Golf’s Last Great Architect

Indiana’s golf scene doesn’t have Michigan’s 800-plus courses, Chicago’s history as a tournament site, or the cachet of Florida, California, and Arizona. But we have something those places don’t: Pete Dye. He’s 90 years old. He’s as rascally as ever. And if you tee up at his latest course—Westfield’s just-opened Chatham Hills—you’ll find out why it’s nice to have the world’s greatest golf-course designer living in our backyard.

The problem lay deep in the dirt, and Pete Dye needed to tell the boss about it immediately. The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, had not been draining well. It was 2005, 25 years after Dye first built the course, and it had become one of the most infamous in America. Dye had to make sure his design remained torturous.

“Fifteen minutes, in my office,” said Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner and the man who would have the final say on anything done at the sport’s flagship course, home of The Players Championship. Dye arrived carrying three tall Styrofoam cups.

Without preface, he emptied the cups—filled to the brim with dirt from different locations on the course—onto Finchem’s impeccably maintained desk. Each sample came from a different part of the course, and all had an insidious thatch problem, which Dye explained in exacting detail while poking the dirt for the most powerful man in golf and—at that moment—unquestionably the most befuddled.

“You could have told me that without dumping the dirt all over my desk,” Finchem said. “But you made your point.”

If you’ve played a Pete Dye–designed course, your golf game can probably empathize with Finchem’s desk. America’s most beatified golf-course architect—an eminently likable and no-nonsense nonagenarian—also happens to be its most devilish. For links that have subjugated pros and duffers alike, he is celebrated and cursed. To know a Dye course is to love it, hate it, and, ultimately, admire both it and the man who gave you the best and worst 18 holes of your life.

Try to keep his legacy in perspective when you’ve hit a seemingly perfect drive that ends up trapped in a fairway bunker on the 12th hole at Chatham Hills this month, playing the first full course Dye has designed in Indiana since 2009. Just keep telling yourself: I love Pete Dye. Pete Dye is a true Hoosier. He has put Indiana on the golf map. Maybe he hasn’t made me a better golfer, but I’m having fun. At least try.

Pete Dye is still digging in the dirt, this time not far from where he first got his start in the golf-course-building business. This is good news or lousy, depending on how you’re hitting the ball.

Five years ago, when Golf Digest magazine ranked the 75 most difficult golf courses in the U.S., Dye designs comprised four of the top 10. The others were by golf architects long deceased. The direct, delightful, diminutive 90-year-old Carmel resident, who doesn’t own a cell phone and takes his dog to job sites, is the best golf-course architect alive.

Chatham Hills, in Westfield, represents the third collaboration between Dye and Hamilton County developer Steve Henke. Just 2 miles up the road from the vast and flat Grand Park sports complex lies surprisingly hilly terrain with more than 85 feet of elevation changes. Henke started buying up parcels at the site nine years ago, envisioning a community like Bridgewater, the one he developed at the edge of Carmel and Westfield in the early 2000s.

Bridgewater, now 800-plus houses strong, had the calling card of a Dye-designed golf course. But that was also 15 years ago, when golf was in its Tiger Woods–era boom and residential developments with courses were sprouting like weeds in suburbia. Today, it’s hard to find enough land in proximity to a major city for such a development—and harder still to sell a brand-new golf course, with participation numbers in the game down from a decade ago as fewer beginners are taking up the sport and many avid golfers are skipping their regular weekend rounds to herd their kids to soccer games at places like Grand Park.

But Pete Dye’s name, gold in the golf world, sells developments like no other. While fewer than half the residents of most golf-course communities actually play golf (Bridgewater, for example, has 350 full-golf members in its club), the right name on the scorecard helps home values. A 2007 study of golf-course communities showed that homes on Dye courses outpaced the values of those on courses designed by other prominent architects, such as Tom Fazio and Robert Trent Jones Jr. Even Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

At Chatham Hills, a private course that’s worth befriending a member to play, golfers will enjoy some of Dye’s most hands-on work in years, thanks to the confluence of age and convenience—less jet-setting and a job site close to home—along a parcel of pastoral land that’s hard to believe sits so close to I-465. “We’ve dug some lakes and ponds, and not much else,” says Dye in his understated manner. But the truth is that turning acres of rolling hills into golf holes takes a visionary.

Dye Didn’t see a career in golf—at first. He started out selling insurance. And though he stuck with the profession for a decade and was successful—Dye became the youngest life member of the Million Dollar Round Table—actuary tables and claims never captured his imagination. “Insurance wasn’t exciting enough, so I decided to get into the golf business,” he says.

