There are some great stadiums and arenas around the country. Madison Square Garden, Fenway Park and Lambeau Field come to mind. But how many of us have ever shot a three-pointer, hit a home run or scored a touchdown there?
But there is a stadium where you can literally walk in the footsteps of the greats, where you can hit nothing but net, send one over the Green Monster and do the Lambeau Leap.
That place is the Players Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Initiated after last year’s Players Championship, the Tour Player Experience is the closest you’re ever going to get to being a tour pro. George Plimpton would wholeheartedly approve.
But be forewarned: This is no easy walk down memory lane. The course is just as difficult as it looks on television, testing every aspect of your game. You may end up on your knees crying like a baby, and that’s just after the front nine. But it’s the most fun you’ll have being tortured on the golf course.
Upon check-in outside the 77,000-square-foot Mediterranean Revival-style clubhouse, I receive an engraved money clip and engraved leather “brag tag” with a beautiful tiled photo of the 17th hole, perhaps the most famous par 3 in the world. Even non-golfers come from all over just to see the island green. Great, just what I need: a constant reminder of the hole that will define my whole round, regardless of what I do on the other 17.
I’m then led into the inner sanctum of the players’ locker room, distinguished by high-beamed ceilings, dark-wood lockers and plaid carpeting, that is off-limits to everyone else. The friendliest of locker room attendants, Hugh Eubank, shows me to my locker, No. 112, which was used by 2007 winner Phil Mickelson. My name is engraved above his on the plate. I haven’t seen my name etched on so many objects since my wedding. I do a quick check for any loose change or notes from Butch Harmon on how to improve my driver accuracy, but it’s completely empty.
Tunnel of Champions
After a change of shoes, I take a quick tour of the Champions locker room and “the players’ lair,” a lounge with a billiards table, tall leather chairs, card tables and a couple of flat screens that local residents Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk like to frequent. But there’s little time to relax. Hugh leads me out the back door, down the stairs and through the “Tunnel of Champions,” a ground-level passage lined with black-and-white photos of past winners.
This is the same route players take to the course—even when it’s not tournament week, it seems. I pass former player Mark Carnevale, who is returning from a practice session. On the wall just before exiting the tunnel is an inscription: “Through this tunnel pass the greatest golfers in the world competing for the right to be called THE PLAYERS Champion.”
No reporters or fans asking for autographs are waiting as I emerge from the tunnel into the bright Florida sun. However, my caddie, Andrew Sobolewski, greets me, wearing an Augusta-like jumpsuit with my name Velcroed across the back.
He leads me to a spot on the range that also is designated with my name—a service never accorded me when I used to go to the crowded range at Rancho Park in Los Angeles. An instructor from the Tour Academy drops by during my warm-up session to help me with my swing. Taking a lesson is probably not the best idea before heading out on one of the most difficult courses in the world, but as an inveterate tinkerer, I can’t resist hearing what he has to say about my takeaway.
Armed with an official Players yardage guide, I’m ready to go. Although I have never played the course, I feel very familiar with it because I have seen it so often on television. After the Masters, the Players is probably my favorite tournament because of the familiarity and back-nine drama.
Clearly, that was former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman’s goal when he set out in the mid ’70s to make the Players a fifth major. After he failed to purchase Sawgrass Country Club, located across Highway A1A and host of the tournament from 1977 to 1981, brothers Jerome and Paul Fletcher sold him 415 acres of swamp filled with alligators, poisonous snakes and wild boar for $1. They shared his vision of a first-rate, fan-friendly course for the tour’s showcase event the public could also play.
Beman liked what Pete Dye created at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and hired him to design a balanced course that wouldn’t favor any style of play. It was also one of the first courses built with spectators in mind, not an easy task given that the land had an elevation of just 18 inches. But Dye used the muck dug from creating a number of lakes to build the stadium mounding and course contours. In fact, he did so much digging that the intended height of the mounds tripled in size to 30–40 feet.
One unintended byproduct of all the excavation gave the course its signature hole—the island green 17th. Dye had originally planned to have a small lake to the side of the green, but the area around the green site contained the best sand to use on the rest of the course. Before long, three-quarters of the land was gone and the idea of an island green flashed in his mind.
Star Wars golf
More-malicious thoughts flashed through players’ minds during TPC Sawgrass’ debut in 1982. Simply put, they had never played anything like it. Nine players withdrew and there were 25 rounds in the 80s. Ben Crenshaw called it “Star Wars golf” and likened Dye to Darth Vader. Jack Nicklaus, Dye’s design partner at Harbour Town, said, “I’ve never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.” And John Mahaffey wondered if you won a free game if you made a putt on the last hole.
Fans loved it, however, and they packed the mounds around holes 17 and 18. The event achieved instant fame when winner Jerry Pate (using an orange ball, no less) threw Dye and Beman in the lake that borders the 18th green.
Annual tweaks to the course and a quarter century of overseeding softened the course up causing it to lose some of its teeth—Greg Norman won with a record score of 264 in 1994. But it regained its bite after Dye’s most recent, no-expense-spared renovation in 2006 that made the course firmer and faster. Part of the renovation was the massive clubhouse, replacing the pyramid-shaped building that had become dated for both the tournament and the facility’s everyday needs.
Even in November, the firm, fast conditions allow the course to be played as Dye designed, with offline tee shots running through the fairways and into rough, waste bunkers or worse. Any golfer with less than tour-quality ball-striking will be scrambling most of the day.
There is so much pressure on every drive, approach, pitch, chip and putt, which makes the round mentally exhausting. Even from a set of forward tees at 6,661 yards (the back tees measure 7,215 yards), there are no easy holes, no chance for a breather.
The players make the holes look easy, but difficulties, both obvious and subtle, abound. For example, the approach shot over water on the 384-yard 4th leaves little margin for error, while even drives that find the fairway on the 393-yard 6th can be blocked by trees, depending on hole location.
Still, getting to play the course is like going to a star-studded Hollywood premiere. You’re a bit giddy with delight as you instantly recognize everyone at the party.
‘That’s a rare feat’
Of course, the George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Will Smith of the course are Nos. 16, 17 and 18, arguably the best finishing holes in golf, probably because they contain more risk than reward. So much can happen on this beautifully wretched stretch of holes that no lead is ever safe. In some ways you could argue this testy triumvirate is even better than the three-hole collection at Amen Corner because they come at the finish.
I par the 523-yard 16th before coming to the most nerve-wracking shot in all of golf. Or so I thought. Whenever you tell somebody that you have played Sawgrass, all he or she wants to know is: “How did you do on the 17th hole?”
I can say that I did just fine, thank you. The green actually looks a lot bigger than I imagined, and my pushed 9-iron manages to catch the right side of the green of the 137-yard hole. I make a two-putt par to the back-left hole location. Nothing to it. In fact, two of the other three players in my group also hit the green. But the wind was down; the results may have been different with a breeze.
Still, my caddie is impressed. “That’s a rare feat,” he says. “About 120,000 balls a year are pulled from the lake, an average of three a person. Everybody wants to say they hit the 17th green, and they keep trying until they do. No one wants to take an X.”
After one last bogey on the 462-yard 18th, the day is capped off with lunch in Pub 17, a memorabilia-filled private dining room adjacent to the locker room, with Hugh serving up some of the biggest, best-tasting potato chips I’ve ever had.
As I’m leaving the clubhouse, former champion Calvin Peete comes shuffling across the parking lot, while the MetLife blimp motors overhead. And I can’t help but think: Man, these guys think of everything!