Pete Dye’s Final Chapter
TIME ROBS A GENIUS OF HIS MEMORY, BUT HIS WIFE AND THEIR SCRAPBOOKS OPEN A WINDOW TO HIS SOUL
Time robs a genius of his memory, but his wife and their scrapbooks open a window to his soul. BY RON WHITTEN
“PLEASE DON’T END YOUR STORY ON A SAD NOTE,”
Alice Dye says to me as I close my notebook and reach over to shut off my voice recorder. I won’t,” I say, not believing I can keep the promise even as I say it. How can this not end on a sad note? This entire situation is sad, even tragic. Iconic golf-course designer Pete Dye, author of TPC Sawgrass, Crooked Stick, the Ocean Course at Kiawah, Whistling Straits and many others, a genuine genius at his craft, member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Alice’s husband of 68 years, the love of her life, sits in a rocker some 10 feet from us, seemingly oblivious to our presence. He looks healthy, maybe a bit puffy in the face, remarkably good for nearly 93 years old. But time has robbed him of his verve. He’s now almost childlike, his attention not on us, but on a rerun of “Gunsmoke” on television. In the good old days, 30 years ago or three, I couldn’t have had a conversation with Alice without Pete jumping in. Likewise, if I’d ask Pete a question, Alice would invariably cut him off with the answer. The two of them used to constantly talk to me at the same time, much as my parents used to do. During rounds of golf with Pete and Alice, they’d not only talk at the same time, they’d swing at the same time. The only three-hour rounds I ever played were with them.
This day in August, we’re sitting in the Dye home on Polo Drive in Gulf Stream, Fla., their primary residence since 1971. Alice, 91, is in a wheelchair, temporarily, with her left leg outstretched, a drainage tube leading from her kneecap, the result of complications after knee-replacement surgery. She’s on the mend but frustrated at the slow pace of her recovery and how it inhibits her caring for Pete. There are three others in the house to watch over both, but still, that’s her husband who needs her help.
An orderly walks Pete from the kitchen to the den, eases him into the rocker, then turns on the television. The orderly tells Alice that he has fed Pete lunch, strictly soft food now, after a choking incident a week ago that resulted in an emergency-room visit. In a loud voice, Alice announces my presence to Pete, but he just stares at the TV.
Pete’s mind is in a state of irreversible decline. Call it what you will: dementia, Alzheimer’s, old-timer’s disease, a total eclipse of the brain. Whatever it is, it is cruel, robbing him of his memories. It’s also stripping away his personality. To me, Pete was always a combination of Will Rogers, Walt Disney and Rod Serling. Now he’s barely Pete. It is heartbreaking.
I ask Alice if Pete is aware of who we are, or, more important, who he is anymore.
“I don’t know what he knows,” she says. “It’s very strange. He doesn’t communicate back much. But I think he understands more about what’s going on than we think.”
I guess I’d seen it coming but didn’t recognise it for what it was at first, or maybe I was in a state of denial. During a round of golf in 2015 with Pete and Alice at Gulf Stream Golf Club, just down the street from their house, Pete had asked me a question, then five minutes later asked me the same question again. And he kept calling me by the wrong name. I dismissed that as the usual forgetfulness that comes with old age.
Last year, when Alice was presented the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, Pete stood off to the side. When I walked up to him, he shook my hand and said, “How ya doin’? How ya doin’?” But I noticed he said the same thing to everybody else, too. He doesn’t remember
anybody’s name, I thought. Now I’m not so sure he recognised any of us.
This day, Alice urges me to slide my chair over and speak to Pete. “He’d be upset if you didn’t,” she says.
I scoot over and gently touch him on his right shoulder. He turns his head and looks at me blankly for a moment, then starts to smile.
“Pete,” I say. “How ya doin’? It’s Ron Whitten. Golf Digest.”
His smile is now a grin, and he mouths something over and over, chewing on a word. To me it sounds like “right” or “write” or “writer.”
“I’m a writer,” I confirm. “I’m writing an article on you.”
Pete chuckles repeatedly, and I’m suddenly overcome with emotion. Because I think he recognises me? Because he can barely talk? Because I’m powerless to help him? Probably all that, but in hindsight, I think I felt overwhelmed mainly because it was the same chuckle I’d heard from Pete so many times before. His chuckle seemed to indicate to me that he’s content, OK with his fate, not fearful. Would that I could be as brave.
“I just wanted to see you and tell you how much I love you,” I say. He responds with more chuckles as he mouths another word, one that doesn’t fully materialise. “You’ve given me so many fine hours of your time over the years, I wanted to thank you. You’ve given me great stuff to write about,” I tell him. I ramble a bit more, my voice choking. “I’m so pleased to see you again.”
Pete continues to look at me, then his eyes turn left and he’s staring at the television. I squeeze his hand, and he looks back.
“Take care, my friend,” I say, and I hear him respond, “Yeah.” I repeat myself as I take off my glasses and wipe tears from my eyes. “Take care,” I say again, and I hear a faint, “I will.” Or did I?
Listening to the exchange later on my voice recorder, a faint recording because it was positioned several feet away, next to Alice—I hadn’t had the presence of mind to carry it over to Pete when I spoke to him—I rewind and play the portion over and over. I can definitely hear Pete say, “Yeah.” But the other response, “I will,” wasn’t from him at all. It was spoken by someone on the television. Damn. What are the odds of that particular piece of dialogue at that precise moment?
As I rejoin Alice, she says, “I think he knows. Don’t you?”
I try to respond, but I’m sobbing.
‘ I THINK HE UNDERSTANDS MORE ABOUT WHAT’S GOING ON THAN WE THINK.’ ALICE DYE
Photograph by Dom Furore