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TPC Sawgrass

It started our penal, with harsh bounces only a masochist could enjoy. Today, the Stadium Course is an American shrine to strategic design.

By: Steve Eubanks

Appeared in March 2002 LINKS

Somebody named this place ‘Pete’s Pain Palace,’” a middle-aged man says on his way to the first tee.

“I think it was Johnny Miller,” one of his playing partners responds. He’s right, that particular nickname—one that never stuck despite its crafty alliteration—has always been attributed to Miller, although its true origins remain a mystery.

“What’s the course record?” another member of the group asks.

“For you, fifteen balls,” the first man says. And they all break into laughter, the kind of nervous chuckling noise four masochists make as they stand on the precipice of Pete’s Pain Palace.

Thus begins another day at the Stadium Course of the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, the most popular, most difficult and quirkiest public course east of Texas and south of New Jersey. As on most days, the Stadium Course is packed. Players of all shapes, sizes, ages, sexes and athletic abilities come in droves—40,000 of them every year paying upwards of $280 apiece for the privilege of losing 15 balls and obliterating their self-esteem. The numbers could be even greater. From the first of November through The Players Championship in late March the PGA Tour restricts play on its home course, allowing only 120 players per day and closing on Tuesdays. Annual rounds could easily exceed 60,000 if the tour chose to take the Pebble Beach get-’em-up-and-move-’em-out approach.

Those who make the trek rarely play well. It’s only 6,954 yards from the tips—shorter than the major championship venues were before they added new tees to stretch out the yardage—but the course rating is 73.3 and it slopes at 138. In USGA jargon, this means the average 15-handicapper had better be on his game to break 100. Most don’t come close. TPC Sawgrass, as it’s commonly known, is the kind of golf course where you pick up your ball in the waste bunker after reaching double bogey. To hole every putt, count every shot and abide by the strict guidelines of the Rules of Golf would be tantamount to torture.

And yet the golfing public can’t get enough of the place. They realize that for all its eccentricities, all the befuddling angles, odd slopes and overbearing bunkers, the Stadium Course is a masterpiece, a groundbreaking classic that, though barely 20 years old, set the standard for modern stadium design and was a key influence in architecture around the world.

“Pete Dye is a genius,” declares former U.S. Open champion turned course designer Jerry Pate. This is quite an admission from the man who, after winning the inaugural Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in 1982, threw Dye and PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman into the lake beside the 18th green in protest against the severity of the course. “Pete is an artist,” Pate says. “He’s one of the most influential architects of modern times, and this course is a testament to that fact.”

Pate is right in one respect: Dye’s artistic vision in the sands of Sawgrass inspired a generation of architects. Island greens and crosstie walls sprouted up like crabgrass after the Stadium Course opened in 1981, and terms like “target golf” and “waste bunker” became standard grillroom jargon. Love it or hate it, the TPC at Sawgrass changed the way we think about golf architecture.

As it does with most things new, the golfing public greeted the course with skepticism. What stood out, however, was the vitriolic hatred many tour players had for the place.
“Anything that’s new is open to criticism, and there were plenty of players criticizing that course when it opened,” Fuzzy Zoeller remembers. “It was something nobody had seen before. Sure, some guys weren’t going to like it.”

If it had just been a matter of “not liking it,” things would have been fine. But the players loathed the place, calling it an “abhorrent waste of pretty good land,” among other things. One tour player in the early ’80s actually suggested that Pete Dye should be made to play the Stadium Course every day, and that he should be beaten with a stick until he broke 90.

“There were a lot of complaints when we first opened the course, and they were justified,” Beman says. “Any time you’re building a golf course, you have to have done it a few times to know what it’s going to look like and play like once grass is on the ground instead of mounds of sand. When the players played it two things were clear: If you hit it off the fairway, the ball would run into the woods, and the woods were very rough and thick. And the greens still had a lot of areas where you didn’t have enough pin placements.”

He can give us a thoughtful and honest analysis today, now that the Stadium Course is a symbol of tournament golf around the world and the TPC network of clubs is a landmark success. But 20 years ago, Beman was a nervous wreck. The TPC Sawgrass was the gamble of a lifetime for the maverick commissioner, a pioneering adventure that would either elevate the PGA Tour to new heights or cost Beman his job and his reputation.

Like a lot of good ideas, this one started by accident. While vacationing in Jacksonville, Beman and his son looked for a place to play golf one afternoon. All the Jacksonville clubs were booked, so the two drove south to Ponte Vedra Country Club, where they played nine holes. “It was a pretty desolate area at the time,” Beman remembers.

