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It’s Friends Still Call it Sawgrass


[Author’s Note: Here’s an old favorite that never goes out of style…]

It was 1978. Loud-plaid and big hair were fashionable, disco music battled KISS on your radio dial, and a peanut farmer who couldn’t keep the loyalty of his own Cabinet was President of the United States. Politically, America was gripped by a crisis of confidence and uncertainty.

Golf, however, was prospering. It was the age of Nicklaus, but unlike the flash-in-the-pan rivals of Tiger Woods, Nicklaus had a pantheon of Hall of Famers to battle each week: Watson, Seve, Johnny Miller, Weiskopf, Crenshaw, Trevino, and Hale Irwin, to name a few. With television making them stars and household names, professional golfers were no longer just “gypsies who used deodorant” – as Dan Jenkins once called them. Purses were fattening as well, and for every mom-and-pop Tour stop in Akron, Greensboro and Memphis, there was also a luxurious resort or country club waiting in Hawaii, SoCal and Fort Worth.

Emboldened by the economic boom, Tour commissioner Deane Beman embarked on a plan to forever change the landscape of tournament golf. Looking for a new and permanent home for the Players Championship, the flagship event of the PGA Tour, Beman ordered the purchase of 415 acres of desolate gator- and-moccasin infested swampland near Jacksonville, Fla., for one dollar.

That single dollar purchased a sea change in golf, but not the way Beman expected.

“Beman was trying to make the Players Championship a major,” explains one prominent golf journalist. “None of the four majors is operated by the Tour, and the Players has the strongest field of the PGA Tour-operated events. So Beman got the most controversial designer of the generation – Pete Dye – and sent that mad scientist into the lab to design Frankenstein’s golf course. The idea was to build a monster of a course, couple it with the best field in the year, and send out a media blitz that this was a fifth major.”

Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass – just “Sawgrass” to its friends – rose from the swamp, and did change the course of golf history. Dye’s work is certainly iconic. With its island green 17th hole, the course had an instant trademark. But it also became the first course to feature natural-grass amphitheaters around greens and enormous mounds flanking the fairways to seat spectators. Moreover, for good or ill, Sawgrass inspired a generation of target golf courses throughout the world, and gave birth to a nationwide network of stadium courses designed for tournament play and spectator accommodation, over 20 more TPC facilities in all. Most importantly, Sawgrass was public. Back then it was one of the few Tour courses golf fans could play: an everyman’s Augusta National.

The significance of Pete Dye’s achievement in designing Sawgrass cannot be overstated. Without question, Sawgrass is the most important public course built in this country between Pebble Beach (1919) and Bandon Dunes (1998). Harbour Town heralded the arrival of the Dye era and Whistling Straits may be his artistic masterpiece, but Sawgrass is Dye’s greatest contribution to the history and architecture of the game. For all his great designs around the world, Dye may best be known for Sawgrass. But strangely, it took a lucky bounce from fate for any history to have been written at all.

The Early Days

When the first Players Championship was held at Sawgrass in 1982, the players’ criticism was searing. “I played it in ’82 and that thing was brutal,” reminisced Tour veteran Forrest Fezler. Most of the other pros were less polite. “Unfair,” “Carnival golf,” “Screwy,” and “The only thing missing is the clown’s nose” were just a few of the grouses snarled by the best players in the game. J.C. Sneed famously quipped, “They messed up a perfectly good swamp . . . It’s 90 percent horse manure and 10 percent luck.” Even the normally placid Ben Crenshaw groused, “This is Star Wars golf and the place was designed by Darth Vader.”

“The verbal assault hit like a stake in my heart,” Dye lamented in his book “Bury Me in a Pot Bunker.”

Tom Watson in particular was so nonplussed with the course, he spearheaded a petition drive to make sweeping changes to the greens, which he felt were too small. “He took Augusta National’s greens and miniaturized them” Watson griped. Dye took that as a compliment. “I told him thanks,” said Dye. “I always felt Augusta’s greens were too big.”

