By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It’s now being called “Golf’s Greatest Stadium,” and rightly so. In the decades since TPC Sawgrass was carved out of the primordial swampland in Ponte Vedra Beach, the dream conceived by Deane Beman and fashioned by Pete Dye has evolved into the sport’s happiest union of championship tournament and world-class Stadium Course.
THE PLAYERS Championship is 40 years old, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is 31, and together they have come a long, long way. Beman, the former commissioner of the PGA TOUR, started it on its way when he realized that the future credibility and cachet of the TOUR’s most prestigious event -- which spent its first eight years traveling from course to course in Florida and Georgia -- depended on the stability of a world-class home. He also knew that Dye was just the architect to build it.
Hand in glove, championship and golf course have grown since the 1982 home opener at TPC Sawgrass, when the commissioner and architect were shoved in the water at the 18th green by the champion, Jerry Pate, who quickly dove in after them. They have come further still since the following year, when Dye was criticized for building “repelling” greens and “sharp-edged hazards,” and Beman took reflected heat from a number of players for hiring him.
Beman listened and took notes, and Dye was called back in to address the issues. He reluctantly softened some contours and the complaints softened with the years, fading into background echoes from an earlier time.
“I never minded the criticism of the course,” Beman once said. “It probably was a little too severe that first year. But the key to a great course is that it has been made better and better over the years and evolved very well.
“What Pete gave us is a course that will never totally eliminate an entire class of player. It’s all about shot-making, and it accommodates all types.”
The truth of the assessment is born out by a list of winners representing every different style common to champion golfers. Beginning with Pate in ’82, Hal Sutton in ’83 and Fred Couples in ’84, the first three champions were the deadly combination of long, straight hitters. Calvin Peete in 1985 was a short hitter who also was the game’s straightest. Then came John Mahaffey in ‘86, also straight, relatively short, followed in ’87 and ’88 by the strong Scot, Sandy Lyle, and another long hitter, Mark McCumber.
For every short-hitting Tom Kite in 1989 there was a long-hitting Jodie Mudd in 1990, short-hitting Steve Elkington in ’91, long-hitting Davis Love in ’92 and David Duval in ’99, and short-hitting Tim Clark in 2010.
None of this is lost on Dye, a 2008 inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame, who has altered the Stadium Course “some four or five times over the years.” Although holding to the deeply-held belief that better players should be challenged more, Dye acquiesced on the softenings and he and Beman never lost sight of the goal to ensure an exceptional test for the world’s best players while staging an unforgettable fan experience.
If a time traveler, circa 1980, showed up at this week’s PLAYERS Championship, he wouldn’t just think he’d died and gone to golf fan heaven – he’d know it. He’d recall the original features and benefits from the Stadium Course opener in ’82 included unobstructed views from vantage points on spectator mounds, ridges or hillsides, and he’d be blown away by the high-voltage show at the confluence of 16, 17 and 18..
As for fans on the hillside at 17 tweeting (or texting) a guess about which player from each group will be closest to the pin? Once he absorbed the shock of Twitter, he might actually get into thumbing his own choice. Live interaction at professional sporting events is tough for fans from any era to resist.
For a fan used to 80s-vintage stale buns and rubber hot dogs, passing up the variety of foods available between the 11th and 12th tees at Taste of Jax’s three restaurants would be impossible: Indochine (Thai and Southeast Asian cuisine); Metro Diner (Classic American fare with low-cal and gluten-free options); Pele’s Wood Fire (Modern Italian-American cuisine where pizza is the signature dish). Club 1791, an indoor climate-controlled lounge could floor our visitor with its “Public Welcome” sign before he even found the cocktails. He might ask a waiter, “What is this gluten and why is it free?”
Speaking of free, the 2012 PLAYERS Championship issued 20,602 complimentary tickets to active duty, reserves, military retirees and their dependents and will be doing the same this year. This transcends fan friendly and gets right to appreciating the men and women who protect and defend freedom.
There’s more information available on how events at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass will be about living up to a reputation as Golf’s Greatest Stadium experience, and it can be found here at PGATOUR.COM.
And there’s also a little something more you should know about Pete Dye, who has slowed down not one bit as he approaches the halfway mark of his 87th year. Still on top of his game, he is busily at work, finishing one course renovation project in Ocean Ridge, Fla., and planning for two others to begin in the summer, including a renovation of The Golf Club in Columbus, Ohio.
After he’s finished with his upcoming obligations, Dye said, he would “like to go back and do a little bit more work on the TPC Sawgrass.”
What he has in mind, though, has nothing to do with softening contours. It has to do with lengthening and toughening four of the par-4 holes at the Stadium Course that he believes have been shortened by the distances current players hit their drivers and irons.
He’s talking about substantially lengthening: No. 5, currently 471 yards; No. 7, currently 442 yards; No. 14, currently 481 yards; No. 18, currently 462 yards.
“They might as well expand it, because these pros are just hitting it so far now that these long par-4 holes are not challenging them anymore,” Dye said. “We could that. It would be simple. There’s plenty of land. There’s room to do it.”
It would require some room because Dye is thinking the holes should measure in the 520-yard neighborhood, which would mean adding approximately 240 yards to the overall golf course.
“I’ve talked to Mr. Finchem about it,” Dye said. “He’s hesitant to do it, but he’ll do it someday. It has to be done. To make those guys hit a 3-iron or 4-iron for their second shot, you’ve got to do it.”
After all, it didn’t get to be Golf’s Greatest Stadium by maintaining the status quo.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.