Leap of faith: Behind the Stadium Course's wild debut at the 1982 PLAYERS
19 Min Read
Behind the Stadium Course's wild debut at the 1982 PLAYERS Championship
Written by Sean Martin @twitter.com/pgatoursmartin
Editor's Note: This article was originally published May 8, 2017.
With victory secure, Jerry Pate knew the stage was set for one of the most raucous celebrations in the history of the game.
Pate's ball had avoided the lake guarding the 18th green at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. With only a short birdie putt standing between him and victory in the 1982 THE PLAYERS Championship, Pate knew he was headed for the water instead.
He pushed both course architect Pete Dye and PGA TOUR Commissioner Deane Beman into the lake as penance for the punishing course they had introduced as the permanent home of THE PLAYERS. He then followed them into the water.
CBS commentator Vin Scully called it "perhaps the wildest moment in the history of any professional sport."
It was the culmination of both a groundbreaking week and an impressive career cut short by injury.
The 1982 PLAYERS was the first conducted at the Stadium Course. Dye’s radical design changed golf course architecture but also was criticized for its severity. In 2022, THE PLAYERS is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the tournament’s debut at TPC Sawgrass.
Pate overcame Dye's visual deceptions with the same ball-striking and optimistic demeanor that helped him win the U.S. Open six years earlier. The gregarious Floridian was 28 when he won at TPC Sawgrass. It was his eighth career win, but a shoulder injury suffered later that year curtailed a career that seemed headed for the World Golf Hall of Fame.
PGATOUR.COM gathered recollections from Scully, the Hall of Fame broadcaster; noted architect Tom Doak, who was interning for Dye in 1982; and several TOUR players, including Pate.
Read below about Pate's stolen 5-irons, the time Dye called TOUR players "chicken," and the player who paid off the mortgage on his motorhome with his winnings that week.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
Pate's final-round 67 was the day's low score, and one of just two Sunday rounds under 70. Birdies at 17 and 18 gave him a final score of 8-under 280 and a two-shot victory.
Walking down the 18th fairway, he stared into a television camera and made his post-victory plans known to the national audience.
"You think I ought to throw the Commissioner in? Pete Dye will go for a swim today," Pate said. "I wasn’t trying to beat the field, I was trying to beat Pete Dye, and I believe I got him today. I already told him I’m putting him in this lake.”
Pate informed Dye of his plans two days earlier, telling him, "I'm going to make you famous."
As Pate waited for the final groups to finish, CBS director Frank Chirkinian tried to heighten the drama by showing footage of an alligator swimming in a lake.
“Frank remembered the alligator in the water at 17, so he put up a split screen,” Scully recently told PGATOUR.COM. “The way Frank put the picture up, it looked like the alligator was in the same water they were. If you were watching at home, you would’ve definitely thought, ‘Oh my God, these three guys are in the water with an alligator.’ Well, not really.”
Scully was familiar with the alligator at No. 17, having seen it earlier in the week when he went to take a peek at the island green.
“I saw a couple of things that shook me up a little bit. There was a woman sitting on the side of an embankment reading a book and at her feet, on a blanket, was a baby,” Scully said. “In the water, was a large alligator. I didn’t like the fact that the baby on the blanket was below the woman’s feet, and alligators, I’ve been told, can run 30 yards really quick. I immediately went back to where lunch was being held ... and told (Beman) I was a little uneasy about the alligator at 17. And, of course, he got up and bolted out of the dining room.”
A DRAMATIC DESIGN
It wasn’t just the wildlife that made for a wild week. Dye’s design was unprecedented.
“Pete Dye was very brave, very bold,” said Mark McCumber, who shot 81-78 at the 1982 PLAYERS but won the tournament six years later. “He and Deane weren’t afraid to do things that were out of the norm. We’d landed on Mars and we’d never been there. I’d never seen anything like it, and that’s nothing against Mars. It was like we were on a different planet.”
Dye’s use of railroad ties provided an intimidating delineation between land and water. The greens featured tiny plateaus on which hole locations could be placed; accurate shots were rewarded with makeable birdie putts, but the slopes repelled even the slightest miss. The new greens also were firm, exacerbating any bounces and sending balls scurrying toward the severely undulated areas around the greens. Scully referred to the mounds right of the 18th green as "an elephant burial ground.”
Roger Maltbie, who now calls THE PLAYERS for NBC, finished fifth in 1982 despite making quadruple bogey at the eighth hole. With his ball sitting next to a bunker’s sheer face, “I came up with the brilliant idea, totally tongue in cheek, that I would straddle the ball and try to play it backwards between my legs back into the bunker,” Maltbie said. His ball hit him instead, leading to a two-shot penalty.