A 10-member player committee drew up a list of changes after the 1982 tournament – won by Jerry Pate, who delighted fans and fellow players by throwing Dye, Beman and himself into the alligator-infested lake beside the 18th green. The committee’s recommendations were presented to Dye and Beman for implementation. Fairway undulations were smoothed, greens that flowed front to back were softened and, over time, the course matured and, over the years the players have come to embrace and love Sawgrass as the unique jewel that it is.

“I’ve rebuilt that thing at least three times,” chuckles Dye as he pets his dog Sixty. “They keep asking me to work on it, and this latest version is the same one I gave them the first time back in 1980. I’d say ‘I told you so,’ but I’m half of 162 years old, and I’m trying to get into Heaven now . . . There’s nothing I can do to fight it. I went back softened all those greens. The speeds were getting too fast for the contours. They’re happy with it, so I am too.”

“Sawgrass is terrific for so many reasons,” explained tour veteran Fred Funk, a wildly popular winner of the Players in 2005. “It’s a great equalizer because there is no advantage to being a long hitter. The greens are really small and the course is tight, so short hitters can keep up with the long hitters. It’s all about placement and precision. Plus that finish of 16, 17 and 18 is just fantastic, with the holes playing through the water. It’s a great finish and great theater.”

On the Course

Sawgrass’s blend of target golf and strategy requires careful concentration and course management on every shot. It cannot be overpowered with a driver as the penalty for any missed shot is bogey or worse. For that reason, Sawgrass never needed to test machismo through unbelievable length and it stayed under 7,000 yards well into this decade, only reaching its current length of 7,215 in 2006.

Part of the design philosophy is penal. “They can’t recover from water,” explains Dye. Accordingly, there is water present on every hole, although not always in play.

However, the more subtle strategies employed by Dye are the shot-shaping requirements and routing. Shot requirements at Sawgrass are constantly changing, keeping the player off-balance. One minute the course calls for a draw, then later a fade.

“If you can make the hole feel like the one shot goes left to right, and the next shot right to left, it’s more trouble for good player to adjust,” says Dye. “The higher-handicapped player is not aware of it at all, in fact, they’re never aware of it. They just know that if you make one side look a lot more open then the other, they’ll play away from the hazard. But it keeps the pros from getting into a rhythm.”

Also, the routing keeps players off-balance. One hole is short, the next long. One minute you can hit driver, but the next you must club down to stay in the fairway. The par-3s are spaced to further break up the pace. And at all times, accuracy is the highest priority.

Players must get their scoring done early as the first three holes on each nine offer the best chances for birdie. Interestingly, the first and 10th holes are identical except for the fact that they are reverse images of each other. As professional tournaments frequently send players off the first and 10th tee for the first two rounds, Deane Beman instructed Dye to make the starting holes similar so that the pros would be faced with similar challenges no matter which hole they began the tournament on. “They even have the same hazards at almost exactly the same distances,” explains Dye in his online tour of the course. Similarly, both two and 11 are short reachable par-5s and offer great birdie chances. Spray the ball, however, and your bogey may result in a two-shot swing if your opponent gets his birdie.

The course begins in earnest at No. 4, a classic-Dye risk-reward par-4 with a severely canted green. While barely over 300 yards, danger lurks everywhere as the second shot must be played over water to a green which slopes off on all sides. Placement is paramount here as the tee shot must be played to the correct side of the fairway to offer the optimum approach to the green. Even pros, who should escape unscathed, have considerable trouble since the approach drops off into the water so sharply. Bunkers in the back of the green will catch approaches that are too bold and both putts and chips from the high side risk running back into the creek.

Nos. 5, 6 and 7 are each par-4s designed long-short-long to keep the pros off-balance. Perennially one of the toughest on the course, the eighth, the longest of the par-3s, is over 200 yards and completely surrounded by bunkers.

Like the front, players will seek to get their birdies early on the back. Nos. 10, 11, and 12 are a relatively short par-4, par-5 and par-4, respectively.

