Pete Dye is hooked on the notion that he can take a piece of nature's leftovers—a swamp or a desert—and transform it into a beautiful and challenging golf course. A lot of people in the game call him an artist and a genius. Others think he's out of his mind.
Over the past two decades, Dye has hacked masterpieces out of some mighty unpromising land. At Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, he carved a seaside course from coral and wound up with one of the most picturesque layouts in the world; at Crooked Stick outside Indianapolis, a dull cornfield he redid evokes a Scottish countryside. And at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla., near Jacksonville, he transformed 415 acres of swamp land into the radically innovative course that will be the site of the Tournament Players Championship next week.
It took a while to run off the snakes and alligators and drain the place, which is only a few feet above sea level, but now the Dye touch is unmistakable. Only 40 acres is set aside for tees, fairways and greens. The rest of it—black lagoons, creeks, huge sandy waste areas and clumps of thick subtropical vegetation—looks like no golf course you've ever seen. Dye and his collaborator, Deane Beman, the TPA Tour commissioner and the man who conceived the Players Club, have truly stuck out their necks. "This isn't just a place to play golf," says Beman. "The public wants to see a player fight through adversity."
Dye's courses require what Dye calls "target golf." It's like hopscotch for grown-ups, with the players moving the ball from one safe place to another. The Players Club is so replete with potential disaster that it has been suggested the moat dug around its perimeter is not so much for security as for making certain the inmates can't escape. There's water on every hole. The greens are small with roller-coaster contours. "It's Star Wars golf," said Ben Crenshaw when he first saw it. "The place was designed by Darth Vader."
With his string of past successes, the 56-year-old Dye is secure enough to shrug off such gibes. "Somebody's going to shoot 64 out there," he says. "But somebody's also going to shoot 104, quit and go home. That's O.K. Golf wasn't meant to be a fair game."
Spectators at next week's tournament, on the other hand, will get an extraordinarily fair break because of the provisions in Dye's design for what Beman calls stadium golf. At strategic places around the course, there are huge earthen mounds and smaller hummocks, allowing spectators a good look at what's happening. Beman estimates that as many as 40,000 people will be able to see every shot on the 18th hole.
The layout stretches over 6,857 yards, par is 36-36—72, and the course "balances out"—for every hole in one direction, there's another in the opposite direction. The Players Club's shortcoming could be weather, specifically the fierce wind that made Sawgrass, just across the road, infamous in the years it hosted the TPC.
As Dye sees it, the wind nightmare could go like this: The gusts will be blowing out of the north. He will be back at the clubhouse, looking down at the 18th hole, savoring its amphitheater effect and waiting for the first players to bring in their opening-round verdicts on his work. But back on the 17th, a 132-yard par-3 in which the green is on a tiny island. Dye imagines a long line of players: Nicklaus, Watson, Miller, Kite. One of them steps up and hits his tee shot into the teeth of the gale. Plop! The ball falls in the water. Player after player hits, plops and goes back to the end of the line. No one can get past the 17th hole!
Dye believes that from 132 yards, the world's best pros ought to be able to hit the green no matter what the wind. The 17th, he says, isn't nearly as difficult as the renowned 12th at Augusta, which requires a longer shot over water to a smaller green. The 17th at the Players Club, which is destined to become one of golf's famous holes, too, simply looks more difficult than it is, Dye claims.
A Pete Dye course is readily identifiable by its Old World touches, such as pot bunkers and waste areas, borrowed from flinty Scotsmen, and its use of hybrid grasses to delineate various sections of the course. He also specializes in cleverly shaped greens and strategically placed bunkers. But Dye's true hallmark is the use of railroad ties, telephone poles or planking to shore up greens, sand traps and the banks of water hazards. He uses so much wood that one of his courses may be the first ever to burn down.
Some golfers reckon that Dye's insistence that the game revert to its early character, which valued accuracy over brawn, will be a lifesaver for the game. In the '60s golf became obsessed with bigness. The long drive was king. Courses were constructed at 7,000 yards or more, and they had short rough and few hazards; Arnold Palmer could have landed his jet on most fairways. Dye's tidy, revolutionary creations will pay off on reduced maintenance costs alone.
That Dye should be considered a rebel is surprising, because he calls himself "a dyed-in-the-wool conservative." He grew up in Urbana, Ohio, the son of a golf nut who constructed his own nine-hole course on his wife's farm outside of town.