"The areas around the greens, the bunkering, so on and so forth, could provide some really awkward shots that nobody practiced," Maltbie said.
The Stadium Course was meant to give the highest reward to players who pulled off their shots, while severely punishing any misstep. Players who flirted with hazards off the tee were rewarded with easier approach shots. The course wasn’t excessively long, allowing a variety of players to contend. Fairways curved in both directions, requiring players to shape their tee shots.
"I wanted to build a course that brought out all the shots of these great players," Dye told reporters that week.
He played in the pro-am with defending PLAYERS champion Raymond Floyd, who shot 66 despite a double-bogey at the final hole. The low round gave Dye optimism that the course would be well-received.
“For a significant championship, they’ve built a unique course that makes you perform at your optimum or you don’t get anything,” Floyd said.
'STAR WARS GOLF'
Dye heard an equal number of compliments and complaints during the practice rounds leading into the Stadium Course's debut. That changed once the tournament began. The tournament’s scorekeeper, Dom Mirandi, told a reporter that he’d never written so many 8s in his life.
“The verbal assault against our new creation hit like a stake in my heart,” Dye wrote in his autobiography, "Bury Me In a Pot Bunker."
Players took the opportunity to fill reporters’ notebooks with colorful quotes criticizing the new course. Ben Crenshaw referred to the course as “Star Wars golf, designed by Darth Vader.” After missing the cut, Jack Nicklaus said, “I’ve never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.”
Peter Jacobsen, who now calls the tournament for NBC alongside Maltbie, finished 27th that week.
“I said Pete, ‘When I get done playing and I retire from the TOUR, I’m going to go into golf course design because I know I’ll have a thriving business rebuilding every one of your courses,' ” Jacobsen said with a laugh. “He got the biggest kick out of that. He asked, ‘You don’t like the course?’ I said, ‘Let’s put it this way. It’s just different.’ He said, ‘Good, that’s what I’m going for.’
“I really respect Pete Dye because he doesn’t take criticism personally. He really wants to play with your mind. He likes to really put pressure on you mentally and test your patience.”
TOUR players are creatures of habit, though, and the Stadium Course may have been too revolutionary, Dye later admitted.
"Looking back, I realized that the radical design of the (Stadium) Course was too new for the TOUR professionals," Dye wrote in his autobiography. "They had never seen anything like it."
'THE CARNEGIE HALL OF GOLF'
The Stadium Course’s playing areas weren’t the only revolutionary part of the course.
Large spectator mounds gave unobstructed views of the action. The course was laid out to create hubs of activity, where fans could see multiple holes at once. And, to give spectators something entertaining to watch, the finishing holes were designed to induce drama.
It was the first course created specifically for fans. The $500,000 purse at the 1982 PLAYERS, the largest in PGA TOUR history, also raised the stakes.
“I think it was a step into the future for the game of golf,” said Brad Bryant, who finished second in 1982. Bryant recently called the amphitheater surrounding the 16th and 17th greens “the Carnegie Hall of golf.”
“You have a 140-yard hole and you have 10,000 people sitting there watching it," Bryant said. “It was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen. We got up to hit and they hushed the crowd. It was like being in an opera house. You take a few practice swings and it's like when the orchestra is tuning up. People are talking, and then all of a sudden the maestro hits his baton and it goes dead silent. It was like being on the stage and all of a sudden they put the spotlight on you. And half of the people are hoping you have a train wreck.”
Some of the Stadium Course's viewing mounds were more than 30 feet tall. Dirt walkways and seating areas were carved into the hills, which were covered in lovegrass.
Pete Davison, the club’s first head pro, suggested that spectators wear jeans to the tournament. “There was lovegrass and dirt everywhere. It was raw,” he said.
The mounds at 17 and 18 drew big crowds "as fans cheered the successful shots and groaned with those players who splashed a ball in the water," Dye wrote.
Bryant's tee shot illustrated the do-or-die nature of the island green. He was one shot back when he arrived at 17 on Sunday, but knew he couldn't aim at the flag. A miss would be too costly for the winless 27-year-old. The second-place check was more than he earned the previous year.
“There is no tomorrow for him. I think you’re looking at a young man who needs some money, too, so he can’t really throw away second prize,” Ken Venturi said on the telecast.
He was right, which is why one spectator gave such an exuberant reaction to Bryant's successful approach shot.
“If you listen real closely to the replay, my ball lands on the green and there's a lady in the background who yells, 'Yes!' very loudly," Bryant said. "That's my wife. She's yelling because that meant I had a job next year.”
Bryant tied for second with Scott Simpson. The $45,000 check ensured his TOUR card for the following year and paid the mortgage on the motorhome he used to travel the TOUR, a Holiday Rambler.
