We take an in-depth look at one of the most significant courses in world golf
Golf Monthly Visits TPC Sawgrass – Home Of The PGA Tour
When it comes to golfing history, we often think the richest venues lie within our borders. But the story of TPC Sawgrass, from its inception to its ever-expanding tournament history, is a match for the most prestigious. What was once a hostile expanse of swampland is now one of the world’s most iconic golf courses.
This year, it will host its 37th Players Championship. Few courses can boast such an impact on the world game.
Like so many others, my own familiarity with the golf course was sewn during my teenage years in the mid-90s. As an avid golfer and the owner of a Super Nintendo console, there was one game that seemed to wile away the hours more than any other (and that’s saying something).
PGA Tour Golf gave me and many other teenagers the chance to play some of the world’s most iconic courses, albeit swapping golf clubs for joypads. Regardless, it was the risk-reward layout at TPC Sawgrass – and, of course, the iconic 17th hole – that captured an easily distracted imagination. Twenty years ago, I came to know this layout like the back of my hand.
Since those days, TPC Sawgrass has featured near the top of my own list of must-play golf courses. Earlier this year, I had the chance to play it for the first time.
An eventful past
One thing the computer games don’t tell you is the incredible story of the inception of TPC Sawgrass. Shortly after arriving at the clubhouse, I was given a tour by one of the on-site ‘storytellers’. I discovered TPC Sawgrass is inextricably linked to the second commissioner of the PGA Tour, Deane Beman. With so many private golf courses on the Tour’s annual playing schedule, Beman wanted to buy a property that would be owned by the players themselves, with a golf course befitting the Tour’s flagship event. The venue in question would also need to host the Tour’s growing staff count, becoming the headquarters of the PGA Tour.
With its favourable climate and tax laws, Florida was the obvious choice. The player turned commissioner originally wanted to buy Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach. The owners, a local real estate and development company, didn’t want to sell, however. In fact, the chairman, Charles Cobb, felt Beman’s vision was so ambitious he bet the commissioner $100 it would never come to fruition.
Beman, however, was convinced of its viability. After failing in his bid to purchase Sawgrass CC, he took an alternative approach. He negotiated a deal with two other local landowners, Paul and Jerome Fletcher, to buy 415 acres of nearby swampland for the princely sum of one dollar. Beman promised to transform this seemingly unusable stretch into something truly spectacular, bringing an injection of business into the area too. In January 1979, the land was purchased and Pete Dye was hired to lay down the course.
Beman’s vision was for a stadium golf course – a layout designed with spectators very much in mind. The problem was that the entire plot only had 18 inches of natural elevation above the waterline, so the course would need the mounding built in. As certain areas were excavated to create lakes and provide soil for mounding, the course began to take shape.
The sandiest subsoil was found in an area being dug in front of the proposed 17th green. What was supposed to be a space for a lake in front was soon expanded to surround it. During this period of the construction, it was Dye’s wife, Alice, who suggested an island green. She convinced her husband to change his original plans and one of golf’s most famous holes was born.
The start of a new era
In 1980, the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass was opened and two years later the Players Championship was staged at its new home. But as America’s best set foot on their new course, response was mixed at best.
Criticism of the layout came from a number of top players, including Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw, who described it as “Star Wars golf designed by Darth Vader”.
Jerry Pate was the first Sawgrass winner and he celebrated by throwing both Beman and Dye into the lake to the left of the 18th green. But Dye took the criticism seriously and soon tweaked the design, making the greens a little less severe. “Now it’s a damn good golf course,” admitted Crenshaw.
Since those early days, the conversations about the merits of the golf course have become redundant. All you need to do is cast your eye over the list of past winners. During the last three decades, 20 players have reached the position of World No.1 and nine of them have won The Players at Sawgrass. In Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, there are three more waiting in the wings.
