Pete Dye on Kiawah Island

By: Jay Flemma


Cybergolf's Jay Flemma recently interviewed Pete Dye, the fabled golf course architect who designed the venue for the 94th PGA Championship, which starts Thursday at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C. Here's what the 86-year-old Dye had to tell Jay about the course.

Jay Flemma & Pete Dye

Jay Flemma: We hear some interesting things happened while you were building Kiawah Island?

Pete Dye: Oh I got plenty of stories! Everything happened to us trying to build that golf course. Back then it was owned by Landmark and Eddie Vossler (you remember him, he won a lot on the PGA Tour), and Joe Walser. They owned PGA West, La Quinta and Oak Tree - I've built 10-11 courses for them - and they had the Ryder Cup coming to PGA West in 1991, but TV requested a time change for the tournament, which required them to move it to the East Coast instead.

JF: Network television wanted to air the tournament during prime time in Europe, wasn't that it?

PD: Right first time! So they bought the Kiawah land in 1988 and they looked at me, and I looked at the swamp they bought, and they said, "We're gonna have the Ryder Cup here in two years!" and I said, "Well you must be having it at another golf course!" And they just looked right back at me and said, "Oh no, were having it right here." "And I thought, 'Well, it's our funeral . . ." but I said, "Okay, let's go."

Well, it was tough enough having only two years to get the course done and grown in, but we had barely got started and then Hurricane Hugo came in and tore up everything. It made a wondrous mess.

But because of Hugo, we were able to restore a lot of the land. We were able to fix up the sand dunes, add two new ponds and turn the site from salt water to fresh. But most importantly, Alice said, "You ought to make the inland holes built up so you can see the ocean from every hole," and that was a great idea, perhaps the best suggestion she ever made in a long career of making great suggestions. So she's just as responsible for the course being so good as anyone. We built up all the fairways, and now they're even more windswept than they would have been.

Well everybody said we couldn't do it. No way could we get the course ready for the Ryder Cup. I remember Tom Kite saw it and Dave Stockton, and a bunch of other guys all said we can't play it here, but we did it. We got it ready even though they thought we couldn't, and it was perfect.

JF: We hear you nearly got bitten by snakes or eaten by crocodiles while building the course.

PD: Well alligators are a regular hazard at TPC Sawgrass! I see them all the time, but at Kiawah we had rattlesnakes and crocs and we even had cougars. We saw this big cat roaming around. How often do you see that? We also had these big sea turtles and they would lay eggs on the beach and then they couldn't get out, and we had a devil of a time getting them back to the ocean. We had all sorts of nets and boats to lift these big heavy turtles, and then dump them back in the ocean. It was something to see, let me tell you.

JF: What is the best way to attack the course and what kind of golfer will do well here?

PD: Anyone who plays well in the wind will have an advantage, because we get swirling winds here, and they change direction on you from day to day and from hour to hour. I hope we get a 15-20 knot wind. That'll help make the course more difficult. The length is there, the course is at sea level, but there is also a variety of short holes.

JF: Strategic holes, where we might see some swings?

PD: Exactly. But everything depends on the wind, but that's the one thing you can't depend on, if you get what I mean. The course changes significantly with the wind direction. You can play one hole into one crosswind one day, the other crosswind the next, and dead into the wind on the day after that. It's like Portmarnock, and that's what we were thinking of the most when we designed it, there is no prevailing wind there either. So Alice and I had to design Kiawah so that no matter what direction the wind was coming from, amateurs and resort golfers could play the hole, yet it would still be a tough test for the pros. Sure enough, in '91 the Ryder Cup players all played it in one type of wind in the practice rounds, and were completely unprepared when overnight it started blowing in the other direction. That 7- or 8-iron they had in the practice round became a 3- or 4-iron instead, maybe even more.

JF: 17 was particularly difficult.

PD: It was, and let me tell you, before the tournament Ray Floyd said it was the greatest golf course in the world, and in practice rounds they all were praising it - they had changed their tune when they got here and saw how good it was - but then when the wind changed and scores went up everyone stopped speaking to me!

But the pros have played there a lot since then, and I haven't heard any near as much of the bellyaching I've heard at other places. Some guys talk themselves right out of the tournament at some places, but they won't do that here. One is a short hole, three is a short hole, and at two they can get home in two. Seven they can reach in two and 10 is short. And on 15-18 they'll have the wind behind them, so they'll get home at 16 in two, and they won't have the problems at 17 that they had for the Ryder Cup.

JF: But you also added new tees and lengthened the course as well?

PD: We did put in some new tees. I tell you, when I first built it, I never thought they'd need new tees, but with the equipment they have now, I had to move the tees back. Kerry Haigh said that they're gonna use them, so it'll play all of 7,500-7,600 yards. It's got all the length it needs, but we mix things up all the way around, so players will have to think and adjust to the conditions.

We also put a new tee on 18, which is in the ocean, so there's more of an angle coming into the fairway, but it should be downwind, so they'll pop a 3-wood in there. It's August, so I can't imagine the wind coming out of the north. It should be behind them, but you never know for certain and you can't predict. It's also going to be the first PGA Championship played on Paspalum grass, and the team down there has done a wonderful job of getting the conditions just perfect.

And the best thing is the course is public, so everybody can come and watch it and then play it for themselves. It's been 20 years since it opened and play is up 15 percent. We've had great support from golf fans and from ardent golfers coming back to play again, and that's how you can tell it's been a real success.

JF: What will be some interesting things for fans to watch for at this year's tournament and what other design features did you import from other golf courses?

PD: If the wind is coming out of the south or southeast - what we should get in August - holes that go south to north will play hardest. So that's nine and 13, two of the stronger par-4s on the course. At 16, the hole runs a little more from the southwest to the northeast, and so that side-to-side wind will be more difficult. Guys will have to watch that coming home. Now at 17 the wind comes off the water and should help the player, so it shouldn't play as tough as it did for the Ryder Cup.

As for other courses I was thinking about, other than Portmarnock there was Carne in the northwest of Ireland which gave me the idea for the big shaggy dunes and mounds, and then the Redan hole is from North Berwick.

This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on August 6, 2012.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.


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