A Dye-Gone Era

Every time you build a golf course, it’s not a golf course when you get there. You have to improvise. – Pete Dye

Likely since the beginning of time, players have complained about the design of golf courses. One of the most notable was made in 1951, when Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. Prior to the Open, the course was revised by Robert Trent Jones to increase its difficulty. Fairways were tightened, greens reduced and bunkers grew. Hogan considered that win and final round the greatest of his career because of the level of golf he needed to play to secure the win. Throughout his career, Hogan was notorious for commenting on the “easy” conditions of a course in order for the greenskeepers to scramble in an effort to toughen things up even more, since he knew it would only reduce the number of guys with a realistic chance against him. Yet after the win at Oakland Hills, the wife of Robert Trent Jones congratulated him, to which he responded that if her husband had to play the courses he designed for a living, she would be in the bread line. In his victory speech, Hogan famously declared he had brought Oakland Hills, “this monster,” to its knees. The timing of Hogan’s comments, especially after his mastery of such a difficult set up, likely makes it the best criticism of a golf course ever. While most complaints come from players that didn’t fare so well on the course, Hogan’s comment was made after arguably one of if not the best rounds of his life. As a side note, RTJ ended up designing Hogan’s beloved Shady Oaks, which Hogan of course harassed him every day of construction. More recently, tour players complained of the center line bunkers at TPC Boston, which hosts one of the FedEx playoffs. Ultimately, the PGA Tour removed the bunker that was placed there by Gil Hanse during his renovations. The list goes on and just as certain as death and taxes, complaints will continue to grow as long as there’s a tour.

But in 1988, tour players went a step further and actually petitioned to ban a course from play. And they were successful in removing the TPC Stadium at PGA West as the host of the Bob Hope Classic, complaining of its difficulty. TPC Stadium did not return to the rota until 2015, almost 30 years later. At the time, Roger Maltbie said of the course and of Dye, ”I don’t like his targets, those specific places you have to play the ball. There are far too many undulations in fairways. I think bunkers on many holes are far too penalizing, certainly for the length of the holes. The sheer walls of bunkers are too steep and water running adjacent to fairways hole after hole is bad. You might as well have out of bounds one foot off every one of those fairways.”

TPC Stadium. The “Alcatraz” hole

Once the course was removed and the ban was in effect, what did Dye change to get the tour to reconsider and come back? Nada. Dye famously quipped about fairness in golf design, “Life is not fair, so why should I make a course that is fair?” The tour returned to PGA Stadium almost thirty years later not because of any changes to the course, but because golf club technology essentially rendered any complaints of difficulty obsolete.

More down home straight-forwardness than stubborn egotism, Pete Dye never really succumbed to trends, complaints, or anything else. The one exception of course, was his wife. Alice Dye was just as much a part of the course designs as Pete. As partners, they learned and designed together, with many of the famous holes Dye is known for actually created by Alice. Their progression into golf course design is a fascinating self-made story, with Pete dabbling in greens keeping for his golf club before ultimately leaving his insurance salesman profession. They were well known within the Indianapolis golf scene, yet still needed to pound the pavement, push ads and chase leads to get work. After some smaller jobs that included installing the first set of USGA greens by growing them in their front yard, they went to Scotland and learned all they could. Once they returned, they ended up getting what Dye considers their first comprehensive project – Crooked Stick. The rest is history.

The role of Dye in the evolution of course design is not emphasized enough. His originality and unique style were refreshing in an era dominated by Robert Trent Jones. The popularity of RTJ and sheer volume of his portfolio was amplified by other designers who copied his style to tap into that popularity, which inevitably led to homogenization. Dye possibly recognized this, as he purposely intended Harbour Town to be the exact opposite of the RTJ mold; small greens, tighter fairways, finesse over brawn (it should be noted Dye respected RTJ a lot, even asking him for guidance when he started out). Beyond this and more importantly, however, Dye took inspiration from links golf and incorporated some of its tenets into his courses with his travels to Scotland. His indifference to criticism, designing according to his (or Alice’s) own mantra, experimentation of various concepts and exposure as tour venues carried the Dyes to fame and fortune. Not really immune from the trends of the 1980’s through early 2000’s, Dye commanded hefty contracts and was not shy about large scale construction that transformed natural landscapes to adhere to his vision. Dye enjoyed creating venues that would host tour events and just like the Joneses or Fazios, became a go-to in the signature hole era. Dye was not much of a muni type of guy. Most of his courses are premiere public, hired by developers who paid for the name recognition. Unapologetically, his courses were difficult. Whether by the desires of the client or with his own input, Dye typically emphasized challenge over most else. Again, this was in an era that valued difficulty over other design concepts and with many of Dye’s courses intended for tour play, it was an inevitable aspect of most of his projects.

