By Ken MacLeod
Pete Dye helped bring a touch of seaside Scotland to courses located in tall forests, on mountains, in deserts and the plains of Oklahoma. No matter the location, his bold, innovative designs gave golfers a refreshing and creative if at times bedeviling and bewildering look at how golf could be played.
Dye passed away Thursday at age 94 after a long struggle with dementia. His partnership with Landmark Land Co. founders Gerald Barton, Ernie Vossler and Joe Walser led to the creation first of Oak Tree Golf Club (now Oak Tree National) in Edmond in 1976 and soon thereafter of Oak Tree Country Club (1981)
Dye’s partnership with Landmark flourished as the company and the Oak Tree logo became linked with many successful golf course developments. The company moved from Edmond to Palm Springs, Calif., where Dye designed two courses at LaQuinta and then the legendary Stadium Course at PGA West, which showcased on a national and somewhat controversial level the same dramatic design concepts Dye used at Oak Tree National, including mounding, railroad ties, dramatic slopes and movement on and around the greens.
Beyond it’s impact on the desert, Dye and Landmark would combine on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, which was finished just prior to the 1991 Ryder Cup and became the famous War on the Shore that spurred the Ryder Cup to unimagined heights of popularity.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Oak Tree on golf in Oklahoma. The course went on to be the home of the famed Oak Tree Gang, including Gil Morgan, Bob Tway, David Edwards, Mark Hayes, Danny Edwards, Scott Verplank, Doug Tewell, Willie Wood and others. It hosted the 1988 PGA Championship, the 2006 Senior PGA Championship, the 2014 U.S. Senior Open Championship and will be the site of other significant events in the future.
Oak Tree Country Club has been the site of the Oklahoma Open since 1986 and has hosted many other significant tournaments, including the 1989 NCAA Championship won by Oklahoma (and individually by Phil Mickelson).
The two courses helped turn Edmond from a bedroom community of around 8,000 residents into the thriving city of more than 88,000 that it is today, with an unmatched golf legacy that you can read more about in the upcoming Travel and Directory Issue of Golf Oklahoma (out in early February).
Here is reaction today from Oklahoma pros and industry figures involved with Oak Tree:
Tom Jones, Oak Tree National President and COO:
“Every golf course designer after 1970 owes him a royalty. With his radical designs, he was the one who brought the question into the golf community about who designed this course. Until the mid 70s, you just played a course and you either liked it or you didn’t. But his designs were so radical and exaggerated, everyone was asking ‘What is this? Who did this.’
“When I first saw Oak Tree back in 1975 when they were still finishing the course, my reaction was ‘Are you kidding me!’ It was pretty bizarre for a guy who grew up playing Mohawk Park. But his designs have withstood the test of time.”
Scott Verplank, PGA Tour professional and long-time resident and member at Oak Tree National.
“The older I’ve gotten and the more courses I’ve played around the world, the more a fan of his I’ve become. The courses he built in the 1970s and 80s are as good or better than anything built today. Oak Tree is still as a golf course as anything you’ll ever play.”
Verplank, who won the 1984 U.S. Amateur at Oak Tree, said part of the genius of the design at OTN is it looks like a Scottish course but the ground game is missing. Dye wanted players to have to attack through the air. But he also credited Dye with making every shot look harder than it really was.
“He was a genius at playing mind games with the players. His courses demanded precision, but the landing areas were wider than he made them appear from the tee box. Nobody since has had that kind of combination of imagination and strategy.”
Everett Dobson, owner, Oak Tree National
“I’m kind of biased but I think Pete was one of the all-time greats and Oak Tree is among his greatest achievements of all of his courses.”
Dobson most remembers spending two days with Dye in 2008 shortly after purchasing the course. They walked Oak Tree and had detailed discussions about holes, strategy, future improvements and restorations.
“He couldn’t have been more generous with his time and thoughts,” Dobson said. ‘It was invaluable in the renovation we did with Tripp Davis and will be going forward as well.”
Gil Morgan, PGA and Champions Tour veteran and one of the original members of the Oak Tree Gang.
