Pete Dye’s Ryder Cup legacy animates Whistling Straits

There is little question that the Hall of Fame course architect’s influence will be firmly imprinted on the outcome of the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits this week

Pete Dye – Sixty (Whistling Straits)
Pete Dye and Sixty, Dye's black Labrador, on the Straits course in 1997.

In October 1997, Pete Dye and Sixty, his faithful black Labrador, were giving a walking tour of the Straits course before Whistling Straits unveiled the wind-strewn layout for public consumption. The course still needed to grow in some more, but its character was fresh to see. Dye could not have been prouder. Or more determined to make the world’s best players struggle on what he had created.

The modern competitive spirit of the Ryder Cup owes its current intensity to the last time the matches were held on a Dye-designed course. That was 1991, the “War on the Shore” at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course in South Carolina. That one came down to the last putt, a gut-wrenching, missed 6-footer by Bernhard Langer that landed the Americans the narrowest of victories, 14 ½ to 13 ½.  

Along the way, we saw powerful evidence of the emotions and stress the players felt — none with more pathos than Mark Calcavecchia, four up with four holes to play against Colin Montgomerie, only to lose them all coming in and halve the match. The enduring image of that match, indeed of the whole competition, was Calcavecchia cold topping a 2-iron into the water at the par-3 17th hole and then being reduced to tears afterwards.

Too bad Dye won’t be around to see if this week’s version at his Straits course in Sheboygan, Wis., ends up with that kind of drama. Dye, who passed away in January 2020 at the age of 94, is one of only five full-time course architects in the World Golf Hall of Fame (along with Robert Trent Jones Sr., Alistair Mackenzie, Donald Ross and A.W. Tillinghast). Dye leaves behind a considerable legacy of nerve-racking courses, of which this week’s Ryder Cup venue might be his most outrageous and dramatic.

What more telegenic platform for the world’s most competitive professional match-play event than two miles of shoreline overlooking Lake Michigan? Opened as part of Destination Kohler resort-golf ensemble in 1998, Whistling Straits is a dazzling array of dunescape and golf ground, interspersed with so many sand hazards that the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s otherwise definitive Tournament Fact Sheet indicates “a lot” as the number of bunkers. Legend has it that one dogged architecture journalist determined to make an accurate count, but quit after 1,100.

Suffice it to say that Chris Zugel, CGCS, the director of golf course maintenance at Destination Kohler and Jeff Wilson, Straits course superintendent, have their hands full with this sprawling layout. For the Ryder Cup, it will play to 7,390 yards, par 71 (the normally par-5 11th hole, appropriately named Sand Box, having been reduced to a 519-yard par 4).

Besides keeping track of bunkers and rakes, the Whistling Straits maintenance crew has to maintain predominantly fine fescue fairways. Normally, a windy, links-inspired site is ideal, but this course was created from an old World War II airfield that was mainly clay and hardly conducive to ideal growing conditions for fine fescue. It’s a perennial headache, with resodding of several acres a common occurrence each spring.

When dry and firm, as it will be for the Ryder Cup matches, such a turf cover is ideal for the kind of golf where the ball rolls forever. That suits a windy site like Whistling Straits, where the wind off of Lake Michigan can often howl at 10-20 miles per hour.

Dye loved to create the kind of pressure-packed environment for golf that tests the game’s elite players. He famously showed at TPC Sawgrass’ Players Stadium Course that a 132-yard, par-3 17th hole with an island green could make the world’s best players sweat bullets.

When Dye was building the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, he was in a rush after Hurricane Hugo clobbered the area. Knowing that the course would debut with a Ryder Cup, the idea of testing the best players from both sides of the Atlantic was foremost in his mind on every hole. But it was the way John Daly tore up Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., during the 1991 PGA Championship, that really got to Dye and made him intent on outsmarting and out-distancing the Tour pros. 

You can see that at Whistling Straits, where long hitters have to be careful about driving the ball too far for fear of hazards. That’s what makes the double-dogleg, 603-yard, par-5 fifth hole so devious. Likewise, is the challenge at the 18th hole, appropriately named “Dyeabolical” for the way a cross slope and a fairway water hazard intrude at the far end of the landing area on this 515-yard, par-4 finishing hole.

It’s a golf course Dye loved to tinker with after it opened in 1998 and one he loved to see golf pros struggle on — which they did in the PGA Championships held there in 2004, 2010 and 2015.

Interesting to see will be which is the bigger obstacle this time around — the golf course or the character of team match play. Whatever the result, Dye will be missed — even as his presence will be decisive in the outcome.