Despite Dye’s prominence in what many term the “dark ages,” he isn’t perceived as a nemesis or “bad” designer like others that were successful in that era. At least not now. There was a time when Dye was vilified, criticized for the excesses of modern course construction and shifting design into something that was unsustainable and much different from the classic golf courses of decades ago. While not really vilified any more, he certainly isn’t embraced the same as modern designers like Coore and Crenshaw or Doak (both of whom worked for Dye). Golf course architects and those in the industry generally revere him, however. Whether that’s for his role in progressing course design, his accomplishments in projects, allowing his workers to explore their style without much restraint or something else, Dye enjoys a prominence within the industry that is somewhat magnanimous.

Perhaps it was Dye’s role as one of the first modern day design-build architecture firms that has driven his current reputation. Presently, design-build (where the architect constructs his or her design instead of relying on contractors) has become much more popular in recent years, projected as the best way for a designer to ensure their vision becomes a reality and emphasizing the industry as a craft and art. Dye was renown for getting in the dirt, both literally and figuratively. Very rarely if ever drafting design plans (although Alice did at times), Dye preferred to maintain a presence on the site, which in turn helped him determine the best utilization of the land. On this basis alone, it’s possible that many have been able to start overlooking Dye’s design taboos while most of his contemporaries still bear the laboring oar as the brunt of criticism for same.

To be fair, Dye has given his pound of flesh. By the way, if I hear a commentator use the “Dye-a-bolical” moniker one time, I may throw my TV out the window. Indeed, Pete uses deception in his designs and constantly tweaked his courses so they remained challenging to the tour pros. TPC Sawgrass was not always the adored venue it is today. It received tons of criticism early on and it wasn’t until a slew of changes, as well as, quite honestly, the players getting used to it, that it began to become more liked. Kiawah was called a “flawed” course when it opened based on the design and conditions conflicting with its supposed design philosophy. Mainly, the course was designed as more of a links course but didn’t play that way. Some faction of tour players always seemed to have some issue or another with Dye and once course difficulty became less valued as a prized commodity, amateurs started wondering what else was out there. Dye’s design concepts evolved and by the late 1990’s, he was embracing naturalism more and more, relying on existing land features instead of manufacturing them. Yet the seemingly endless budgets he had to build with, the amount of earth he moved, manufacturing fields of play (Sawgrass was literally a swamp before construction), emphasizing difficulty above all else and some courses that didn’t live up to his earlier work make Dye a divisive discussion when trying to figure out where he fits in to modern golf design.

And just where does he fit in? To complicate the issue, he’s the only architect I can think of who never performed restoration or renovation of an existing course. This should be underlined a thousand times for how unusual it is. For our purposes, however, it means that Dye is the only course designer I can think of who can’t be judged by working on another architect’s course, and whether that work is acceptable to us all and in line with what we expect. Instead, Dye’s body of courses is all we will know him for. The other cool thing about this is a large portion of Dye’s courses are accessible to the public. Anyone can go out and experience his style and its progression, which also means there’s very little sense of mystique, as enjoyed by the likes of Raynor, Macdonald, Colt, Tillinghast or even Mackenzie, based on the exclusivity of most of their courses. More play means more opinions, unfettered by the shroud of choosing words carefully in hopes of being invited back again.