Having received my tour of the clubhouse and the newly built state-of-the-art performance facility, it was my turn, alongside Golf Monthly’s Michael Harris and Joel Tadman and photographer Kevin Murray, to put those boyhood dreams into reality and play the golf course…
TPC Sawgrass Course Vlog:
Time to shine
Neatly manicured, plenty of water, not much rough, fast greens – in many ways Sawgrass is the epitome of Floridian golf. However, there were a few features that marked out Sawgrass as something slightly special.
Firstly, no two holes run in exactly the same direction. This was done at the outset to ensure players would consistently find themselves having to pick the wind. With so many tall trees surrounding the holes, it swirls around, so approaching each shot with confidence is easier said than done.
Secondly, to shoot a low score here you really need to be able to shape the ball both ways. There are plenty of examples of doglegs that run right and left. With the inevitable wind also playing its part, hitting draws and fades on demand is a must.
Finally, the greens are noticeably firmer than you typically find in this part of the world. Every time you play onto them you need to be precise, both with your landing spot and the spin. For the four members of team Golf Monthly, this meant regularly missing the green with chip shots. Oh dear.
I realise that all of this makes it sound as if Sawgrass is incredibly difficult. Well, it is and it isn’t. To shoot a good score – whatever that may be for you – you certainly need to bring your A game. However, apart from in the water, it is hard to lose golf balls here. This means that even if you’re struggling, there is plenty to play for as you attempt to negotiate the final three holes.
A terrific trio
The first 15 holes at Sawgrass are excellent in their own right. Interesting, varied and exciting, they are a worthy precursor to the final three-hole stretch. Like the Old Course at St Andrews, these holes are in the back of your mind throughout the round. As you walk up towards the 16th fairway, you get your first sight of the 17th green. Wow. It is hidden from the rest of the golf course, which only adds to the excitement when it is suddenly unveiled.
For me, there was something quite surreal about this experience. Those distant memories of hours spent in front of my computer came flooding back. The teenage me was itching to take it on. As I walked down onto the 17th tee, our caddie said, “Ok, here it is guys, you have 125 yards.” Simple. As a 5-hadicapper, I’d like to think I have the ability to hit the green from this yardage more often than not. And yet, in this instance, the difficulty lay in picking the wind.
With water surrounding the green, I found myself instantly second- and third-guessing myself. You don’t want to be long, but you don’t want to be short; you want to hit the middle of the green, but it is fast and slopey, so you don’t want to be too far from the flag. The negative thoughts were stacking up. For what it’s worth, my ball pitched on the very left flank of the green and then spun left and into the water. Plop.
A visceral experience
I must admit that as I walked off the 17th green, I was disappointed. It was all over so quickly – I wanted another go. Thankfully, I soon arrived on the 18th tee, staring at a tee shot that’s simultaneously intimidating and inviting. I could imagine the crowds flanking the left side of this hole, and with water separating the fans from the fairway, I could feel the pressure of trying to make a score to win the tournament. In many ways, this is the real appeal of playing TPC Sawgrass.
Beman’s vision of creating an exciting Stadium course and Dye’s skill in bringing it to life not only creates a fantastic spectator event, but it has given way to a truly visceral golfing experience for those lucky enough to play it. However you fare during this three-hole stretch, your golf game is suddenly comparable to the world’s best. No other sport allows you to make such a direct assessment and whatever the result, it is exhilarating.
The course as a whole, but particularly the final three holes, are as much a test of nerve as they are of skill. This is why the roster of past champions is so impressive. To make it onto the PGA Tour you need the skill to hit every shot in the book, but to win the Players Championship you need the X Factor – that intangible thing that separates the very best from the rest.
The great thing about golf is that it gives amateurs the chance to feel it for themselves, and that was certainly my experience. By taking on these shots and picturing the crowds, you get an indelible sense for what it must be like to compete here for real. Exciting and daunting for any golfer, playing TPC Sawgrass is a bucket-list experience.
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