the contouring of the greens. He even liked convex greens that repelled shots. He questioned the tour-pro principle that good shots should always be rewarded and bad shots punished. “Only the very best player can survive a bad result after a good shot and compose himself to play the next one,” he said.

WORK LIKE YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT MONEY. When Jack Nicklaus’ design fee was $1 million, Pete’s was $100,000, except when he did it for free. He loved the simple life. He and Alice ate dinner at home every night on side-by-side TV stands while watching “Jeopardy!” He accurately described his thatched-roof compound in the Dominican Republic as “seven orange-juice stands.”

DON’T PUT ANYTHING ON PAPER. Pete never did blueprints or even sketches. He walked the land and improvised. PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman once demanded a drawing of the TPC Sawgrass “in case you die before it’s done.” Pete turned over a place mat and scratched out the back nine that eventually was framed in the clubhouse. His genius will outlive us all.