That’s being kind. In the 1970s, Ponte Vedra was still the swamp-and-scrub Florida of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a largely untouched hinterland full of live oaks, Spanish moss, panthers, bears, gators and deer. It was as if the world had forgotten about the Atlantic shoreline between Jacksonville Beach and St. Augustine. The only real-estate developers in the area were a couple of locals named Chester Stokes and Roger O’Steen, far-thinking risk-takers who owned a few thousand acres east of A1A. They found a kindred spirit in Beman.

Without too much discussion, Beman struck a deal to purchase land for the new tour headquarters and the 36-hole TPC complex. The price was one dollar. But Beman still had a problem. He couldn’t take money from the tour’s coffers to build the golf courses, because the players and the board would never stand for such an investment. Tour dollars were expected to flow straight through to the players in the form of purses. Building a golf course in the middle of the North Florida woods was a venture Beman’s tour colleagues would have a hard time envisioning. So the commissioner placed a call to Bill Marriott.

The Marriott deal was as simple as it was brilliant. Beman carved out a small portion of his one-dollar parcel and sold it to Marriott as a hotel site. Proceeds from the sale covered the construction cost of the Stadium Course and the clubhouse at the first Tournament Players Club. For a one-dollar investment Beman built what would become the most recognized golf club in Florida, and he established the PGA Tour as a golf course owner and operator.

Today the TPC network of clubs represents over a half-billion dollars in assets for the PGA Tour, but in early 1981 there were many critics who still thought Beman had overreached. Complicating matters was Dye, whose artistic freedoms created a great deal of consternation.

“I found myself doing some softening as Pete was building it,” Beman says. “We brought the eighth green up a foot. We redesigned the left back of No. 2, and the whole middle of the third green. You could hit a good shot to the middle right of the fifth hole and it would run off to the right. And on No. 9 there wasn’t a fair pin placement anywhere.”

The cries of the players were loud and filled with venom. More than a few wanted Beman’s and Dye’s heads to share the same platter. “For the first few years the golf course would repel good shots,” Andy Bean remembers. “Back then guys hit good shots with 6-irons or 7-irons that would bounce into lies where you couldn’t play it. Over the years they’ve gone in there and gotten a little smarter about those things.”

“When the players came in, we mapped out the changes we wanted to make,” Beman says. “And we put together a committee with Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw and a number of other players. They made suggestions. We actually softened it more than they suggested.”

Curtis Strange was one of the more vocal critics of the golf course in the early ’80s. Now, he considers it a great test of golf. “It wasn’t that it was hard, it was that it was unfair!” Strange says. “They’ve softened it and made it fair now. The golf course hasn’t changed, but the greens are fairer than ever before. They still have slope, but in the old days the greens had so much undulation, and the areas around the green were so severe it was simply unfair. It’s a wonderful course now. They simply took some of the severe undulation out of the greens.

“In defense of Pete Dye, I’ve talked to him about this, and he built those greens to roll about eight [feet on the Stimp meter]. Now they Stimp at a 12. They had to change them, and they’ve done a great job.”

It might be a kinder and gentler TPC today than it was 20 years ago, but it’s also a more mature golf course that has withstood the advent of technology without needing a lot of additional yardage.

“The Stadium Course was designed as a second-shot golf course, with generous landing areas off the tee but a premium on precision iron play back in the days before the power game became so prevalent,” Beman says. “In the beginning it didn’t matter how far you hit it, because the premium was on placement. That’s changed now. They’ve introduced long rough into the equation and now it’s a driving and putting golf course.”

The evolution is still in progress. In 1999, tour officials let the greens get too firm during tournament week, and current commissioner Tim Finchem found himself on the receiving end of a few verbal volleys that would have made his predecessor blush. But the course has held its own over the years. If longevity and consistency are the benchmarks of a classic, the Stadium Course fits the bill. In 1982, Pate won his Players Championship with a 72-hole score of 280. Nineteen years later, Tiger Woods won with a score only six shots better.

For the foursome of midlevel handicappers who paid a total of a thousand dollars to beat themselves up at Pete’s Pain Palace, all the talk of it being a second-shot golf course or finding “fair” pin placements is lost with the second dozen balls. By the fifth hole they notice that the prevailing wind always seems to blow you toward the trouble and simply being in the fairway doesn’t mean you’ll have an unimpeded shot to the green. 

Fifteen balls isn’t nearly enough, even though they all carry respectable handicaps in the high teens back at their home clubs in Texas and Tennessee. By the 12th hole they’ve abandoned the scorecard and all pretense of playing by the rules. By the 14th tee they’re just enjoying the scenery. And when they’ve completed the four finest finishing holes in championship golf, they can’t stop talking about their day.

As bad golf goes, it was an obscenely expensive round. But all four players left with smiles on their faces. They had played a modern classic, and they knew it. 

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