A talented amateur golfer and successful insurance salesman before deciding he wanted to design courses in the late-1950s, Dye was known to do deals with developers on a handshake and envisioned his layouts without formal plans. He did not finish high school, college or law school but in 2008 became only the fifth golf architect enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame—joining Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, C.B. Macdonald and Robert Trent Jones.
“Whatever cloth they cut Pete from, you can rest assured that was the one and only piece they had,” golf architect Bill Coore told Golf World in 2014. “I’ve never met anyone like him.”
Dye grew up in Urbana, Ohio, and learned to play golf on a nine-hole course, Urbana Country Club, that his father, Paul Dye—a bar owner, insurance agent and postmaster—built after becoming obsessed with the game. “I first remember going out there with him,” Dye recalled in 2008 at his Hall of Fame induction. “He gave me a job and I watered the greens with just a garden hose.”
Those boyhood summers working at his father’s club during the 1930s and 1940s led to Dye’s lifelong fascination with agronomy and course maintenance. With the onset of World War II and the community’s men leaving to serve in the military, Dye became greenkeeper at Urbana Country Club when he was 15, a successful stint except for the time he overfertilized the greens and watched them, as he wrote in Bury Me in a Pot Bunker, turn to “yellow straw that spelled disaster for me and the course.”
Once he was old enough to join the Army, Dye spent nearly three years stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Bragg, N.C. While in North Carolina near the end of the war, Dye had the opportunity to make the 30-mile drive and play Pinehurst No. 2 Course many times, where he became friends with its designer Donald Ross. The strategic demands of No. 2 made an indelible impression on Dye, piqueing his interest in why a course stood out architecturally, but for years he would concentrate on playing the game.
A state high school golf champion in Ohio, Dye won the Indiana State Amateur in 1958 after being runner-up twice. He competed in the 1957 U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur half a dozen times. In the 1958 Trans-Mississippi at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan., Dye lost in the semifinals to 18-year-old Jack Nicklaus, who a decade later would become his design consultant at Harbour Town.
Dye began to get the itch to build courses in the mid-1950s. He and Alice got their first design job several years later, a low-budget, nine-hole course south of Indianapolis, where they had settled, called El Dorado. They grew bentgrass for the greens in their lawn and transported the sod to the site in their sedan. “Neighbors used to kid Alice that they could tell when she had a load of bent in the trunk because the front end was raised so high the car looked like a motorboat!” Dye wrote.
“We thought we had built Oakmont,” Dye recalled of El Dorado, “but it wasn’t quite.” In nine holes, the couple designed 13 carries over a creek. Despite the inauspicious maiden effort, Dye was off on his second career. It received a boost not long after when the University of Michigan hired Dye to build a course after also considering Robert Trent Jones, the era’s architectural superstar, and Dick Wilson, another well-regarded designer.
A 1963 journey to Scotland, where Dye played in the British Amateur and he and Alice visited many of the country’s classic courses, was pivotal in his subsequent architecture. Inspired by the look and feel of golf in the land where it began—including tiny but devilishly deep bunkers with faces shored up by railroad ties—Dye returned home intent on making his designs stand out from the prevailing style of brawny courses with big greens, flashy bunkers and landing-strip tees popularized by Trent Jones. Dye was already at work on Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., where the 1991 PGA Championship and 1993 U.S. Women’s Open would be contested.
“When I came back to the States,” Dye said in an interview with Jeff Silverman in 2014, “I had the idea I had to try to make it look like some of those courses over there.”
As Jim Urbina—who along with Coore, Tom Doak, Bobby Weed and other prominent golf course designers got their start in the business by working for Dye—pointed out, Dye put a new twist on old architectural features. “He’s taken the classical templates, disguised them and made them his own,” Urbina told Golf World. “His angles are classical. His strategy is classical. His courses are classical. But you don’t see it until you really see it.”
Unlike designers during the Golden Age of golf architecture, who lacked modern machinery but often were given the best land on which to craft their courses, Dye often started with bland or hostile properties. No site was more challenging than the swampy, snake-infested acreage south of Jacksonville, Fla., where then-PGA TOUR commissioner Deane Beman, a fan of the complete examination offered by Harbour Town, hired Dye in the late 1970s to create the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass
“It was rough property,” said Bob Dickson, then a PGA TOUR staff member. “There were plenty of places in there where if you were going to walk anywhere close to a straight line, you were going to do it with a machete or a chainsaw.”
Dye sketched the course on the back of a placemat, then, with input from Beman and Alice, immersed himself in the dirty, difficult job, usually with his German Shepherd in tow. “It was amazing,” recalled Vernon Kelly, the TPC Sawgrass project manager. “He’d come out and work us all to death. He had a car rented from National at the airport. They’d just park it, without cleaning it, and it was there for him when he came the next time.”
When Dye was finished with his labor of love, tournament golf had a special stage and its first island-green par 3, No. 17, that would become perhaps the most identifiable one-shotter in golf. If it lacked the splendor of the 16th at Cypress Point or the subtlety of No. 12 at Augusta National, the penultimate hole at THE PLAYERS Stadium epitomized the mental gauntlet that Dye love to throw at skilled golfers. “The thing that gets to a good player,” Dye told Golf World, “is fear.”
Dye contended that his courses looked harder than they were, although the TOUR players carped loudly when THE PLAYERS moved to TPC Sawgrass. Many thought the small, severely undulated greens and their surrounds were too penal. “No question, when it opened up, it was on the wrong side of fair,” Beman said of the course in 2011. “It took a couple of renditions to get it right.”
When he was in his 80s, Dye was still tinkering with arguably his most famous design. His homespun descriptions for his architecture were “playing in the dirt” or “pushing dirt,” but those terms belied Dye’s innate gift and studied effort that went into his courses.
“The way Pete gets on a property and feels it is pretty impressive,” Tiger Woods told Golf Digest in 2008. “His courses built for tournaments are hard, but there’s a good reason behind everything.”
Dye’s courses had a strong impact on golf architecture. Ron Whitten and Geoffrey Cornish wrote in The Architects of Golf that by the 1980s, “even his chief competitors were building courses that were a reflection of his style or a response to it.”
Dye, who was predeceased by his wife Alice, and is survived by their two sons, Perry and P.B., both of whom are course architects, received some of golf’s highest honors. In addition to being a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Dye received the Donald Ross Award from the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 1995; the 2003 Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America; 2004 Distinguished Service Award from the PGA of America; and 2005 PGA TOUR Lifetime Achievement Award.
“My opportunity to mold God’s earth into a test that golfers can enjoy has given me great satisfaction, and I am extremely indebted to those who have given me the chance to build golf courses all over the country,” Dye said in Bury Me in a Pot Bunker. “Donald Ross once wrote, ‘My work will tell my story,’ and that is how I hope to be remembered.”