I had to hold back a teardrop or two as I wrote the ledes for my PGA Championship previews this year. This week’s tournament at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course marks the first time a Pete Dye-designed course has hosted a major golf championship since the great man passed away in January of 2020. And although the golf world rejoices at our collective slow-but-steady rebound from Coronavirus, knowing Pete won’t be at Kiawah will diminish somewhat this metaphoric sunrise.
Actually I should say “knowing Pete and Alice won’t be at Kiawah,” as we lost Pete’s beloved wife, Alice in 2019, and Alice was every bit Pete’s equal when it came to the craft of golf-course architecture, and together they authored a love story that spanned seven decades.
Pete met Alice in college, at Rollins, where Alice was a member of both the women’s and men’s golf teams. She ran into Pete at practice. And although Pete was an accomplished, well-decorated player, Alice was even better.
“My wife had won everything that had been played in golf,” Pete told me the first time I interviewed him in 2006. “She played with Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Mickey Wright, Babe Zaharias. She played in an LPGA Championship where Mickey Wright won; Mickey Wright was first, and Alice Dye was second….She won the state amateur nine times, the city amateur 11 times, she won the North and South. We just played a lot of golf together.”
Ultimately, they did a lot more together than just play golf. Alice became a co-designer along with Pete and accompanied his career every step of the way.
“I got into the business accidentally. Actually, I was selling life insurance and doing pretty good. I was the youngest life member of the Million Dollar Round Table. I was doing well, and I played a lot of golf,” Pete said. “Meantime, Purdue had short courses to take in agronomy. And I went through all of them and I never passed any of them. But I was more interested in the agronomy of the golf courses more than anything else.”
With that expertise and his time as Head Greenskeeper of Fort Bragg Golf Course while in the U.S. Army, Dye was asked to build a nine-hole course south of the town where he and Alice lived in Indiana. The fellow had no money, and no one wanted to work for him.
“Why don't you go do it?” he asked Dye.
They were the first nine USGA-spec greens ever built in this country.
“It was at El Dorado,” Pete affirmed. “Now it’s called Royal Oaks. I had been very interested in promoting the USGA greens, but nobody knew how to do it. I took it because I was always interested in the agronomics of this deal, and then after I built that course, Doctor Harlan Hatcher came down from the University of Michigan. He came down and played that golf course, just those nine holes, and somehow or another called me up and said Trent Jones and Dick Wilson wanted to talk to me about building The University of Michigan Course.
"I told him I was in the insurance business not the golf course building business. He said, don't worry, I'll work that all out. So I went up there, and low and behold, I had built the University of Michigan course. And when I came back, after that, I said ‘Alice?’ She said ‘What?’ I said ‘Why don't we give this a try? Because it's fun.’”
And, oh, the fun they had together! Alice was every bit Pete’s better half. Pete raised TPC Sawgrass from the swamps of Ponte Vedra Beach, but Alice oriented the island 17th green properly. (Pete had it running away from the player! Sadistic!)
At PGA West’s Stadium Course, she softened several of Pete’s more penal hazards, “So Mary White can play the hole,” as Pete put it. And for every – occasional -- tantrum or tirade of Pete’s (like the time he cut down and burned a tree Herb Kohler loved and stormed off the Whistling Straits job for a while), Alice was always there to help smooth things over.
Now one of golf’s grandest and most venerable events returns to what the golf world bills as “the hardest resort course in America,” a fitting moniker for the man who was christened golf design's mad scientist. Difficulty for amateurs aside, Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course is unquestionably one of the greatest in golf architect Pete Dye’s portfolio. An important mile marker in Dye’s career, the Ocean Course has seen heart-stopping drama and quintessential golf history in the three short decades of its existence.
Dye routed Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in an elongated figure-eight along a 2-mile long, narrow spit of sand dunes sardined between shoreline and salt marsh. When he first saw it and was told by the owners, “We’re holding a Ryder Cup here in two years,” Pete told them it was their funeral.
Maybe Dye said that ironically, but the Tour pros didn’t. Nobody thought they’d have the Ocean Course ready for the 1991 Ryder Cup.
“Everybody said we couldn't do it. No way could we get the course ready for the Ryder Cup,” Dye said, laughing as he took another sip of iced tea. “I remember Tom Kite saw it and Dave Stockton, and a bunch of other guys all said we can't play it here, but we did it. We got it ready even though they thought we couldn't, and it was perfect.”
It was a close call, though. First Hurricane Hugo came along in 1989 and erased everything Dye had done to that point. But in a testament to Dye’s resilience, creativity, and adaptability, he and Alice turned that negative into the biggest positive imaginable.