To complicate matters even more, Dye’s design is a lot less linear than others. He didn’t transition from one style to another but rather mixed concepts and components from course to course, really just dependent on what the site suggested to him, which oftentimes contradicted trends or even himself. Crooked Stick was built in the 1960’s at a time when American golf courses were moving towards the manicured presentation, yet it opened with a very rough and rugged natural look. Dye used native vegetation much more prevalently than others in the 1980’s, again when conditioning was the measuring stick. While his work was manufactured and artificial much of the time, Dye worked to improve the natural eco systems in a number of his courses as well. Conversely, Dye quipped that he did not undo God’s work at Bulle Rock (when minimalism was building its runway), yet the course is far from minimalist in design. One year earlier and in the same state, however, he and PB built Rum Pointe, a subdued design on the bay that was much more minimalist than Bulle, yet then went out to California and built Ocean Trails, now known as Trump National Los Angeles. At the time it opened, Ocean Trails was known for its haggard difficulty and contrived shots, much different from the more natural flowing Bulle and Rum. The Eighteenth hole at Ocean Trails eventually fell into the ocean altogether, probably in an attempt to run away from the rest of the course.

What I think makes Dye so unique and important, yet overlooked, however, is how comfortable he was with his own style. Sure he had inspiration and influences but he began to move golf course design in a more personal and individual direction, simply by following his own voices and those of Alice. Stylistically, Dye was a hybrid between classic and modern design. For classic, he generally would take his cues from the land and would use his interpretations on classic and/or links components. His use of railroad ties is probably one of the more common examples of this, but there are many more subtle examples as well. For modern, Dye took advantage of the contemporary equipment available and would shape and sculpt the land to his will, far from minimalism. Dye’s approach to naturalism is an interesting one and evolved as his career progressed. His courses generally don’t attempt to look natural but he would go to great lengths to ensure sustainability of native plants and eco systems. He then moved towards a more fluid presentation towards the end of the 1900’s and early 2000’s. As minimalism and naturalism became more coveted, Dye began laying out his interpretation of those styles in courses like the Dye Preserve (2002), TPC Louisiana (2004) and Bulle Rock (1998). His style did not completely transition, however, which further demonstrates how he never stayed within a defined style. Whistling Straits (2000) and Pound Ridge (2008) are good examples of Dye maintaining his own resolve in the wake of the rising trend of less is more.

Dye Preserve

One of the crucial design concepts Dye revitalized was daring to be different. Historically, Dye was one of the first to break from the RTJ dominated landscape with his (and Alice’s) own ideas and personality, no matter the consequences. Ultimately, Dye’s success led to many other design styles appearing, which gave us all more diversity of courses. Ironically, however, some designers missed the point of Dye altogether and several of Dye’s design components began appearing elsewhere. The bunkers running the length of fairways, the use of random pot bunkers; even railroad ties, began appearing more prevalently. While Dye began some of these design trends (some what replacing RTJ in that regard), more importantly he showed the profession that individuality and diversity could thrive in the modern era. Dye’s role in this regard is what makes him so important to where we are today.

Unfortunately, aspiring tour championship venues, resorts. . . housing developments, all took notice and as Dye obliged all of them, he now gets some what lost in the backlash we’re now in of the overgeneralized eschewing of modern design. This backlash is possibly leading to another era of homogenization, as many mis-understand the good and bad to take from the last few decades of design. It’s for another article, but the RTJ trend begot the Dye trend, which begot the minimalism/Golden Age trend (even though the two are entirely different), which now begs the question what is next. Aside from Dye’s role in trailblazing individuality in modern design, his courses emphasize something similarly important – identity. Course identity was always more important to Dye than one style or another, or homage to designers of old. His vision for each course was different and that took precedence above everything else. Whether it be tour player complaints, design trends or past success, Pete and Alice stayed with their vision of each site, and saw it through.

The unique character of the Dyes, how they progressed this art and the complexity of their style by never steadfastly adhering to any one principle makes them some of the more important figures in golf course architecture. Breaking the mold and daring to be different from the styles starting to dominate the golf scene like the Dyes did is something that couldn’t come soon enough. To be fair, there are some projects showing how we’re slowly starting to rap on that door even in the face of the rising wave of homogenization, but a much stronger emphasis on individuality and personality is sorely needed. The Dyes are a large part of showing just how glorious that can be in the modern era, hopefully, desperately, not bygone.

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