Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 12, 2020

Pete Dye’s Perfect Legacy

When seeing it in person as a spectator for the first time, the initial thought to pass through one’s mind is some variation of “what’s the big deal?” It is beautiful of course, both visually striking and architecturally sublime. While it has since been frequently copied on courses all around the globe, at the time of its creation the design was also highly innovative. Still, at a fundamental level the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass is a very simple golf hole.

Stretched to its maximum length the hole is the shortest par-3 is course at just 137 yards long, a distance that requires no more than a pitching wedge for any member of the PGA Tour. The tee shot is played to a very large green of more than 6,000 square feet. There is just one tiny pot bunker guarding the right front of the putting surface. Put any touring pro on the practice range with a large bucket of balls and ask him to hit wedges at a target that far away, and the result will be blanket of white Titleists surrounding the flag. For most of golfing’s elite landing a shot of that distance more than ten or twelve feet from the planned target constitutes a bad miss.

But as even casual golf fans know, one other factor comes into play on the 17th at Ponte Vedra. That large inviting green is bordered by a latticework of railroad ties, because it is surrounded by water. By the simple but inspired decision to build an island green, course architect Pete Dye turned what could have been a forgettable waypoint on the way to TPC Sawgrass’s home hole into an iconic symbol of golf at its most devilish. Because it is fundamentally simple, the 17th usually ranks near the top of the list of the course’s eighteen holes for birdies scored by the pros during each year’s Players Championship. But because the water is impossible to ignore, it also always ranks at or near the top for double-bogeys and, even worse, the dreaded “other,” meaning a score so ugly that self-respecting professionals dare not whisper its name.

In Friday’s second round at last year’s Players, Tiger Woods, just a few weeks shy of his remarkable triumph at the Masters, strode from the 16th green to the 17th tee to the buzz of fans awaiting a brilliant shot worthy of their hero. That expectant hum turned first to groans as Woods watched his tee shot hit on the back half of the green and bounce once before disappearing over the edge and into the water. The general lament then gave way to stunned silence as the greatest player of his age, after walking forward to the drop zone and facing a shot of less than 100 yards, drowned a second ball, giving Woods claim to two of the more than one hundred thousand balls that are annually dredged up from the murky depths surrounding the 17th. Woods eventually made his way to the 18th tee after recording a quadruple-bogey 7, or as they say in polite company, an “other.”

The simple 17th could humble even Tiger Woods because of all the golf holes on the planet there may be no better reminder of Bobby Jones’s admonition that “golf is played on a 5-inch course – the space between your ears.” The knowledge that the penalty for an error is so extreme turns that routine practice range shot into a harrowing ordeal for even the best players. Defending Players champion Rory McIlroy readily admits that he tries to not even glance at the water but instead always looks straight ahead or at the crowd to his left while making the walk from the 16th green, a walk that McIlroy describes as being “way too long.”

The hole is Pete Dye’s most famous, and both because of it and the presence of the Players Championship for more than three decades TPC Sawgrass is probably his best known course. But Dye, who passed away on January 9th at the age of 94, eleven months after the death of his wife and longtime design collaborator Alice, was a prolific course architect whose impact on course design extended far beyond his personal portfolio. In addition to the annual return of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, Dye’s courses have hosted five PGA Championships, twenty-four of the various national championships sponsored by the USGA, a Ryder Cup, a Solheim Cup, and innumerable weekly stops on both the LPGA and PGA Tours.

From the start of his career Dye refused to be content with turning out one similar layout after another, unlike so many of his busy peers. He almost never worked from a set of finished plans, preferring instead to follow his instincts and his eye, meaning that he was on site, and frequently atop a bulldozer, throughout the construction phase of most of his projects. That personal touch and individual approach led fellow course architect Arthur Hills to liken Dye to “Picasso, somebody that created a nontraditional design.”

His design philosophy came to be called target golf, in which the preferred routing of each hole is apparent to the player, with penal results for straying too far off-line. But Dye also knew that a gambler lives in the heart of every golfer, from the weekend hacker to Phil Mickelson. His most memorable holes often provide a second option that entices the player with a shot that has the potential for great reward at the expense of high risk. His cleverness also meant Dye courses could continue to feature challenging short and medium length par-4s even as most architects were stretching their courses to greater and greater lengths in response to improved club and ball technology. Hilton Head’s Harbour Town Golf Links, which continues to challenge the pros at the RBC Heritage every spring, is but one example.

The Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee said that Dye got “in your head” and that his designs “brought out the best and worst in golfers.” That is a fair assessment of this seminal figure in modern course design, whose legacy will live for generations in courses across the country and around the globe. It is also a reminder of why a simple short hole, the penultimate one on the routing of TPC Sawgrass, is the perfect expression of Pete Dye’s work.

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