CARMEL, Ind. - It's raining again in Blacksburg, Va., so Pete Dye is here in his solarium, sitting in a high-back leather chair overlooking the 18th fairway at Crooked Stick Golf Club, a course he designed and built in 1966 that remains among the top-rated in the country.
"Beats anything I've ever seen," Dye said disgustedly of the rainstorms that are delaying his work at the Virginia Tech's River Course. "It bombed us out down there. I've got a whole crew down there just sitting there looking out the window."
Given a rare spare moment by inclement weather to reflect, Dye looks out the window himself. He is slated to receive the 2004 PGA Distinguished Service Award on Aug. 11, joining a group of honorees that has included Bob Hope, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen since the award's inception in 1988. Dye will receive the award on the eve of the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, an acclaimed links-styled course Dye designed along the shores of Lake Michigan in Kohler, Wis.
Dye, 78, considers the award as one of those "they give you before you die," and quickly deflects praise to his wife, Alice, who recently received the First Lady of Golf Award among a handful of others that Dye quickly recounted.
"The Distinguished Service Award - I don't know how in the world the PGA all of a sudden decided that," Dye said. "That's coming up next week. I guess I've got to figure out something to say."
"It's nice for your peers to give you something," he said. "Some of them want to kick you, but that's alright."
And that has been the story of a career in golf for Dye. From nearly the beginning, it has been a combination of accolades and acrimony from the people - pros and high handicappers alike - his courses both delight and torture.
"He has certainly influenced the direction of golf over the past 25 years or so," said architect Tom Doak, a former Dye protégé who is rapidly earning a reputation as a top course designer. "He sort of laid down the gauntlet at places like Sawgrass...It changed how pros approached the game."
Railroad ties and pot bunkers became a staple of design that changed the look of American golf for the latter part of the 20th century. But those are only design elements. Starting with Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, S.C., Dye dared to shatter many of the previous conventions that defined American golf course architecture after World War II.
"I remember when I did Harbour Town down there, some of them wanted to kill me and then when Palmer won the (inaugural Heritage Classic) right off the bat, they loved it."
At that time, Palmer had been mired in a 14-month winless drought and his 1969 victory put Dye's newly-constructed Harbour Town Golf Links on the map. Suddenly, the golf world was abuzz with Palmer's feat and the course's intriguing design, which featured tight, flat fairways and tiny greens.
Until then, Dye admitted that, like most architects of the era, he had been emulating the work of Robert Trent Jones Sr.
"My first golf courses were copying Mr. Jones," Dye recalled. "And I said, ‘well, I can't just go around copying Mr. Jones.'
"Mr. Jones had just built Palmetto Dunes and I admired it, but I thought if I do something, I need to do something just the opposite, so that's the reason Harbour Town is the way it is."
It was also the true beginning of what has been a perpetual-motion career that continues some 35 years later at full tilt. It was unusual at the time. It was unique, given that Dye eschewed the largely sculpted look of Jones in favor of design themes that seemed minimalist by comparison, sadistic in nature and harkened to the roots of golf in Europe. Since then, it has been called genius - as have many of Dye's designs, from Long Cove to Whistling Straits. Some, including Whistling Straits, have been called contrived as well. Dye laughs.
"They say it's artificial. Of course it's artificial," Dye said, pointing to the photo of a shoreline that wasn't there in its present form before Dye's engineers and dirt movers went to work. "I think we did a pretty good job of simulating a golf course on the coast of Scotland. I heard somebody say that it's all artificial. There's no question about that, but so far a lot of people like it."
Genius. Contrived. Extreme. Whatever. The courses all begin in Dye's mind and very often take shape by his own hand. Instead of a CAD (computer-aided design) program, his unorthodox, on-course design methods often include a napkin or some itinerant scrap of paper and a pencil. Dye is still in the field and hands-on.
"The thing about my work is that most people draw plans and get a contractor to build it. I end up controlling the construction," he said. "Everybody says I run the bulldozer. No, no. I don't run the bulldozer. I worry about getting the pipes in on time... When I go out there, I get whoever's doing the work, I tell them what I want verbally and maybe throw a couple of stakes out, not many. They work so much faster. And then I go back and sometimes, they end up with something better than I ever thought. But if I don't like it, we can take a bulldozer and change it...I go back often enough to see how they're developing. I don't try and run the machinery like I used to."
Well, not always.
"I might get on one of the small machines when we're sloping out the greens," he conceded.
As much as Dye's innovations influenced the form of golf courses, Doak said Dye's hands-on, bulldozer-driving style also influenced the way some designers, including Doak, approach their jobs. While the scrap paper and scribbles aren't for everyone, Doak, Bobby Weed, Lee Schmidt - all former Dye employees - and others manage their projects on-site, as does their mentor.
"What is perceived as Pete's style is very different. He certainly changed what golf looked like, but he really approached the business differently," said Doak. "I think the way it was done before as a business with Robert Trent Jones was that the plans were drawn up and the crews were put in the field and every now and then you'd fly in and see how the project was coming along. Pete has always been hands-on and out in the field on his projects and a lot of us practice that way now."
If only it would stop raining in Blacksburg.
Regardless of weather patterns, neither Dye's work-calloused hands nor what some say is still golf-course design's most ingenious and diabolical mind are idle for very long. The phone rings and Dye answers, speaking with PGA Managing Director of Tournaments Kerry Haigh, who is seeking input on setting up Whispering Straits for the upcoming PGA Championship. After the call, Dye's mind turns to projects old and new. The Dog is doing well, he says - and he isn't talking about "Sixty," the family's black Labrador Retriever relaxing in the living room. Dye is referring to the acclaimed Teeth of the Dog, which opened in 1971 in the Dominican Republic and is ranked among the top 100 courses in the world. From there, he laments the exploding distances of today's golf ball and wonders aloud when the insanity will stop.
In a day, Dye will make the 45-minute drive to West Lafayette, Ind., and take a look at the Kampen Course he built at Purdue University, which hopes to host an NCAA Championship there soon. There will be flights to catch after that visit. Crews are working in New Orleans at The Players Club of Louisiana, future home of the HP Classic of New Orleans, and in Florida at Tuscany Reserve, a collaboration with Greg Norman. He'll be checking on them. And if it ever stops raining in soggy Blacksburg, he'll work to get that project out of the mud and set for the River Course's re-opening as a Dye Signature Course on May 1, 2005.
Idleness? The Devil doesn't stand a chance around here - and won't for a while.
"I love what I do, so I go at it every day. The only reason I'm sitting here looking out the window is it's rained so damn hard in Blacksburg," Dye said, shunning the notion of retirement. "I've never given it a thought. I'm going to drop dead someday, but as far as retirement, no."
August 5, 2004