Pete once told me matter-of-factly that, in situations where he had to fill in wetlands and replace them with new wetlands somewhere else, he could create something that was cleaner than nature. At Kiawah, he talked the talk, but he also walked the walk. Because of Hugo he was able to restore much of the land. They fixed the damaged sand dunes, added two new ponds, and turned the site from salt water to fresh.
But most importantly, Alice suggested that they build up the greens and fairways of the inland holes, so you can see the ocean from every hole. Pete called that “a great idea, perhaps the best suggestion she ever made in a long career of making great suggestions. So she's just as responsible for the course being so good as anyone.” It also had the added bonus of making those holes far more windswept than they would have been.
How about that? Mother Nature threw a hurricane at Pete Dye, and he sent it back singing.
Mother Nature threw a few animals at Pete as well, and we’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill rattlesnakes and crocodiles.
“I see them all the time!” Dye laughed. "We had cougars….How often do you see that? We also had these big sea turtles and they would lay eggs on the beach and then they couldn't get out, and we had a devil of a time getting them back to the ocean. We had all sorts of nets and boats to lift these big heavy turtles, and then dump them back in the ocean. It was something to see, let me tell you.”
Kiawah is also a masterstroke of routing. As always, Dye likes his tournament venues to have first and 10th holes that are similar, so the pros don’t bellyache about having to start the day on a harder hole than other players. The figure-eight layout winds around itself so that, ideally, golfers face equal numbers of left-to-right and right-to-left winds and shot shapes. There is symmetry on both sides as par is 36 on both and each has two par 5s and two par 3s. Dye repeated this at Whistling Straits, site of the Ryder Cup later this year. It’s almost as if Herb Kohler pointed to a picture of Kiawah and said to Pete, “Give me one of those!”
First and foremost, the Ocean Course needs the wind. Everything depends on the wind, but that’s the one thing on which you can’t depend. In 2012, Rory McIlroy enjoyed three days of perfect weather where he shot 67 on Thursday and Saturday, then 66 on Sunday, but ballooned to a 75 in the Friday windstorm. That Friday, Kiawah played to a stroke average of 78.1, highest in tournament history. Only four players out of 156 shot under par, and Vijay Singh's 69 was the only round in the 60s.
"Nobody is used to winds like this," observed an obviously relieved Singh after he finished his round and went into the media center for his presser. "I'm just trying hit the fairways and get anywhere on the green where you can two‑putt from.”
Tiger Woods echoed Singh’s comments, saying it reminded him of the tempest they had to play in at Muirfield on the Saturday of the 2002 Open Championship.
“Under optimum conditions, par here is 68, and in windy conditions it’s 76,” surmised Bryon DeChambeau in his Wednesday pre-tournament presser, and he’s exactly right. Even Dye agreed. When the pre-tournament weather report heralded sunshine and mild winds for the 2012 PGA Championship, Pete confided to me that he thought 16 under would win.
“They’ll birdie all four par 5s every day,” he prognosticated. He was close. Rory won with 13 under, and only the Friday maelstrom kept him from potentially turning Pete Dye into Carnac the Magnificent.
As it turns out, Pete was right about a great many things. He was right about a sea change occurring in golf-course architecture that brought strategic principles back into vogue. He was right that the equipment needs to be reined in. And he’s right that we need smaller greens with more contour, not 8,000 yards golf courses.
It’s just not the same without Pete here. We miss his folksy charm. We miss his unfiltered laconic wit. (Perhaps only Dan Jenkins was quicker with a one-liner.) And we miss his open-hearted warmth, his genuineness and his kindness. How does the song go?
When we were young we thought life was a game
But them somebody leaves you, and you’re never the same
All of the places and people belong
In the puzzle, but one of the pieces is gone
We miss you, Pete and Alice. All of golf does.
Looking through my contacts list on my cell phone, I realized I still had Pete’s cell phone number. I don’t know why, but I called it. Maybe I just hoped to hear his voice again. Maybe I just wanted to see what would happen. Maybe I did it because I miss him so much. A recording played, but it wasn’t Pete. It was some flavorless, boiler plate message.
“We’re sorry. You have reached a number that is disconnected or is no longer in service.”
No, I haven’t. Whoever you are, you are absolutely wrong. Pete and Alice are still in service – right now, as we speak – and they are most certainly not disconnected. So long as we are united in our love of golf, Golden Age architecture and the company of good people, we’ll be connected to Pete and Alice forever.