Dye, who learned to play golf at age 6, became hooked on the sport in 1946 while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, 40 miles from golf mecca Pinehurst, and Dye’s lieutenant colonel had an itch for the game, and a car. Dye quickly became an excellent player and a student of the game—one who could see courses as more than just tees, fairways, and greens. During a practice round for the prestigious North and South Amateur in the mid-1940s, J.C. Penney roamed the grounds with the course’s designer, Donald Ross, but Dye was drawn more to Pinehurst’s architect than the famous department store magnate.

“I knew [Ross], but not well,” Dye says. “I played several of his golf courses, and they’re all different. For the first 10 years, I didn’t realize that they were dramatically different, and it finally dawned on me.” Ross’s genius, he realized, lay in those subtle but ultimately crucial differences.

After moving to Indianapolis in 1950 with his new bride, native Alice O’Neal, the insurance salesman enjoyed a fine amateur career. At the 1957 U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Ohio, Dye placed higher than Nicklaus and Palmer—a feat he still delights in recalling. “Those guys played good,” Dye says with a smile that communicates the rest: I played better.

Alice Dye was an even finer player. The Shortridge High School graduate and captain of the Rollins College golf team in Florida won 11 Indianapolis Women’s City titles and nine Indiana Women’s Amateurs. She not only supported her husband’s career change, she partnered with him. Dye had served as greens chairman at his home course, the Country Club of Indianapolis, and turf classes at Purdue University furthered his interest in not just playing golf, but playing in the dirt. The couple’s first move was to meet with Bill Diddel, the most prominent Indiana golf architect of the first half of the 20th century. By then, Diddel had designed more than 50 courses around the state, including CCI, Speedway Golf Club, and Fort Harrison.

With Diddel’s counsel, the Dyes took on their first layout, nine holes at El Dorado in Greenwood (now part of Dye’s Walk Country Club). Dye’s design crossed a creek 13 times in nine holes, which he admitted years later was a bit of overkill. Then again, one of his favorite sayings is, “Golf is not a fair game, so why build a course fair?”

It remains to be seen if just-opened Chatham Hills is an equitable test or something a little more sinister, though Dye’s mission there was not to torture players at every turn. He knows that on a residential course, the members play every week. You don’t want them to go home miserable. Well, not every time.

The same cannot be said for many of his earlier resort courses, where visitors and pros play yearly rather than weekly. That’s where Dye got dirty.

Nothing he built in the first 20 years of his career seemed more unfair than the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. The PGA Tour commissioned Dye to create a course out of raw northeast-Florida swampland, and what he developed—free-flowing dunes, grass berms, wildly sloping greens, and one green surrounded entirely by water—was despised by players who tried to earn a check at the 1982 Players Championship.

Star Wars golf designed by Darth Vader,” said Tour veteran Ben Crenshaw, a student of the game who would go on to be a successful architect himself. Groused Nicklaus: “I’ve never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.” J.C. Snead quipped, “They ruined a perfectly good swamp.” When Jerry Pate won the tournament—someone had to—he threw Dye and then–PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman into the pond next to the 18th hole.

With that, “Dye-abolical” golf was born. And while it has become mostly a term of endearment, the fiendish undertones defined Dye’s reputation. Course owners, especially at resorts, wanted to have the most difficult layout possible, ideally to challenge the best players in the world by hosting an annual PGA Tour event or the occasional major championship, but also to charge avid golfers top dollar to say they had played a Pete Dye course. More often than not, those golfers would leave with their Titleist hats handed to them—but they’d have a story for their buddies back home. (More than 100,000 balls are fished out of water around the island-green 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass every year, which works out to more than three per player.)

Matters didn’t get easier for golfers, nor did they seem to want easier. The four Dye courses named in the top 10 of the Golf Digest 75-toughest list were built during the 1980s and ’90s boom of golf construction, where every new course was seemingly more audacious than the last. The Stadium Course at PGA West in LaQuinta, California, the sequel of sorts to TPC Sawgrass (complete with another island green), opened in 1986. The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, with its beautiful Atlantic Ocean vistas that are fully at the wrath of the winds, opened in 1991 and immediately brutalized the best players from the U.S. and Europe in the 1991 “War by the Shore” Ryder Cup.

Faucet magnate Herb Kohler hired Dye to build four courses to serve as the centerpiece of a flagship resort in Kohler, Wisconsin, and the craziest of those opened in 1998 when Dye went full-on mad scientist. A flat former military base on the edge of Lake Michigan plus 13,000 truckloads of sand became Whistling Straits, a course reminiscent of seaside links in Ireland or Scotland. Massive dunes and 967 bunkers of every conceivable size and shape greet amateurs who pay $395 (plus caddy fees) for the privilege of letting Dye into their head for five hours.

“He creates golf holes that are difficult to read,” says Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner who sends his players into battle on Dye courses several times each season. “They get you on the defensive, just because of the angles that he employs, the movement of the ground in certain ways. You hear players say, ‘It didn’t suit my eye.’ That’s code for, ‘I wasn’t real comfortable.’ Some people criticize that kind of architecture; in the old days out here, people referred to Pete’s architecture as ‘manufactured.’ But every golf course is manufactured to some extent.”

