Interview: Pete Dye on Kiawah, long par fours and how the USGA let the game slip from its grasp

In March, when I was on holiday at Teeth of the Dog, I had the good fortune to run into Pete Dye, without question the most famous golf architect currently in the business (at least who never played on the PGA Tour). Dye, now 87, was busy — he was playing in a tournament at Teeth, where he designed three courses, working at TPC at Sawgrass and tweaking the Ocean Course for this week’s PGA Championship. I had the chance to talk to Pete for about a half hour. Though I’d interviewed him before, it was always by phone. This one was in person, sitting in the office of head professional Gilles Gagnon.

RT: I’ve spent a fair bit of time with both Rod Whitman and Bill Coore. They both worked for you…

Dye: Rod did some work for me in Austin and then in Crooked Stick. Rod is a talented guy. He’s a builder. He moves dirt. Bill Coore is a good friend, but he didn’t work for me for very long.

RT: With the golf business slowing, what’s keeping you busy?

Dye: It is the same schedule down here. We’ve got the Links (at Casa) partially redone. It was there for 30 years and it was time to do it again – tees, bunkers and irrigation. And I’m working on TPC and have rebuilt six greens there. And I’m working on the Ocean Course. I didn’t just tweak it. The PGA wants to do one thing and I’m against it. They want to make it playable and not have the bunkers the way they are. There is so much sand – like Pine Valley. I’ve redone a lot of work at Harbour Town. I have the 18th hole under control. The 5th green is going to be moved 60 feet to the left so you don’t have to listen to the guy flush his toilet. It has gotten so tight with the trees, which were tight to start with. I think we should move back a little bit. I still go there and rework things. I’m also working at Kohler in August and eight or nine holes in Delray. I’ve never had an employee and I’m behind in time and overbudget.

RT: How are you tweaking Kiawah?

Dye: There was a lot of land there that was never used – like the back tees. It’ll be longer this time. And we made the 12th hole, which was long, shorter. During the Ryder Cup the wind was from the north-west, but in August it should be out of the south-east. There’s been quite a bit done to it.

RT: I wrote a piece for T&L Golf some years ago about the trouble with the 18th green…

Dye: That’s all good now. The new dunes that have been created are building up – and we have 200 feet of beach now.

RT: How will the course differ from the 1991 Ryder Cup?

Dye: It will play differently because when they hit the ball off the first tee they have 71 holes and have to add it up. That’s different than the Ryder Cup where they play alternate shot and such and you can take a 10 on a hole.

RT: You have a legacy of developing new designers who started their careers working for you.

Dye: I really enjoy working with the kids – like Coore and Doak – and get them for a couple of years all fired up and then they end up getting married and go off on their own. There are a lot of guys who worked for me. My two boys. All those kids that worked for me – and there’s a bunch of them. Brian Curley. They’ve all gone back to making plans, but they know the construction business.

RT: Is it hard to keep from repeating yourself this far into your career?

Dye: I hope I don’t build two the same though I’m bound to.

RT: You’ve long been outspoken on the issue of how far the golf ball travels. I assume that hasn’t changed?

Dye: The USGA has slowed down play and completely lost control of all of the equipment. Aside from that they’ve done a good job. The economics of a golf course are a mess. You used to put an irrigation system in for $700,000 and now it is $2-million. You don’t need it – but that’s where it is going. And green mowers are crazy. When Hogan won Oakmont it was 6 or 7. And now you need a $50,000 mower. At Gulfstream where I play, Dick Wilson did it in 1958 and now at our speeds the ball just rolls off the green. If you have slope you have to have a bigger green. It just escalates.

RT: At 87, can you look back at the legacy you’ll leave in golf?

Dye: Right now I have more majors being played on golf courses than anyone – but I don’t know if that’s good, bad or indifferent. And I have to change. The Links here – I hope I have the greens right. But things change. The guys used to carry the ball 290. Now they carry it 310. Nicklaus used to carry it 265 – and he wasn’t the longest. Now they are picking up 50 yards on every hole. And if you’re going to have them play – they’ll shoot 60. And I don’t care – but the owner does.

RT: But what difference does the score really make if the course is interesting?

Dye: You’re 100% right. But from my point of view – it is a little different angle. Now you don’t get to see a guy hit a good drive and pull out a 4-iron. That used to be part of the game. Now it is not. And what I’ve been trying to do at the TPC – on the first hole they might have a 3-wood and 9-iron. But then on the long par fours I want to play as long par fours. And if you have four long ones – that’s enough.  If you have a long par four you have to bunker it at 300 yards and then they lay up with a 3-wood and have 220 yards in. So that’s what I’m doing on the longer par fours – I’m bunkering it tighter than I would on the short holes.  That way the course has more of a variety.

RT: Finally — your courses have a lot of Seth Raynor in them. Was he a big influence?

Dye: Raynor never played golf and he was a surveyor. And I’m a big admirer of his work – but it is all the same. Still, he had a good pattern. I played a lot of golf at Camargo when I was a kid and before I got married. I went back there when they had a change of administration. They had a big meeting and I had a few beers – which I don’t do anymore. And then some of these guys asked me what was wrong with Camargo. I said, ‘The only thing I can see wrong with Camargo Golf Club is the membership.” And they brought someone else in to change the bunkers. And years later they came back to me and asked me to put them back. Ray Charles could have put them in – but Doak got all the credit.










