By Adam Stanley
How does the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass get ready for such an important stop on the PGA Tour’s schedule each year?
It’s not an easy process getting such a prominent venue, which also happens to be a public course, ready for the best players in the world to tackle it every year. And if you recall, the tournament moved two months earlier after a schedule shakeup on the Tour in 2019.
But Players Championship Tournament Director Ryan Hart says when the late Pete Dye and former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman did the original layout of the Stadium Course, their goal was to have the 9th, 17th, and 18th holes all play into the wind. In March, the prevailing winds are northeast, so the players get that. On the previous date in May, they didn’t.
“This course was built for the tournament to be played in March,” says Hart. “From a presentation perspective, the course is going back to its roots.”
Indeed, last year was like a grand reintroduction of TPC Sawgrass with its emerald green grasses and well-manicured set up—credit to Jeff Plotts and his team, which doubles in size for the week of The Players.
And quite literally, the course had to go back to its roots for a March tournament.
The biggest thing for Plotts regarding the date change is what the weather has meant in terms of look and health of the grasses on the course.
The North Florida facility has Bermuda, a warm-season grass, and in the winter months Bermuda doesn’t actively grow. So the team overseeds the course with Rye, which then becomes the primary grass for the winter.
“Some of the things you prepare for in the May date you don’t have to do in March, but in March you have to do a lot more to the golf course to get it presentable,” he says. “It’s not a bad thing. It’s just another challenge.”
Plotts, who adds 100 people to his staff of 115 for the week of the tournament, says the team is not without its challenges this year.
“We can lay the best plans and work towards some great success, however Mother Nature has a different plan,” says Plotts. “I’ve been in professional golf for 20 years, and that’s the norm—something unpredictable.”
Once the course closes to the public around mid-February, Plotts’s team begins to mow the fairways daily, sometimes double-mowing to get them cleaned and tightened up before the tournament.
The week prior to the tournament his squad will sand and seed all divots in the fairways. And, since the greens at TPC Sawgrass are on the smaller side, his team regularly uses tournament hole locations for the public. That means there are plenty of ball marks to fix, too.
Unlike almost every golf course in the country, there is also the massive infrastructure installation and tear down that happens throughout the year. Plotts says there is a method to the madness—since there is a general footprint that’s used for the hospitality and fan structures each year—but it’s all about communication with vendors. The stadium structure near the iconic 17th and behind the green on No. 16 is what the team aims to be built first and torn down last.
“It’s more about our guest experience as much as anything,” he says. “People come here for that.”
The Stadium Course went through a robust change in 2016 at the conclusion of The Players, which included an installation of a Precision-Air system under every green after the team rebuilt and regrassed greens.
Holes 6 and 7 were redesigned to provide a front-nine destination for fans (with a better connection to the clubhouse), while holes 11–13 were also redesigned to enhance the excitement on the back nine. The most marked of the changes was making the par-four 12th drivable for tournament players.
Hart says the changes, save the overhaul of No. 12, were subtle enough. The course was built not to favor any one golfer’s style of play and that still holds true today.
“You’re not seeing anyone run away with the tournament record, it still holds from 1994 and Greg Norman. The changes were more deliberate than a mass overhaul,” he says. “It’s to try to enhance what Dye’s vision was for this place.”
Count 2019 Players Champion Rory McIlroy a fan—but it wasn’t always that way.
Even before winning it last year, the event had to grow on him. The date change and course updates helped, and McIlroy believes the course now has an Augusta National-type look and feel to it.
“Back 10 years ago there was talk about it as a fifth major,” says McIlroy, “but I think it’s elevated itself since then and separated itself.”