Pete Dye, The Marquis de Sod: “I’ve got dirt for life!”

We have lost a legend of the game. A genius, really. Pete Dye has passed away at the age of 94.

Pete Dye, who was known as the Marquis de Sod, will no longer bring us impossible courses. The kind where most people stand on the tee and say, “My God, how do I play this hole?”

Well, Pete’s probably redesigning the fairways in heaven, unless they were done by Donald Ross or Alastair Mackenzie, in which case, he will take his clubs and play instead.

Sure, there are plenty of golfers who may feel he’s gone to the other place, and they will continue to be effusive as ever with their curses as they play Pete’s masterpieces. You know who you are! You’ve done it if you’ve played a Pete Dye golf course. No doubt you uttered several unmentionable phrases while trying to get out of your first pot bunker.

While many in the U.S. found Pete’s courses shocking, ridiculous and impossibly hard, Pete had a fondness for and appreciation of the oldest of old-style courses. He liked things like the Redan green on the 15th hole at North Berwick. It is the original Redan. As Pete liked to say about the Redan design, “You can’t hit it, and you can’t hold it.” Well, you can, but it’s difficult if it’s a long iron. The reason is that the green slopes from front to back instead of the traditional way, which is back to front.

The reason is that the green slopes from front to back instead of the traditional way, which is back to front. Pete liked pot bunkers, another Scottish invention. It was something about sheep burrowing into the ground to get shelter from the wind. And I know that, but I had to find a fact to prove it for you. (If you look at the link, you’ll see my info is backed up by Forrest Richardson, but it doesn’t say that he worked in design and planning for Landmark Land Company, which will make more sense in a minute.)

9 Oct 1999: Payne Stewart of the USA plays out of a deep bunker on the 11th hole during the Alfred Dunhill Cup played at The Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Munday /Allsport

Pete liked sharp slopes on bunkers which he borrowed from the old-style Scottish revetted bunkers.  Those are formed with layer after layer of sod stacked up as far as necessary to get the right effect. You can see that at the 11th hole, a par three, at the Old Course at St. Andrews, which has a revetted bunker wall about six feet tall and nearly as straight as a wall.

There’s an imitation revetted bunker at the 16th at the Stadium Course at PGA West. Only that one has a 19-foot bunker wall that is slightly sloped. I was told that the reason it was 19 feet was that was how high Pete could hit a sand wedge. If you play it, you have to throw a ball in the bunker and try to hit it up to the green. Hey, it’s not impossible. I’ve done it.

Pete’s bunkers were so angular that a thing called the FlyMo was used to cut the grass. I’ve seen pictures of Pete demonstrating FlyMo by tying a rope to the handle of the FlyMo and standing at the top of the bunker and pulling the FlyMo up and down or side to side to cut the grass. It’s one of those don’t try this at home moments. You can only imagine the FlyMo on a 19-foot bunker wall. Yikes!

Pete liked railroad ties, which he called sleepers. The idea, he said, came from Scotland. When they built the railroads, they left extra ties along the completed track. At Prestwick in Scotland, where the first British Open was played, you can see them today. Pete Dye just copied the look.

Funnily enough, PGA Tour player Hubert Green, who died in 2018, once said that Pete’s courses were the only ones you could burn down because of the number of railroad ties.

There are plenty of railroad ties on two of Pete’s older, famous courses in the U.S.: TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course (The Players) and Harbour Town Golf Links (RBC Heritage).

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL – MAY 11: Justin Thomas of the United States Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Dustin Johnson of the United States walk on the 16th hole as the 17th green is seen in the foreground during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship at the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 11, 2017 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Both courses have wooden planks around most of the water hazards. And in one case, Alice Dye, Pete’s late wife, put them around a green. That’s at Harbour Town on the 13th hole. So, you have fairway, bunker, railroad ties, green. And it’s elevated about 4 feet. If your shot is short you can Bonk! off the wood and end up anywhere. Of course, the ties surround the 17th island green at TPC Sawgrass, the hole everyone loves to hate. ( I played both of these holes and got on the green, meaning it’s not impossible.)

