While Pete Dye’s influence as an architect is felt around the nation and well beyond our borders, it’s arguable that his work around the southeast coast, in proximity to the Jacksonville-Hilton Head-Kiawah Island corridor, is the most concentrated area of his finest creations.
Dye is the only living architect in the World Golf Hall of Fame. It’s less than two hundred miles from the St. Augustine-located golf shrine (in northern Florida) to Kiawah Island, (in South Carolina) home of the Ocean Course. Yet within that easy drive up I-95, a trio of his most beloved public courses are reasonably close at hand.
One would need an empty tee sheet, a jet helicopter and the stamina of an ultra-marathoner to complete these three ‘bucket list’ courses in the same day. But grabbing a National Rental Car in either Jacksonville, Savannah, Hilton Head or Charleston, the avid and ambitious player can manage to complete a pair of Dye aces among TPC Sawgrass-Stadium, Harbour Town, and the aforementioned Ocean Course in a single day, assuming sunset didn’t roll around until 8 PM and they were not stymied by traffic. Let’s face it: Two out of three ain’t bad! (But of course; the best course of action is to savor them one at a time.)
Working from south to north, the first stop would be TPC Sawgrass-Stadium, in the town of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Designed to test the Tour’s elite, the Stadium Course was supposed to be the most democratic course in the world, testing all aspects of one’s game. Dye created short and long par-3s and par-4s, reachable and unreachable par-5s, holes bending both left and right, and no two consecutive holes heading in the same direction, so that a prevailing wind would always make holes play differently.
“Democratic” might have been the idea. “Demonic” was the end result. How tough was Pete Dye’s initial effort? The Tournament Players Championship was first conducted on the grounds in 1982, and featured names like Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino, Miller, Wadkins and Sutton–35 Majors won among them. They all missed the cut!
At the insistence of the disgruntled Tour elite, Pete Dye quickly smoothed, widened, buffed, and softened some of the Stadium Course’s rough edges. Leveled with so much criticism, he also leveled the heavily contoured greens. Over time, the course became more popular with the pros convening annually for what is now known as the Players. This so-called “Fifth Major” attracts the strongest field of the year, with nearly all of the world’s top echelon in attendance. So while the Stadium Course has an incredible legacy, it’s the layout itself that keeps the tee sheet filled in perpetuity, and the course firmly ensconced in the worldwide top 100. It has always been phenomenally trendy with the pay-to-play crowd, eager to calm their butterflies as they try to hold onto the short iron, then hold the island green 17th. Keep it on terra firma all the way down the final fairway, as water hugs the entire left side. Resort guests and vacationers enjoy this 18-hole thrill ride from opening tee shot to final putt. And a large part of the appeal, from the get-go, is that sink-or-swim little tee shot near round’s end, lurking in every player’s mind. The island green 17th, though short in length, stays long in the memory of all who step to the tee box.
The island green is Dye’s most famous hole, but a close second would be the final hole at Harbour Town Golf Links, up the road apiece on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The choppy waters of Calibogue Sound lurk to the player’s left, waving marsh grasses fronting the tee box wreak havoc with wayward drives, and the candy-striped lighthouse stands sentinel behind the green, a clear target for both drive and approach. It’s an epic conclusion to one of the most beguiling courses in the modern game.
The quartet of par-3s is one of the finest collections in the game. Two are menaced by water, one surrounded by sand, the last requiring a tee shot into the prevailing breezes with wetlands and marsh grasses close at hand. It’s hard to recollect any other world-class course that has the proliferation of houses and condos that are seen at the southern end of the island’s Sea Pines Resort, so it’s a testament to Dye’s acumen that a round here isn’t like a typical ride through a neighborhood subdivision, which is so often the case in the Southeast. The strategy required on each shot and the omnipresence of the fabulous hardwoods defining and influencing the line of play draw the attention. To find success at Harbour Town a player must not only find the fairway, but often must land on the proper side of the fairway in order to reach the green safely.
Lastly, the wild, windswept Ocean Course in the crown jewel of Kiawah Island, and the most anticipated (and feared) course in the golf-rich state of South Carolina. What makes the Ocean Course so mesmerizing, so memorable? It’s the once-in-a-lifetime location. It’s the dazzling views and the omnipresent ocean winds, which seem to come from everywhere at once, buffeting both player and ball, then dying away in an instant. It’s the prospect of disaster lurking on virtually every shot–a favorite saying among staffers is: “we don’t sell golf balls, we rent them.” The minimal housing presence adds to the wild and woolly landscape. The dedicated turf on the course is just 55 acres, but the vistas, seascape, wetlands, sand, and ball-eating vegetation occupy an area six or eight times that size. Brawny as the golf course appears, with generous fairways, oversized greens, and cavernous bunkers, it’s dwarfed by the majestic natural panorama: the sea, sky and sand that surround it. Like the two world-beaters mentioned above, the Ocean Course is no stranger to hosting the world’s best. It was the site of the 1991 Ryder Cup, the 2012 PGA Championship, won by Rory McIlroy, which as the first of golf’s professional Majors to be contested in South Carolina, and will have an encore as host of the PGA Championship once again in 2021.