Morgan tells the story of the building of the third green at OTN, a small green perched on a steep hill at the end of what was a long curling par-5 before the advent of 350-yard drives.
“Joe and Ernie told Pete the hill was too steep and the green too small and severe,” Morgan said. “Pete said okay and got on his tractor and massaged the hole until it was the way they wanted it. Joe and Ernie said it looks great and they went away for the weekend. When they came back, it was back to the way Pete wanted it.”
Morgan remembers another time he ran into Dye while he was finishing up the Mountain Course at LaQuinta, flashing dirt onto a slope near the green on a par-5 to make certain that balls that landed there would roll to the left of the green and not on it. Just another diabolical Dye touch around the greens.
“Pete started a revolution in design from the traditional parkland setting to stuff you had never seen before,” Morgan said. “I remember I had my first win at the BC Open in 1977 and I came home to play in a pro-am at Oak Tree that Wednesday. I started on the fourth hole and promptly hit my tee shot in the water and made double bogey. And I thought I was playing pretty well. But there was just no let up at Oak Tree.”
Morgan was paired with Jack Nicklaus, who publicly credited Dye with making his own design career possible, in the 1988 PGA Championship at Oak Tree. On the par-5 16th, Nicklaus got mixed up in tall native areas on the right side and would up with a nine, while Morgan made an eagle.
“I had never seen Jack made a nine anywhere,” Morgan said. “As we walked to 17, he said “too bad Gil, if you had made a 3 there you might have made the cut. I said I did make a 3. He apologized, he was a little flustered after making a 9. But that’s what Oak Tree could do to you.”
Stan Ball, head professional at Oak Tree Country Club from 1984 to 1997
“I was an assistant out there when Pete was around finishing up the back nine of the East Course. I should have gone out there and walked around with him and picked his brain but I never did. It’s one of my great regrets.
What an amazing talent and what a great team he made with Alice. She was hugely influential in the placement on the women’s tees at the club and how much farther ahead of the men’s tees they were.”
Tripp Davis, Norman-based golf architect, restored Oak Tree National in 2008-09.
“When you get a chance to work on anything that Pete did, it’s an extraordinary learning experience. You try to study and figure out what he was trying to do and put it back the same way.
“I’ve played a lot of Pete’s courses around the country. He was a master at creating things to distract you from the way the hole should be played. If you could ignore the noise and not let the intimidating things get in your head, you could score. His subtleties in design were amazing and he really brought the ground game back into design.”
Steve Walser, son of Joe Walser, worked with Dye on numerous Landmark projects.
“He was a real artist for sure and just a fun guy to be around. He was quirky and funny. We played a lot of golf together and he was a good player. I saw him at Alice Dye’s funeral last year and he really couldn’t talk or know who I was. It’s a sad day and I’m really going to miss him.”
Danny Edwards, PGA Tour player from Edmond, one of first Oak Tree residents
“In 1973 I got a call from Joe Walser and he wanted me to meet this guy named Pete Dye. I met him at the Oklahoma County line and we walked what would later become Oak Tree for three hours. He was just the nicest, most unpretentious guy. You never would have known he was on his way to being one of the world’s best-known and respected architects.
“I think playing Oak Tree all those years certainly made us all better players.He looked at the game and design in a very unique way. He was a pioneer of shot making and course strategy. You’ve got to think when you play, or you’re going to end up in spots where the average player has no chance of getting up and down.”
Doug Tewell, PGA and Champions Tour veteran, long-time member of the Oak Tree Gang
Tewell remembers that he was the first player to birdie the famed 17th hole at Dye’s TPC Sawgrass course in competition in The Players Championship.
“Pete was sitting there and he comes over and says ‘I just knew it would be one of you Oak Tree boys,’ ” Tewell said. “You all have a little more experience with my greens.”
Tewell said he never tired of playing Oak Tree during all his years of competition and it was always a benefit.
“Pete believed in shot making, putting it at the proper angle and not just driving it as far as you can and then gouging a wedge out,” Tewell said. “That was fine with me. I couldn’t drive it down there anyway, but I could hit it straight.”