Although overshadowed by the stirring finish, Dye feels 14 and 15 are the backbone of the inward nine. “14 plays right to left off the tee, then left to right on the approach – an old Donald Ross staple of design, then 15 plays left to right of the tee, then right to left into the green.”

Like all the greatest courses in the world, Sawgrass builds to a monumental crescendo. The finishing stretch compares admirably with the finish of any major championship venue. The great risk-reward, par-5 16th can be reached in two, but the penalty for balls hit to the right is death by water hazard. It is the best chance to get a stroke back on the closing stretch. Players are meant to go for it in two, but if a player lays up it’s a tough pitch since the green slopes toward water.

Playing along the 16th, no professional or amateur can resist taking a peak at the challenge lying ahead of them – arguably the most recognizable hole on Earth. With its island green lying in the middle of the lake, even casual golf fans know exactly what and where it is.

At a maximum length of 145 yards and playing a mere 120ish for amateurs, the 16th seems merely a smoothly swung short-iron, maybe even a wedge. The challenge could not be stated more simply: “Here’s the tee, here’s the green, hit the ball.” But there is no room to bail, nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. Hit the green and hold or reload. Hero or zero, champ or chump. And when the wind kicks up on that hole, forget it!

Some players call it the best hole on tour. Others like Mark Calcaveccia are less flattering. Calc grumbled, “It’s a 3 p.m. root canal. All day you know it’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it’s finally time to confront it.” Even golf writer Brian McCallen called 17 “a pint-sized Titanic to sink your scorecard.”

Worse still, the fickle Florida winds can change from moment to moment, even swirling at times, making the hole as unpredictable as the 12th at Augusta National. Rarely does a leader come to 17 with a bulletproof lead. While, interestingly, no leader on Sunday that has put one in the water on 17 has ever lost the tournament the mere possibility of epic meltdowns adds to the allure of the hole to the fans and media. Roughly 120,000 golf balls per year are pulled out of the pond at the 17th.

The par-4 18th is a fabulous finishing hole that Dye has copied on many other courses. At 420 yards, this cape-style hole that bends hard leftward is a stern finishing test and offers a summation of all that Sawgrass is: narrow, watery, penal and demanding of both concentration and execution. Water guards the entire left side of the hole. Shaggy, heaving mounds guard the right side of the hole on the approach. A difficult four for any player; even touring pros tighten up. Adam Scott provides a stellar example. With a two-shot lead on the 72nd hole, he double-crossed a 6-iron into the water. His incredible up-and-down from well off the green preserved the win, but it illustrates how 18 can hand out drama as well as its more high-profile sister at 17.

Best of all, for an amateur, playing Sawgrass’s Stadium course is one of the richest experiences a player can ever have. Sawgrass is a final examination in golf, an all-around test of a player’s entire game and course-management skills. It was designed for a pro tournament with the pros in mind. It tries to be reasonably playable for resort guests as well, but that’s secondary. Amateurs still come to Sawgrass to test their games against the toughest course around – that wall feels good against their heads.

You can’t ride a horse at Churchill Downs, you can’t catch a pass at the Rose Bowl, you can’t take batting practice at Fenway Park, but you can play the Stadium course and walk in the spike marks of the world’s greatest golfers. The excitement in playing a course that the best players in the world once thought was unfair and who now regard as one of the greatest venues in all of sports is a seminal experience in the career of any golfer.

And that dollar Beman spent? On that swamp and marshland nobody wanted? It sure went a long way, didn’t it?

Quick Interview with Pete Dye

JAY: How come Alice hasn’t designed a course yet?

PETE DYE: Well, she knows how I do it, but she’s not a builder. She’d have to draw plans and she’s not going to do that. But see, on a day like today she’s out there playing golf. Some days, she plays with a lot of girls that just got off the tour. And then other days, she’s out there playing golf with girls that can’t break 130. So now she’s gone from Ben Hogan to that. But when Alice comes into look at a golf course, I may sit there and listen to her. But why does she want the headache of building it? Here comes Alice, she’s not worried about the labor not showing up, she is not worried about the weather, she isn’t worried about the D10 blowing up, or somebody breaking and blowing up the gas main, or any of those things.

