Pete Dye is hooked on the notion that he can take a piece of nature's leftovers—a swamp or a desert—and transform it into a beautiful and challenging golf course. A lot of people in the game call him an artist and a genius. Others think he's out of his mind.
Over the past two decades, Dye has hacked masterpieces out of some mighty unpromising land. At Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, he carved a seaside course from coral and wound up with one of the most picturesque layouts in the world; at Crooked Stick outside Indianapolis, a dull cornfield he redid evokes a Scottish countryside. And at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla., near Jacksonville, he transformed 415 acres of swamp land into the radically innovative course that will be the site of the Tournament Players Championship next week.
It took a while to run off the snakes and alligators and drain the place, which is only a few feet above sea level, but now the Dye touch is unmistakable. Only 40 acres is set aside for tees, fairways and greens. The rest of it—black lagoons, creeks, huge sandy waste areas and clumps of thick subtropical vegetation—looks like no golf course you've ever seen. Dye and his collaborator, Deane Beman, the TPA Tour commissioner and the man who conceived the Players Club, have truly stuck out their necks. "This isn't just a place to play golf," says Beman. "The public wants to see a player fight through adversity."
Dye's courses require what Dye calls "target golf." It's like hopscotch for grown-ups, with the players moving the ball from one safe place to another. The Players Club is so replete with potential disaster that it has been suggested the moat dug around its perimeter is not so much for security as for making certain the inmates can't escape. There's water on every hole. The greens are small with roller-coaster contours. "It's Star Wars golf," said Ben Crenshaw when he first saw it. "The place was designed by Darth Vader."
With his string of past successes, the 56-year-old Dye is secure enough to shrug off such gibes. "Somebody's going to shoot 64 out there," he says. "But somebody's also going to shoot 104, quit and go home. That's O.K. Golf wasn't meant to be a fair game."
Spectators at next week's tournament, on the other hand, will get an extraordinarily fair break because of the provisions in Dye's design for what Beman calls stadium golf. At strategic places around the course, there are huge earthen mounds and smaller hummocks, allowing spectators a good look at what's happening. Beman estimates that as many as 40,000 people will be able to see every shot on the 18th hole.
The layout stretches over 6,857 yards, par is 36-36—72, and the course "balances out"—for every hole in one direction, there's another in the opposite direction. The Players Club's shortcoming could be weather, specifically the fierce wind that made Sawgrass, just across the road, infamous in the years it hosted the TPC.
As Dye sees it, the wind nightmare could go like this: The gusts will be blowing out of the north. He will be back at the clubhouse, looking down at the 18th hole, savoring its amphitheater effect and waiting for the first players to bring in their opening-round verdicts on his work. But back on the 17th, a 132-yard par-3 in which the green is on a tiny island. Dye imagines a long line of players: Nicklaus, Watson, Miller, Kite. One of them steps up and hits his tee shot into the teeth of the gale. Plop! The ball falls in the water. Player after player hits, plops and goes back to the end of the line. No one can get past the 17th hole!
Dye believes that from 132 yards, the world's best pros ought to be able to hit the green no matter what the wind. The 17th, he says, isn't nearly as difficult as the renowned 12th at Augusta, which requires a longer shot over water to a smaller green. The 17th at the Players Club, which is destined to become one of golf's famous holes, too, simply looks more difficult than it is, Dye claims.
A Pete Dye course is readily identifiable by its Old World touches, such as pot bunkers and waste areas, borrowed from flinty Scotsmen, and its use of hybrid grasses to delineate various sections of the course. He also specializes in cleverly shaped greens and strategically placed bunkers. But Dye's true hallmark is the use of railroad ties, telephone poles or planking to shore up greens, sand traps and the banks of water hazards. He uses so much wood that one of his courses may be the first ever to burn down.