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Pete Dye, legendary designer of Sawgrass, was more complicated than you might think

March 05, 2024
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PGA TOUR Archive

Before he passed, the billionaire businessman Herb Kohler liked to tell a story about working with Pete Dye, the designer he employed to build Blackwolf Run, the first of the Sheboygan-area courses and a precursor to Whistling Straits, host of several majors and the Ryder Cup. In their initial project, they had a disagreement about the routing of the last few holes, and Dye's plan called for the destruction of a stand of elm trees. Kohler said no; these were the last elms in an area that had been hit by a beetle blight, and he didn't want them cut down. They reached an impasse, which Dye settled one afternoon when Kohler wasn't around by cutting down the trees, burning them, and skipping town.

Somehow, their relationship recovered from Kohler's rage that day, and they went on to become good friends and business partners, but it was an instructive look at a side of Dye's personality. He was a perfectionist and a visionary, and his particular brand of artistic genius came with a stubbornness that wouldn't be swayed in the face of personal politics. Which isn't to say he wasn't a political man; he started out as a successful insurance salesman, and his personal charisma was such that he built his design business from scratch largely on the strength of his personality. Without a certain degree of personal charm, he couldn't have found the great success he did while also obeying his own creative impulses; if Kohler didn't like him, he would have been fired on the spot.

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Pete Dye 1978 drawing, TPC Sawgrass Layout

PGA TOUR Archive

The story of Dye, and how he came to be so respected and coveted in the golf design business that he was eventually chosen to build the PGA Tour's flagship course, might begin with his birth in Ohio, where he excelled as an amateur golfer, or it might begin in 1963, when a trip to Scotland and its most famous courses opened his eyes to the possibilities of what a course could look like‚ÄĒpossibilities he had yet to encounter in America. On this week's Local Knowledge, we dive deep into the life of Pete Dye, his secret fanatical streak, and the artistic brilliance that made him one of the signature, inimitable designers of his era.