Among an ever-increasing list of perks, playing golf at the highest level means playing many of the world's great golf courses, often at their peak of conditioning. Design quality can take a backseat to factors like infrastructure and location in many regions where elite tournaments are held, but several times each year, the course - and its architect - is one of the main storylines.
Such is the case this week, as the best of the best descend on the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. It represents the second of seven stops this year at golf courses designed by Pete Dye, who died last January at the age of 94 and is regarded as the father of modern course design.
Dye's often iconoclastic approach to course craft makes his layouts interesting and sometimes confounding not just for us regular golfers but even the best in the world. A 1960s trip to Dornoch, Scotland, at the beginning of his career proved monumentally influential on his style, as his stateside courses tend to engage and frustrate golfers with features - tiny pot bunkers, mischievous mounding, shaved green roll-offs, occasional partially or fully blind shots - that characterize the great Scottish links moreso than the longer, more straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get flavor of American golf for pros.
Any televised event on a Dye design is appointment viewing because golf fans have come to expect shots and reactions that can wander away from the mainstream. Awkward stances in the mounds and bunkers around the par-5 9th green and the always-entertaining island-green 17th typify the extra appeal Dye courses hold for the golf fan. Plus, the shaping of Dye golf courses generally tends to pop on camera, especially given the number of iconic holes in his c.v. - 17 at Sawgrass, 17 at PGA WEST's Stadium Course, 13 at Harbour Town and many more.
With two huge rotating-venue events at Dye courses added on top of a normal PGA Tour schedule, 2021 will be a showcase of the work of one of the game's singular figures.
The American Express | PGA WEST (TPC Stadium Course) - La Quinta, Calif.
Modern golf equipment advances have made the course a bit less fearsome than it was when PGA Tour players threatened to boycott it because it was deemed too punishing in the late 80s and early 90s. This January's shootout final round was entertaining in its own way, as Si Woo Kim held off Patrick Cantlay's course-record 61 in the final round to win by a shot. Kim's birdie on the "Alcatraz" par-3 17th proved the difference.
The Players Championship | TPC Sawgrass (Players Stadium Course) - Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Sawgrass never disappoints, because the course throws the kitchen sink at players from the switchback first hole onward. Early watchers notice that the front nine is sneaky-strong, concluding with a diabolical long par 3 at the 8th and then the tempting par-5 9th and its minuscule green. The back nine is second only to Augusta National in terms of stretches of holes that golfers who have never played it can nevertheless describe. The closing trio always entertains because from the 16th fairway in, every full shot is packed with danger.
World Golf Championships - Dell Technologies Match Play | Austin Country Club - Austin, Texas
It is no surprise that a Pete Dye course lends itself so well to match play, and the quirky, varied topography of Austin Country Club makes for plenty of heroics and trainwrecks. From 400-yard tee shots down the hill at the par-5 12th hole to the awkward angles of the drivable par-4 13th and tiny par-3 17th, drama waits around practically every corner.
2021 dates: March 24-28.
RBC Heritage | Harbour Town Golf Links - Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Dye kick-started modern golf course design in two ways at Harbour Town, which opened in 1969. First, the toned-down and intimate aesthetic cut against the more grandiose work of contemporaries like Robert Trent Jones and pre-figured the minimalist movement that Dye disciples Bill Coore (of Coore & Crenshaw) and Tom Doak would elevate a quarter-century later and more. The second major innovation at Harbour Town was the introduction of the player-turned-architect into the business, as Jack Nicklaus' involvement with the course would launch his own long and lucrative design career.
2021 dates: April 15-18.
Zurich Classic of New Orleans | TPC Louisiana - Avondale, La.
It may be the least heralded (and newest, opening in 2004) course on this list, but TPC Louisiana is nevertheless a fun entry in the Dye canon, made more compelling by the two-man PGA Tour event the course has held since 2017. The finishing stretch - short par 4, long and watery par 3, risk-reward par 5 - often produces some fireworks.
2021 dates: April 22-25.
2021 PGA Championship | Kiawah Island Golf Resort (Ocean Course) - Kiawah Island, S.C.
The Ocean Course secured its place in the golf firmament in its first week of existence, hosting the famous 1991 "War By The Shore" Ryder Cup. The tremendous flexibility of the tees here mean the PGA of America's setup guru Kerry Haigh can make the course as mean or as charming as he chooses. If the wind blows, carnage could ensue.
2021 dates: May 20-23.
2021 Ryder Cup | Whistling Straits (Straits Course) - Haven, Wisc.
Whistling Straits, which its wholly manufactured faux-Irish landscape, is one of the coolest-looking golf courses on TV. Assuming fans are back in more or less full force by the time September rolls around, the atmosphere along the skinny north-south routing should be absolutely electric, and cliff-hanging par 3s like the 17th should become stages for a Midwestern "War By The Shore" for this century.
2021 dates: September 24-26.