So, you see, as revolutionary as Pete’s design seemed to us, it was just new. As I always say, if you haven’t seen it before, it’s new to you. If the millennials bring back bouffant hairdos, that will be new to them, but not to the baby boomers. Pete just brought a bunch of monster-like “new” old things to U.S. golf course design.

Now, I like Pete’s designs. It reminds me of sculpture. Like the big Henry Moore statues. Only in this case, the finished work might be 7000-7700 yards long. Or more. And I love the ladies’ tees on Pete Dye courses because it gives a woman golfer some kind of chance to make a par. His designs, influenced by Alice, an excellent golfer herself, make play faster because the ladies don’t have to hit an extra shot each hole to get to the green.

(Think about that folks, the next time you stick the ladies’ tees 20 yards ahead of the men’s and then gripe because the women take too long. Whose fault it that, really?)

Over the years, I learned a few things from walking around in the dirt with Pete and Alice, including making better ladies’ tees.

Strangely enough, I actually met Pete Dye maybe a year-and-a-half after I met Alice. I was working on an article for PGA Magazine about PGA West because the PGA of America, as well as the PGA Tour, had business deals with the developer, Landmark Land Company. (Later, I worked for them.)

First, I had to find Pete. I was given a phone number and got Alice. We chatted, and she gave me the number for the hotel where Pete was staying in Indio, California, near the location of the PGA West project. She then said if I got to south Florida, be sure to give her a call. I eventually caught up with Pete on the phone to get some facts on the course. The next time I was in south Florida, I called Alice, and we had a lovely visit in her living room.

It was sometime later that I went to work for the developer of PGA West, Landmark Land Company, which would eventually own 24 golf courses, most of them designed by Pete Dye. At Landmark, I asked the two top golf guys, the ones who really managed all the golf course development, Ernie Vossler and Joe Walser, Jr., why they hired Pete so often.

I don’t remember which one told me the answer, but it was that when they decided to get into the golf course development business, which was at Oak Tree Golf Club, they wanted to work with the person they thought was the best designer who was still alive at the time. Both Vossler and Walser had played on the PGA Tour, and so they knew a good golf hole.

Pete did Oak Tree Golf Club and two courses at Oak Tree Country Club in Edmond, Oklahoma. And it grew from there. I don’t know the order, but for Landmark Land Pete also designed Belle Terre in La Place, Louisiana, Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel, California, three courses for La Quinta Hotel – Mountain, Dunes and Citrus – a course for the Westin Mission Hills, the Cypress Course at Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, one course at PGA West, and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.

I actually met Pete for the first time during the construction of the Stadium Course at PGA West. He had finished working for the day. I happened to be at the golf shop for the La Quinta Mountain and Dunes courses and someone said Pete Dye was out on the range. I had to go out and say hello.

He was out there hitting balls on the range wearing khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. He had dirt stuck to his shins and calves.

“Pete,” I said, “I’m Kathy Bissell. How’s business?”

He answered, “Kath, I’ve got dirt for life.”

I laughed.

We chit-chatted, and I arranged to go visit him while he was working on the course the next day. As it happened, he was fashioning the 11th hole, which is a par five with a lot of different levels and a big lake that you can’t see from the tee because of the undulations.

He wanted more dirt on the right side of the hole to make the hill higher and the dip on the left side of the fairway lower. He said if the golfers were unlucky enough to hit it left, then he didn’t want them to see the surface of the green. They were supposed to play to the right side. Then he chuckled.

Then we got stuck in the sand, which passes for soil in that area, and someone had to come and pull us out.

Another time, a few of the Landmark people, including me, went out to see Pete when he was working on what was originally called the Dinah Shore Course at Mission Hills CC. I don’t know what they call it now, but it was originally designed to be a TPC for the LPGA, and the idea was to move the Dinah Shore tournament to that course. They named it for Dinah, and she was thrilled. The LPGA thought it was too hard and didn’t want any part of it. Too bad. It had a great finish.

But the reason Landmark people were out there was that a sand storm had come up the night before, and a mound to the right of one hole had blown down and across the fairway. Pete wanted to know whether the owners wanted him to put it back. “I kind of like it this way,” Pete said about the happy accident. So did they, and they left it.