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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • “The real trick of golf course architecture is to lure the golfer into a false sense of security.” PETE DYE

    In many of his statements like the one above and much of his work on the ground are indicators that he’s has ulterior motive in his efforts. Thank goodness that his pupils, Doak, Coore and Whitman didn’t inherit this aspect of his characteristic.

  • “They had a big meeting and I had a few beers – which I don’t do anymore. And then some of these guys asked me what was wrong with Camargo. I said, ‘The only thing I can see wrong with Camargo Golf Club is the membership.” And they brought someone else in to change the bunkers. And years later they came back to me and asked me to put them back. Ray Charles could have put them in – but Doak got all the credit.”

    Great stuff! Dye is ‘a man’s man’ in the classic sense. Cheers.

  • Zokol, there is quite the hang up these days on golf being “fair” I hear it everyday at work from golfers and club pros. This pins aren’t fair, the tees aren’t fair for the direction of the wind, etc. why does everything need to be fair? I agree that a course should have options, and that when and option is chosen you must hit a required shot and if you fail to do so you either end up with some sort of penalty (bunker, fescue or for the liking of some trees and ponds) or you get lucky and can still have a decent shot. This fairness is madenning. Give golfers options, make them think, challenge their skill and build courses that are fun. Dye is not wrong with his statements, he builds brutally tough courses that make the best in the world think and execute. But this hang up on things being fair need to stop. As I tell my members when they whine about fairness, “hit your ball, find it, hit again and smile. If you don’t like it there are many other things to do with your time”

  • Tremor,
    You are absolutely bang on. The word “fair” has no place whatsoever in the game of golf. Those who use that word in any form don’t really get the premise of the game. That is one aspect why I pointed it out in Dye’s quote. Moreover, Dye’s quote which indicates intentions and purpose, which he constantly defends, is to make his courses “unfair” which is a bit demented in my way of thinking.

  • Zokol,

    I like Dye, his designs, and most of his thoughts on the game. Im not a fan of all his courses and very much dislike Sawgrass. But the way I see his thought process in the design is to lure a player into a mind game,which golf is. Look at Kiawah. From the tee these thin ribbon fwys make players over think and lose confidence. The player who trusts that he knows there is plenty of fwy out there for him will have no trouble finding it, barring the wind isn’t wreaking havoc. Or Straits, 998 bunkers, and most eye candy and intimidation but every hole is littered with hundreds to see. His courses are manufactured which is usually something I am not drawn to. But his personality in the design and his thought process is intriguing. There is no denying that he’s one of the truly great architects and his courses will stand the test of time.

    I see where you’re coming from, but don’t think he’s making them unfair. He is defending the fav he kinds new ways to drive players nuts. Like ripples, humps, bumps and downhill run off areas aroun greens.

  • Tremor,

    One of the great things about golf is that differences of opinion are abundant and we can openly discuss them. I respect that you like his work, many people do, I happen to think his work is artificial and don’t get why his work is adored.

    I first met Dye in 1983 at TPC Sawgrass at a social function and I like him as a person but he seemed to me that his approach on his work, then and now, is very defensive and aggressive toward the golfer. He makes no bones about it, (I do like the conviction in him). I also think Dye is definitely a trail blazer and his construction work and his methods of design/build are wonderful. He proved that at Sawgrass, with money being no object, you can build a monument out of a swamp. He deserve great credit for that.

    It is also my opinion that 100 years from now golf architects will look back on the era from the 70s to today as a dark period, the over indulgent period, of golf design. Of which Dye and a few others were the leaders of the pack. It’s ironic that some of Dye’s students are leading us out of this dark period of golf course design today.

    Dye’s work forces one way to play… his way… through the air. In my mind that is not good design. Good design provides the golfer options of player which identifies true skill of a player. Thin ribbons of fairways off the tee is not good design, it may be difficult, but not good design. Good design embraces expansive fairways that challenge players off the tee with options of better angle of approach to the green when they choose a better and more challenging line from the tee while avoiding the perils of the hole. This allows the player to choose how to play the course. Playability of a golf course identifies a players thought and skill level.

    To have a seaside property like Kiawah and not have the option to play on the ground is a travesty. At Kiawah Dye defaults to his manmade lakes and bulkheads with harsh elevations collection basins around the green where the flop shot is the only option of play. To try and pass this off as links golf is counterfeit. It is too bad Coore & Crenshaw weren’t set free on the ground at Kiawah instead of Dye.

    Sawgrass, Whistling Straits and Kiawah and other Dye courses are examples of manufactured design (that is not a complement), they are difficult, they make for interesting drama when the best players in the world compete on them and there will always be golfers that like them. Island greens and other harsh Dye features seem to have an intriguing caricature tone but good golf design doesn’t look and more importantly play like they are manufactured.

  • I completely agree witnlh everything said there Zokol. Options, angles, and shot options are the best thing for golf. That’s how you grow the game! I’d take Hawtree, Doak, Coore/Crenshaw, or Hanse over many others everyday of the week! Burnt up courses that play firm and fast.

    As a Superintendent, I deal with explaining playable/sustainable conditions vs. “the lipstick” most courses have and feel they need. This was a dark period in golf design and some guys who have been under the radar are getting their respects now and that’s great for us and the game.

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