Pate received some extra insight into how to handle the Stadium Course when he played it with Beman during the course’s grand opening in late 1980.
"He told me to ride in the cart with him and he was going to tell me how to play the golf course," Pate said. “He said if I listened to him I’d win the tournament, and sure as hell I did."
Beman told Pate to play aggressively off the tee, even though Dye designed the tee shots to intimidate players. The fairways were actually wider than they appeared.
"Players who laid up were left with a more difficult shot than the one they just avoided," Beman said. "The greens were so severe that if you laid back and to hit longer clubs into the green, you weren’t going to be successful.”
Pate used that advice to his advantage.
"I was a good driver of the ball. If somebody said, ‘Hit over there,’ I could hit it over there most of the time," he said. "I think driving was the key to playing that golf course. I can think of only really missing one shot that week.”
That was his approach shot into the 18th hole in the third round. Pate hit his 5-iron into the water left of the green.
A day later, he used the same club to hit his ball within 3 feet of the hole.
FIVE ON IT
To this day, Pate still has several sets of clubs missing an iron. His 5-irons are popular targets, and for good reason. His two biggest victories – at the 1976 U.S. Open and the 1982 PLAYERS – were culminated by 5-iron shots that he knocked stiff.
“People would come to my house and they would just take the 5-irons out of my set because they wanted the 5-iron, but it was just a 5-iron,” Pate said. “I ended up with six or seven sets of Wilson clubs that all looked alike, and none of them had 5-irons.”
Pate won his U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club. The 18th green there is guarded by water, as well, and Pate was accused of hitting his approach shot left of where he was aimed. If there were any skeptics at TPC Sawgrass, he had his retort ready.
“When I walked in the press conference, they asked if I had an opening statement,” Pate said. “I said, ‘I guess I pulled another 5-iron.’ I hit a 5-iron on the last hole a foot from the hole when I won the Open. There was all this conversation that I pulled the 5-iron, that nobody would dare aim at the hole. I said, ‘Look, when you’re a good ball-striker and you’re (in your 20s), you aim at every hole. You’re trying to hit the ball in the hole.’”
'YOU GUYS ARE CHICKEN'
Doak is one of today’s top golf architects. His designs are included on lists of the top 100 courses in the world and in the United States. In 1982, he was a Cornell senior who interned for Dye. The 1982 PLAYERS Championship fell during Doak’s spring break, so he flew down to Florida to watch the tournament with the course’s designer.
The attention the new course was receiving helped bring a new focus to the craft of golf course architecture. It also influenced Doak’s future work, inspiring him to not shy away from controversy nor to fear veering from the norm, he said. He watched as Dye observed players competing on the new Stadium Course, unflinchingly accepting their criticism.
“I heard it from both (Dye and Beman) that they really wanted to build a golf course that tested the players and showed how good they were,” Doak said. “I don’t think the players really expected it to be nearly as hard as it was. I remember one of Pete’s quotes from the week was something like, ‘If I was a player I’d be mad at me, too,’ so I don’t think he was caught off guard (by criticism).
“The biggest observation was that the big-name players were the ones who played the worst. It seemed like it got in their heads more. I definitely think there were a fair number of prominent TOUR players who were starting to get into architecture and it was their chance to say something quotable about architecture, so they were lined up to talk about it.”
Among the players who missed the cut were Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Johnny Miller, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw, Lanny Wadkins, Fred Couples and a 69-year-old Sam Snead.
“One of the players who was most vocal about the 17th hole was Jerry Pate, saying that if the weather got really severe, people might not finish,” Doak said. “Then, of course, he was the one who played great the last day and won it.”
When Dye went into the locker room after being thrown into the lake, a new pair of pants was waiting for him, as were two TOUR players who wanted to ask questions about the new course: Tom Weiskopf and Ed Sneed, who knew Dye from Ohio. Doak was there, as well.
Sneed had a question about the 13th hole, a par-3 with a large swale bisecting the green. Sneed and his playing partner hit tee shots that landed within 2 feet of each other. The other player's ball caught the slope and rolled toward the hole. Sneed’s bounced onto the back tier of the green, leaving him a long, difficult birdie putt.
“Ed said to Pete, ‘I just think the golf course puts too fine a point on it. We’re not good enough to hit it within 2 feet of where we’re aiming,’” Doak recalls. “I thought it was a really good question.
"Pete took it all in, and he looked at him and said, ‘Well, the only reason that happened is because you guys are chicken. If you were aiming at the hole, that 2 feet wouldn’t have mattered at all. But you’re afraid of the water on the left, so you’re aiming for a slope in the green to try to save you, and that has too small of a margin for error, which you just told me you’re not good enough to hit.’”