The real secret is that Dye’s courses (he and Alice have designed five of them together in Indiana) are eminently playable if you can train your eyes appropriately and not enter a mind game with the master. Take the eighth hole at Brickyard Crossing, inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where a player must pay no heed to the pond bordering the entire left side of the hole and fortified brilliantly by pieces of the racetrack’s old wall. Or those hundreds of bunkers at Whistling Straits, the vast majority of which aren’t really in play. But you know they’re there, and Dye knows that you know. And once you’re lured in by Dye’s distractions, your scorecard is toast.

There are six golf-course architects in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and the only living one is about to survey Chatham Hills on a summer day with his beloved German Shepherd, Sixty. In Scotland, where Dye derives so much of his influence as a course builder, it’s not uncommon for local golfers to play with their dog alongside. Dye has had three German Shepherds, all named Sixty (for the dollar amount he paid for the first), all with a front-of-the-cart seat to some of America’s best courses.

At 90, there are some concessions to age. Dye works on out-of-state projects mostly via day trips, traveling home by private jet to sleep in his own bed. Yorktown-based architect Tim Liddy, an associate for more than two decades and usually his drafter on projects (Dye has never been one for blueprints—it’s all in his head), frequently drives to their in-state projects, the designer riding shotgun and Sixty in the back.

Here, at Chatham Hills, he has to delicately negotiate the steps from the clubhouse to an idling Polaris ATV bound for the course. Age has caught up to Dye in that way. But his eye remains incredibly sharp. When the course hired a greenskeeper, Dye greeted him by explaining that a fairway bunker would needed to be moved—six inches to the left. He wasn’t kidding.

When Dye has gotten laughs, they’re from a wit that’s equal parts grandfatherly and gruff. Nearly two decades after hosting the PGA Championship, Dye’s beloved Crooked Stick was preparing to host the U.S. Senior Open, and the United States Golf Association held a press conference in the clubhouse.

Dye sat on the dais with various USGA officials, one of whom erroneously called the course “Crooked Creek” while lauding its virtues. Under his breath, Dye corrected him, “Crooked Stick.” The official repeated the mistake until Dye snapped. “It’s Crooked Stick! I know, I built it!” he barked. The room roared.

Now, the USGA raises Dye’s ire for a different reason. The best players in the world are fearing his courses less, and as he sees it, the USGA lets them get away with it thanks to modern equipment in the hands of guys who look like they could play free-safety in the NFL.

Rickie Fowler birdied TPC Sawgrass’s island 17th three times on Mother’s Day 2015 in winning The Players Championship. Jason Day put on a driving clinic at Whistling Straits at last year’s PGA Championship, rendering those hundreds of bunkers moot with a stripe show off the tee. And multiple champion Rory McIlroy, who has professed a love/hate relationship with Dye’s work, hammered the Ocean Course at Kiawah in 2012, winning the PGA by a record eight shots at 13 under par for four rounds, an unfathomable score.

When John Daly famously brought Crooked Stick to its knees in the 1991 PGA Championship, it was thought to be an anomaly with how far he hit the ball. Daly led the Tour that year in average driving distance, at 288.9 yards. Today, that figure wouldn’t crack the top 90 on Tour. Last season, there were more than 1,000 drives of 350 yards or more.

But Dye is getting a measure of revenge, going back to many of his old masterpieces to add more yardage, more risk/reward holes, more visual trickery. In short, a lengthy career is now sustained in part by adding more length to his work. “I have 13 different projects. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Dye says with a chuckle.

Hoosiers, though, are getting the last laugh with Chatham Hills. It could be Dye’s final all-new course in metro Indy, or anywhere.

Dye, who splits his time with Alice between homes in Crooked Stick and Delray Beach, Florida, has been on the job site at Chatham on a weekly basis when in Indiana. Even as the grasses were coming in as opening day loomed in September, he was looking at more tweaks.

The par-4 16th hole plays to a green set in a woody hollow. It’s one of the few places where a large number of trees have been removed, in order to get enough sunlight on the green to keep the grass growing.

“Gonna take out a few more trees,” Dye mutters as he rides by.

The owner, Steve Henke, laughs, knowing he’s not going to win that argument with Dye. “If I have an idea, I’ll run it by him,” he says. “If he’s got an idea, he usually puts his hand on my shoulder. ‘Now Steve, now Steve, I’ll explain what we can do here.’ We never have a disagreement. When the hand’s on the shoulder, I figure we’re going to do it Pete’s way.”

The owner may not like it. The golfers may not end up liking it. But Dye likes it. Which, really, is how we like it, too.