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Ben Wright: Teeing off on TPCs

Appeared in the March 2005 LINKS

When Jerry Pate unceremoniously shoved Deane Beman and Pete Dye into a greenside lake after winning the 1982 Tournament Players Championship, a number of tour professionals may have secretly hoped the PGA Tour commissioner and the course architect were non-swimmers. The event (today known simply as the Players Championship) had just been staged on the Stadium Course of the TPC at Sawgrass for the first time, and Dye’s newly opened creation, commissioned by Beman, had proven itself colossally unpopular.

To be sure, the original Sawgrass layout barely resembled the golf course tour pros face today, thanks to significant tweaking that has made it a much less sadistic test. But to my mind, the concept of “stadium golf” and Tournament Players Clubs (of which Sawgrass was the first) are outmoded. Maybe stadium golf was a good idea when it was launched—after all, it affords spectators much better viewing positions than did more conventional layouts. But TPCs have largely become stereotyped, and the kind of players they have bred are limited in their ability to adapt to courses elsewhere in the world.

I was invited to play Dye’s layout in a pre-tournament outing hosted by Beman to unveil his brainchild. Scarcely have I had a less enjoyable golfing experience, and not just because our round was played in a persistent drizzle. My CBS partner that day was Jim McKenna, and our foursome was completed by tour pros Tom Jenkins and Morris Hatalsky. If memory serves, our professional partners were no more enthusiastic about the course than were we hackers. And that was before we even reached the island-green 17th!

Little did I know I would soon be perched behind this short but diabolical par-3 in a CBS tower when the event moved from Sawgrass Country Club just down the street. Although I made par that day, I was immediately convinced this was one of the ugliest, most unfair and most contrived one-shotters I had ever seen. Everyone knows Dye’s reputation for sprinkling his designs with pot bunkers and artificial mounding, and some wag, alluding to Pete’s penchant for railroad crossties, once cracked that he is the only architect to build golf courses that can burn down. But to me, he went too far with the 17th at Sawgrass. I’ve yet to see the much-hyped floating-green par-3 at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, but in my experience, Sawgrass No. 17 is the most overrated short hole around.

What I remember most from my announcing days at No. 17 was how upset I became as the best golfers in the world were being humiliated. I recall Ed Fiori was off to a fine start in ’82 before making 8 at 17 in the first round, and the amiable Victor Regalado took 7 each of the last two days. Two years later, no fewer than 64 golf balls found the water in the first round. What has transpired ever since has done nothing to change my mind about the hole, for such misadventures are an annual event, and the 17th has become the stuff of legend. Far worse is the fact that it has spawned a glut of island par-3s around the world, every one of them just as artificial. How I would love to dynamite that wretched little hole, sitting there as ugly as an alligator’s wedding cake!

Dye admits that he never planned to make 17 an island hole—it just evolved that way as sand was dug from around the greensite to use elsewhere on the course. So I cannot help wondering: Why couldn’t he have built the island green with a gentle slope down to a beach on all sides? At least that would allow a bailout option and some room to miss when the breeze is up.

But wouldn’t it be pleasant to have the golf ball concession at TPC Sawgrass? I suppose the number of shots that have found a watery grave there must number in the millions by now.

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