She looks at it and she says, “Well, why aren’t you doing this?” And I roll my eyes and say, “Oh my, that’s a good idea,” meanwhile I know what it’s going to cost to get it done, but it’s helpful. So I may build the golf course, but I’ll tell you something. At PGA West, more women played on that golf course then anybody else because Alice would come in and say, “How is Mary White going to play this hole?”

JAY: So perhaps Alice’s greatest contribution is that-

PETE DYE: I’ll tell you something. She thinks that you can’t build a par-3 too severe, because she can just come in after and put in a ladies’ tee someplace so they can play the hole.

JAY: But she still made sure that the 17th green at Sawgrass didn’t slope away from the tee . . .

PETE DYE: (Laughter) She was right.

Is the Players the “Fifth Major”?

The line-up of great champions and riveting moments at the Players certainly rivals Augusta and may eclipse the other three majors, since there are fewer “off-brand” winners. Nicklaus won at Sawgrass. Tiger won in 2000 after sinking a slick, twisting 50-foot putt across the 17th green. Popular pro and Ryder Cup captain Hal “Be The Raaaaaght Club To-Day!” Sutton won twice at Sawgrass. So did Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia.

Are you entranced by the heroic nature of the 17th? Fred Couples has had several adventures there, like his famous “hole-in-3” where he holed out at the tee box after hitting his original shot in the water. Do you like charging finishers on Sunday afternoon? “We got run over by Davis,” laughed Jay Haas when Davis Love III shot his incredible final round 64 in 2003. Love won by six shots and carded a blistering 31 on the back nine, including five consecutive birdies. Most impressive of all, he did it in the rain and wind. The rest of the field played the course in an average of 74 strokes, 10 shots worse. Some players called it the best single round of golf they ever witnessed. And even though Craig Perks isn’t a household name, his unbelievable eagle-birdie-par double-chip-in finish to seize the 2002 championship is still its most electrifying finish.

Getting our Goat

The course initially used goats to eat rough and weeds growing around the greens. Unfortunately, the animals figured out how to scale the railing around the old pyramid-shaped clubhouse and would gather on the roof, refusing to come down. They were quickly exiled. “Oh yeah, the story of the goats is true,” exclaims Dye with a chuckle. “They were so economical. They’d just eat all the rough down quick as daylight. There was one of ’em, a big ol’ male named ‘Prunes,’ he butted a few people so they got rid of him.”

Recent Changes

In 2007, the entire golf course was torn apart and a new drainage system installed under every fairway and green so that the course would finally play fast and firm, the way Dye had intended back in 1980. Besides moving the tournament to May, to give the flavor of having a major per month from April to August, the entire course was sand-capped at a cost of $18 million. In addition, they built an enormous Spanish mission-style clubhouse at a staggering expense, $32 million. It’s pretty, no question, but it’s enormous. It has to hold a lot more offices than the last clubhouse did – all the admin spaces for the Tour, and granted, they chose an architectural style with grace and class, but its overkill.

Play it Again, Tom

No one who saw Tom Watson chip in at the 17th at Pebble Beach to edge Jack Nicklaus and win the 1982 U.S. Open will ever forget it. The next year, in an effort to capitalize on the shot’s legend the USGA asked Watson to reenact the shot, but at 17 at Sawgrass. With the TV crew seemingly in place, Watson said his lines (some gibberish about practice makes perfect), and then promptly chipped in. After USGA officials got done cheering, they asked the cameraman to show them the replay. Speaking as though this were some shoot for a soap or detergent advertisement, the cameraman said, without a hint of regret, “No, I thought it was a run-through.”

With the look of an angry rhinoceros, the USGA officials asked Watson to try again and resigned themselves to a long day as the chip was exceptionally difficult, even for touring pros.

Watson shrugged, repeated his line and chipped in again on the next try.