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On Course: A Fresh Appreciation of Pete Dye’s Genius

Morning Read's Joe Passov writes that while the hall of fame course architect's design philosophies may run counter to today's minimalist approach, his tracks still challenge the game's greats and elevate championships.
Kiawah Island (S.C.) Resort Ocean Course's 1st hole is open, but visually intimidating.    

Kiawah Island (S.C.) Resort Ocean Course's 1st hole is open, but visually intimidating.    

Editor's note: This piece marks the debut of Joe Passov's monthly column "On Course" in which the veteran course and travel writer will offer his takes on a variety of topics. 

If the golf year of 2021 proved one thing, it is that the architecture of Pete Dye is timeless. Why even have to say that? Well, since the heyday of Dye's reign in the 1980s, his best courses have dropped in the various publication 'best' rankings. Not plummeted, but dropped. 

His lesser lights have vanished entirely from those lists. It’s understandable, but unjust. The takeaways from the Players Championship, PGA Championship and Ryder Cup, all contested in 2021 on Dye designs, give reason for a reassessment.

The formula for greatness in recent years — and success in course rankings — has revolved around firm-and-fast fairways, a paucity of mandatory forced carries, lacy-edged, irregularly shaped bunkers, low-profile, imaginatively contoured greens and green surrounds that offer multiple short-game options. The pervading philosophy has been minimalism, using the natural features of the land to the greatest extent possible. In other words, the antithesis of Pete Dye design, or so it would seem.

RELATED: A Trio of Very Underrated Pete Dye Designs

Woke course evaluators have downgraded Dye’s creations because many of his finest works possess a huge degree of artificiality, with too many all-or-nothing shots required. There are frequent blind shots and Scottish-style pot bunkers, thousands of miles from Scotland. His sharp-edged, often bulkheaded hazards and abrupt mounds certainly do not fit into the natural terrain. Admittedly, the canvases Dye painted on were often devoid of handsome natural attributes. Still, he didn’t exactly go out of his way to follow Alister MacKenzie’s dictum that “the course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.”

Dye didn’t care. His only concern was building golf holes that stimulated the player, over and over. He wanted to get good golfers thinking, to get in their heads. Sometimes, he accomplished that feat through fear, with hazards so stark and dramatically presented that they couldn’t be ignored. They often obscured wide, safe ground, but many golfers just couldn’t get past the fear factor.

Tiger Woods once asked me, “Has anybody ever built harder courses than Pete Dye?” I responded, “There’s never anybody that’s built courses that are more visually intimidating than Pete Dye.” Woods nodded enthusiastically and said, “Exactly.”

A gigantic number of the game’s greats have expressed their frustration and even derision for Dye’s handiwork over the years. Yet more of them, like Woods, inevitably tip their hats to how his courses test their games. Jon Rahm, who played his college golf at the Dye-designed Karsten Course at Arizona State University said as much on the eve of the 2021 PGA at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course.

“I typically really enjoy Pete Dye golf courses,” Rahm said. “As a fan of Pete Dye golf courses, you kind of know what to expect. You get to the tee, you expect a fairway that you’re not really going to see, deceiving off the tee, very deceiving to the eye on every single shot, much like TPC Sawgrass. You have one shape off the tee and another shape coming into the green. [The Ocean Course] is a true ball striker’s golf course. I enjoy the challenge.”

Woods praised Dye further, stating that, “he makes you think, especially as it relates to how he angles his greens.” Another TW, Tom Weiskopf, told me, “Of the modern guys, I’ve always admired Pete Dye. He’s so creative in his strategies and his obstacles are always in the right place.” Weiskopf's longtime design partner, Jay Morrish, told me in 1991, “Pete Dye is the one true genius in our business.”

Jack Nicklaus, who teamed with Dye at the start of his own design career, stated in 2002, “Pete Dye is the best. He loves and is superbly talented at developing both a strategic and aesthetic vision for a golf course.”

It’s easy to find 3-, 12- and 20-handicappers who have taken Dye’s name in vain on multiple occasions. It’s possible they should have done more thinking before hitting. Look at what took place this year at the Players Championship, with Justin Thomas edging Lee Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau on a day where nerves were frayed and par was a good score at the TPC Sawgrass. Or the PGA Championship, when wily veteran Phil Mickelson tamed the breezes at Kiawah’s Ocean Course to win at 6-under par, on perhaps the greatest layout in that tournament’s history. Or the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, a course that for risk-reward excitement had no peer in the annals of that event

Look and take in how the golf course elevated those competitions. That’s greatness. It’s time for the experts to take a fresh look at the singular genius of Pete Dye.