Now, interestingly enough, they had already learned their lesson on telling Pete how to design. It was when he was working on Oak Tree Golf Club. There was a disagreement about the green for one of the holes. Vossler and Walser asked Pete to make a change, and they thought he acted like he was going to do it. The next day they came back, the change hadn’t been made and the green was like Pete originally designed it. And he sodded it. You can imagine their surprise.

They asked Pete about it, and he said something like, “I tried it that way, and I didn’t like it, so I put it back.” That was the last time they tried to tell Pete how to design. Since it was their first course, you can imagine that he was pretty much left alone for the rest of the way.

Some time later, while Pete and Alice were working on the Citrus course, which was the third one for La Quinta Hotel, I caught up with them as they were on the front nine. We walked down the 6th hole. Alice started talking to Pete about the location of the ladies’ tees. “My ladies can’t get to the green if you don’t move the tees up,” she insisted. He groused.

We walked another hole or two, and Alice said, “It’s getting hot. Why don’t you and I go have lunch?”

FRENCH LICK, IN – JULY 10: Alice Dye hits a ceremonial tee shot before round one of the Senior LPGA Championship on July 10, 2017 on The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Over iced tea and salad she proceeded to tell me about the work she’d done on women golfers and the length of courses. You have to understand that Alice Dye was an excellent golfer, winner of multiple state amateur championships in Indiana and Florida as well as the U.S. and Canadian Senior Women’s Amateur championships, twice each.

That lunch was when I learned that most women golfers can’t hit a drive in the air more than 130 yards, and can only get 150 yards with the roll. She said she had a chart on it. The men could hit farther, she said, because they naturally have more upper body strength. (I ordered the chart, and sure enough, there were all kinds of data on the skill of female golfers.)

But back to designing. Landmark Land bought the resort assets at Kiawah Island. It came with a long sliver of land along the Atlantic. Naturally, it soon had Pete’s name on it. There’s a lot more to the story, but from Pete’s standpoint, he knew he was building a course along the ocean, and half-way through the process, it was determined that the course would hold the 1991 Ryder Cup.

Then a hurricane named Hugo played through and complicated things. The project manager at the time, Chris Cole, said that there weren’t enough chain saws in the state to clear the trees. However, Pete Dye said the good thing was that the live oak trees the Coastal Commission wouldn’t let him take out were removed by Mother Nature.

Now, all this traipsing in the sand was good for some other nuggets, and one of them will really benefit you the next time you are brave enough to play a Pete Dye golf course. Pete told me that what he tries to do is put the worst trouble on the left because that’s the side that the pros fear. However, nearly every amateur fears the right.

However, that’s not on every hole, and it’s not every time. For instance, on the 16th at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, the bad trouble is on the right. It’s the water. But on the 18th hole, the water is in front of the tee and then all along the left. It’s the finishing hole. The pros really don’t like it because they have to avoid that water, and they fear left.

At PGA West, the finishing hole is the same. On purpose. You can see that at the American Express (which to me will always be the Bob Hope) in a week or so.

LA QUINTA, CA – JANUARY 21: A general view of the 18th hole during the final round of the CareerBuilder Challenge at the TPC Stadium Course at PGA West on January 21, 2018 in La Quinta, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

For me, I will always remember how fortunate I was to be in the company of such brilliant designers, both Pete and Alice, and am grateful for the information they shared with me about creating beautiful, challenging, annoying, monstrous golf courses. I have always enjoyed playing them. And if you don’t, as Alice used to say, “Move up a tee.” Or, in other words, you’re playing too far back for your skill level.

There are plenty of stories about Pete Dye, some funny and many true. The one about having goats at TPC Sawgrass because they ate the grass to just the right height is true. But one day, the golf staff arrived to find the goats on the roof of the clubhouse, which was easy because it had beams that ran down to the ground. Apparently the alligators found the goats were delicious. The goats took exception to that and moved to higher ground.

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If you want to read more about Pete, you might like the book Bury Me in A Pot Bunker by Pete Dye and Mark Shaw.