FRENCH LICK, Ind. – In golf architecture circles, Pete Dye is a living legend. Along with his wife, Alice, Dye has been building courses for more than 50 years, on five continents.
Even by Dye’s standards, 2014 has been a banner year, as three of his layouts were chosen to host USGA championships, including the Men’s State Team Championship, which begins Tuesday on the Pete Dye Course at French Lick (Ind.) Resort. The others were Oak Tree National, site of the U.S. Senior Open won by Colin Montgomerie, and Harbour Trees Golf Club just a few hours north of French Lick in Noblesville, Ind., which just hosted the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship, won by Margaret Shirley, three weeks ago.
Though major-championship host sites Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits, along with the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, site of the annual Players Championship, are part of Dye’s portfolio, the 2008 inductee to the World Golf Hall of Fame is not content to rest on his success or slow down doing what has become his passion.
I’m 88 years old, I have 13 projects that I’m working on, and about six are wrapping up. I’m looking for work, Dye said at the Men’s State Team Players’ Dinner on Sunday night.
The setting couldn’t have been more appropriate for that sentiment. Opened in 2009, the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort kept the Indiana resident quite busy, with the three-year project including approximately 150 on-site visits from Dye, who estimates that a typical construction requires around 10.
Six years later, the course is one of the rising stars in the game, having already hosted two Big Ten Championships and a PGA National Professional Championship, with the Senior PGA Championship slated for 2015. From the back tees, the course can play as long as 8,102 yards, making it a formidable test for any player, and one that is likely to stand the test of time. However, when Dye first visited the tree-filled, hilly terrain in Southern Indiana, the difficulty of the layout was not his overarching concern.
When you build a golf course, you have to remember that people are going to walk it, Dye said. We just kept pushing and pushing until somebody could walk this course. That was my main concern.
The Dye Course is just the latest on the legendary architect’s list of achievements, and yet another memorable project for him in the Hoosier State, where he began his career in golf course architecture. When golf enthusiasts hear the words Pete Dye and Indiana together, many will think of Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, which has staged six USGA championships, most recently the 2009 U.S. Senior Open, and was the site of John Daly’s memorable victory in the 1991 PGA Championship. Built in 1964, Crooked Stick was, in fact, one of Dye’s first gems, but it may not be the first project in the state that he thinks about.
An accomplished golfer in his own right, Dye was a high school state champion in Ohio and won the 1958 Indiana Amateur Championship (Alice, a two-time USGA champion, won the Indiana Women’s Amateur nine times). Dye competed in six USGA championships, including the 1957 U.S. Open. Professionally, however, Dye couldn’t have been further from golf. Following a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II and studies at Yale University and Rollins College, Pete and Alice settled in Indianapolis, where he began a career in insurance sales. He was quite good at it, too, earning a spot in the Million Dollar Roundtable, an exclusive organization open to the most successful professionals in the field.
A call from an acquaintance changed the trajectory of his career and, in many ways, his life. Well known in the golf community, Dye was asked to find somebody in the area who could build a nine-hole course on a limited budget. He came up empty, and so it was suggested that he give it a shot.
They said, ‘We only want nine holes,’ so I said OK, I’ll build nine holes, Dye said, recalling that he emphasized the fact that he didn’t know how to develop formal course plans. It was the worst nine-hole course you’ve ever seen, he continued, drawing much amusement from the Men’s State Team competitors. Known as El Dorado when it opened in 1961, Dye’s Walk Country Club just south of Indianapolis is now an 18-hole layout, with his original nine serving as the inward side of the course.
Dye was undeterred, and he continued to hone his craft, eventually earning a reputation for designing championship-caliber courses with a penchant for penalizing poor shots. In many cases, that’s often by design, he says, and his course at French Lick, which can play to a Course Rating of 80.0 and a Slope Rating of 148, is a great example. When players arrive at the course’s clubhouse, they are greeted by a statue of Dye, with one of his famous quotes engraved in a large stone next to it: The ardent golfer would play Mount Everest if there were a flagstick on top.
Dye elaborated on this school of thought.
Most of my projects are resorts. At a resort, you’ll get 150 people one day and 150 different people the next day. When golfers come to a resort, they don’t mind getting killed, they look forward to it, he said. The other courses that I’ve built that are private clubs have the same members [playing], and you’ve got to be sure they can get around.
Dye has produced golf courses that have earned the admiration of players of all skill levels running on five decades. It is his goal to continue to do so, but even if the new designs are not as frequent, there is still plenty of work to do.
The golf courses that I’ve built 50 years ago, I’m going back and trying to make them work, he said. The ones I built 15 or 20 years ago, they’re still hanging in there. The trees grow, grass changes, so there’s always a million things to do, a lot of changes.
The constant amid all that change, however, is the man whose designs have contributed to the diverse mosaic of golf course design for more than half a century.
Scott Lipsky is a manager of websites and digital platforms for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.