Dye attended Rollins College, where he captained the golf team and met his future wife, Alice, who was also a fine golfer. The two settled in Indianapolis. Like many college golfers not skilled enough for the pro circuit, Dye turned to selling life insurance. He played with a lot of doctors in Indianapolis, and by the time he was 34, he was moving a million dollars' worth of insurance a year.
As a member of the Country Club of Indianapolis, Dye could be found at 6:30 most mornings waiting for the greens superintendent. He was the head of the greens committee, responsible for the club's crop of grass. One year one of Dye's experiments with the grass failed, reducing the fairways to something that looked and played about like dirt.
Toward the end of the '50s, the Dyes decided to go into golf course design and construction. They had been dabbling with small projects around the city—Pete coming up with the sketches and Alice growing a grass nursery in their front yard. Pete took some money Alice had earmarked for a mink coat and bought a bulldozer with it. His boss at the insurance company sent him a note suggesting he see a psychiatrist.
Given a firm sense of direction by a trip to Scottish and English courses soon after getting into the design business, Dye has since built some classics: Harbour Town on Hilton Head, S.C.; The Golf Club outside Columbus, Ohio; Oak Tree in Edmond, Okla.; La Quinta near Palm Springs, Calif. There's a bit of a formula to it. The par-3s are relatively short, the par-5s often can be reached in two, and the par-4s don't normally require fairway woods for second shots. "The ultimate design triumph would be to build a hole that players approached differently on each of the four days of a tournament," says Dye. "What you want to do is get 'em on the tee thinking I don't know what I'm going to do.' " Dye demands autonomy when he is designing a course. He never submits a plan, keeping things in his head or jotted down on often misplaced scraps of paper. Part of his standard deal is that he refuses to consult with country club committees, having learned back in Indianapolis that's a sure way to wind up with dirt fairways. And if a developer is worried about cost, Dye's meticulous and often expensive attention to detail will drive the developer crazy.
Dye's personal style runs toward the haphazard. In building a vacation house for himself and Alice in the Dominican Republic, his insistence on using native materials resulted in a thatched-roof home that looks, as his rich neighbors have complained, "like six orange juice stands." Dye has no secretary, and he doesn't own a car because he travels so much that an auto simply would sit unused at the Dyes' main residence in Gulf Stream, Fla. Flitting from project to project, clutching his battered suitcase, Dye often has the sniffles, the result of living with one foot in a plane's pressurized cabin and the other in a swamp. He designs the courses and then he builds them, often getting out there with the workers and using his own bare hands; he's happiest with dirt underneath his fingernails.
In 1979, during the building of the Players Club, the crews ran into heavy rains that eventually pushed back the course's opening a year. After the downpours, the workers would have to patch 60 or 70 washouts. For months it was a 24-hour-a-day job. Often Dye was right alongside the laborers, shirtless, running a bulldozer, clearing brush, finishing off a green with a rake.
"Maybe I'm crazy but it's the only way I know how to do it," says Dye, in the living room of his Gulf Stream house. "No one else does it this way."
From the kitchen, Alice calls, "They'd be crazy if they did." She's a two-time U.S. Senior Women's Amateur champion, but her real calling is making sure her husband's head continues to fit his hats.
He makes a face. "I just like doin' it this way, Alice," he says. The phone keeps ringing with calls from golf course superintendents. Dye's creations come with a warranty. He spends as much time fiddling with the old courses as he does building new ones. Last year, for instance, on the Friday of the Sea Pines Heritage Classic at Harbour Town, Dye was up most of the night patching a bunker on the 18th hole.
"You make a living," he says, referring to his relentless schedule. "I'd rather be on a golf course than eat. If I couldn't go and dig some dirt, you might as well put me in a box."
One recent afternoon Dye was sitting in a golf cart in the middle of the 18th fairway at the Players Club. In front of him was Pete Davison, the club's head professional and a fine player, facing a long second shot of about 215 yards. Dye relished the thought of the TPC tournament leader coming to the 18th on Sunday and being confronted with an identical shot. Davison selected a wood from his bag, well aware of whose eyes were on him. He swung and the ball took off low, burrowing into the wind.
To a bystander, it seemed a perfect shot. But Dye and Davison instantly knew otherwise. Davison had hit the ball low on his club face, which gave it a skimming trajectory. What happened next was exactly the sort of thing Dye dreams of. The ball landed on the green, took a couple of hops and settled into a rear bunker.
"Ha," crowed Dye, "got you again."