Pate was a showman. He first leapt into a lake in 1981, after winning in Memphis. He wasn't afraid to mix it up with the galleries, and he played an orange ball just to be different. That sunny disposition prevented him from being flustered by Dye's tricky new course.
“I probably had a different style of playing,” Pate said recently. “People used to get mad at me. I wasn’t as comical as Chi Chi (Rodriguez) or Fuzzy (Zoeller), but I liked to talk to the gallery. I grew up in a big family, six kids, so we always chatted it up. I’ve always been a talker, kind of like Peter Jacobsen. My style was to always have fun when I played. I was just blessed to be a pro golfer. I didn’t even think I was going to be a pro golfer until I was 20 years old. I was studying to be in business at Alabama. I thought I was going to go work in the Coca-Cola business with my dad.
“I won the U.S. Amateur when I was 20 and played a few pro tournaments in my senior year of college and did well. I went to the Qualifying School that year (in 1975) and got on the TOUR and next thing you knew, I was out there. I thought it was fun. I always realized we were paid to entertain people so you should have fun when you’re playing, whether it was using an orange golf ball or jumping in lakes or whatever. I didn’t take golf seriously other than the 20 seconds it takes to hit a shot.”
Pate started using an orange Wilson Pro Staff ball in his victory at the 1981 Colombian Open. “The first time I used it, I had 25 birdies and three eagles and won by 21 shots,” he said. “I thought this is a pretty good deal, this orange ball. Every time I hit a putt it went in the hole. It was the exact same ball, just painted orange.”
Pate may have been known for joking around, but he was quickly compiling a serious resume. The 28-year-old had won seven times, including a major, before the 1982 PLAYERS. It would be his last PGA TOUR title, though.
JERRY PATE'S RESUME1974: U.S. Amateur1976: U.S. Open, Canadian Open1977: Phoenix Open, Southern Open1978: Southern Open1981: Memphis Classic, Pensacola Open1982: THE PLAYERS Championship
SHOULDERING THE LOAD
A shoulder injury shortly after the win hampered the remainder of Pate's golf career.
“I hurt it about two months after THE PLAYERS Championship,” Pate said. “I was practicing out at a golf course that I was doing some remodeling on, Perdido Bay in Pensacola. I was hitting some 1-irons off the back of the range, kind of hitting down on it, hitting low 1-irons. I was thinking about playing well at Troon in (the 1982 Open Championship). At Troon, you need to hit a lot of 1-irons, a lot of low shots. I just hit down on a ball and popped my shoulder and that was it.”
He had multiple surgeries on his left shoulder, and was never the same player. One top-10 apiece in 1983 and 1984 were the final two of his career.
Said Jacobsen: “I don’t think people really saw the best of Jerry Pate. He was one of those phenomenal young players coming out of college. He was the type of player who was perfect for TPC Sawgrass because he had all the shots. He could drive it straight, he could create shots with his approaches and he had a wonderful short game."
The Stadium Course has been renovated several times since that first PLAYERS. The changes started that year, softening some of the slopes on and around the greens.
“It’s been evolving over the past 35 years. The golf course has just matured so beautifully,” Jacobsen said. “It’s a great competitive venue for what we’re trying to identify. A boring course to me is when you have 18 finishing holes; any of the 18 holes could be the last because it’s hard and it’s a challenge. What I like about TPC Sawgrass, the same reason I like Augusta National, is that it’s a rollercoaster. You have some really hard holes and some easy holes. You have some reachable par-5s where you can make eagle and you have some really challenging par-3s that scare the living daylights out of you.”
Tee-to-green, the layout is similar to when the Stadium Course debuted. Dye's design still is known for its democratic nature, not favoring any single type of player. The large rewards for executing a shot, and penalties for a mistake, mean players must be on their game. It's the reason there aren't many players who consistently contend on the course.
Said McCumber, “You know who it favors? Whoever is playing the best that week. You cannot play well on that golf course if you’re just long or just have a good short game. It’s going to deliver you the best player. it doesn’t care what your background is, what your natural attirbutes are. Did you play the best that week? Then you’re going to win."
Said three-time major winner Larry Nelson, who finished 10th in the first PLAYERS at TPC Sawgrass, “TPC is one of the few places where you don’t have too many repeat winners because there’s not really a local knowledge thing. The way it’s designed, you have to be almost perfect. I’m really glad they got it right over the years because it is a great test.”
Venturi may have phrased it best during the telecast for the 1982 PLAYERS.
“It’s been praised and it’s been criticized," the World Golf Hall of Famer said. "I don’t think anybody has ever built a golf course that everyone liked all 18 holes. Great golf courses are like great players. They have to stand the test of time.”
The Stadium Course has done that, starting with one wild week in 1982.
Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.