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'The hardest damn golf course'

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'The hardest damn golf course'

The Stadium Course at PGA West debuted to much controversy but has since returned as one of the PGA TOUR's biggest tests

    Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin

    Pete Dye was given a single mandate for his design of what would become the Stadium Course at PGA West.

    Build the hardest damn golf course in the world.

    The first PGA TOUR event played at the Stadium Course, the 1987 Bob Hope Classic (now the CareerBuilder Challenge), proved that his West Coast sequel to TPC Sawgrass had met the challenge.

    Most players, however, thought Dye went too far. Their complaints were loud and frequent, quickly becoming the big story of the week. Raymond Floyd used words such as “spiteful” and “belligerent” the first time he played it. Famed Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote that “you need a camel, a canoe, a priest and a tourniquet to get through it.”

    California native Al Geiberger once said playing PGA West was like working through the stages of grief, with players going from anger to depression to acceptance. Players would eventually find humor in the situation, he said.

    But nobody was in a laughing mood in 1987. They were stuck on anger.

    "I'm sick and tired of these courses," said Tom Watson. "It requires you to execute shots that no sane golfer should be expected to play."

    When Dye visited the TV booth during the final round, he didn’t offer a rebuttal. He wanted his course to speak for itself.

    Sitting between announcers Vin Scully and Lee Trevino, Dye simply said, “I’m glad to hear the golf professionals think there’s at least a challenge out there.

    “They’ll learn to play this golf course. They’re great players. We’re just giving them the opportunities to hit great golf shots.”

    The players, however, made it formally known that they weren’t interested in Dye’s offer. A protest was organized, and the course was removed from the rotation after that first year.

    They’d have to wait 29 years to get another crack at Dye’s design. While the course continued to host tournaments like the Skins Game and Q-School, it didn’t re-appear on the PGA TOUR schedule until 2016.

    Its return provides a perfect litmus test for how much the game has changed in the past three decades. Advances in everything from agronomy to architecture, fitness and technology, have better equipped players to face challenges like the Stadium Course’s, which have become more commonplace. While still a challenge, the course is no longer considered controversial.

    “It says that the combination of technology and players has moved substantially over the course of 30 years,” said the famed architect Tom Doak, who started his career by working for Dye. “It also says that many architects have reacted to that and built very difficult courses, in reaction to what they saw on TV.”

    Five years before PGA West’s Stadium Course made its TOUR debut, Dye’s Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass hosted THE PLAYERS Championship for the first time. Dye was ushering in a new era in architecture, and players still weren’t accustomed to courses with such a drastic delineation between success and failure. But instead of bulkheads like in Florida, he lined the water hazards at PGA West with boulders to help the course mirror the mountainous terrain that surrounded it.

    “It’s a beautiful course,” said Curtis Strange, who’d go on to win the 1988 and 1989 U.S. Opens. “Of course, it’s one thing to look at it and another to have to play it.”

    There was no need for Dye to defend himself from the players. Trevino, the World Golf Hall of Famer who will go down in history as one of the game’s greatest ballstrikers, took care of that for him. The six-time major champion offered a blistering soliloquy from the television booth, taking the players to task for complaining about the course’s difficulty.

    “There’s been a lot of controversy about PGA West this week. Some pros say it stinks, it’s a monster, it’s unfair,” he said. “Well, I want to ask you, what makes a golf course unfair? Is it unfair because you have to hit the tee ball down the middle of the fairway and good iron shots into the green? Or is it fair because you can hit the ball all over the parking lot and make birdies? You be the judge of that, but if you ask me, if for the last 20 years we would’ve played golf courses like this one, maybe some of (you) that won a lot of golf tournaments wouldn’t have won as many.”

    From a flat, featureless plot of California desert, Dye sculpted a course with more square footage of water than fairway, and more sand than putting surface. The course was awarded the 1991 Ryder Cup before even opening (the event was later given to another Dye design, Kiawah Island), and the course rating of 77.1 was the highest ever given by the U.S. Golf Association.

    Dye built difficult courses not to torture the professionals, but out of deference to them. Executing impossible shots, ones that amateurs could only dream about, was the best way for the professionals to demonstrate their skills, he said. The reward for executing the proper shot was magnified by the penalty for a miscue.

    Dye was accustomed to drawing players’ ire, though. He knew length alone couldn’t challenge the modern pro, or even an abundance of hazards. He created awkward angles and visual deception to add to their discomfort. He forced players’ hands by making the subsequent shot harder for those who played safe.

    “The players didn’t like playing a golf course that embarrassed them, that’s the bottom line,” Doak said. Dye later wrote that he understood the reasons for their frustrations. In a day when prize money was paltry by today’s standards, one bad swing meant a player could miss the cut and go home empty-handed for the week.

    Mac O’Grady, who’d won the previous week’s Tournament of Champions at La Costa, reportedly walked off the course, nine holes into his practice round. Dave Stockton, who played out of PGA West, said he shot 81 the first time he played the Stadium Course, losing six golf balls. He was more fortunate in following rounds, firing 69 and 71. The course required experience to grow comfortable on Dye’s intimidating track. “I’ve learned how to play it,” he said.

    It was a steep learning curve, though.

    There were only 24 sub-par scores on the Stadium Course over the first four days. In the final round, there were almost as many rounds of 77 or higher (16) as under par (18). The 73.97 scoring average in the final round of the 90-hole event was almost unheard of for a Hope, where red numbers were the norm.

    The difficulty of the Stadium Course, exacerbated by cold, windy weather, led to some wild scoring swings for players who visited the Stadium Course after playing one of the tournament’s easier tracks. John Adams’ 84 was 15 shots higher than his previous day’s score at Indian Wells. Both David Edwards and Gary Hallberg experienced 13-shot swings in a 24-hour span. Edwards shot 61-74, while Hallberg shot consecutive scores of 68 and 81.

    PGA West’s ability to produce such a wide array of scores only promised to produce excitement when the tournament returned to the Stadium Course for the final round.

    “The last day, you’re going to see drama, flat-out drama,” Stockton predicted. “It’s going to be unbelievable.”

    He was correct. Corey Pavin won the 1987 Hope with a final-round 67, the low round of the week on the Stadium Course. Pavin sprinted across the green as his 25-foot birdie putt on No. 18 neared the hole, then leapt into the air when it fell. The 72nd-hole birdie gave Pavin a one-stroke victory over Bernhard Langer.

    Like he did in Florida, Dye designed a closing stretch designed to elicit drama, building a reachable par-5, an island green and a demanding, water-lined par-4. The par-5 16th featured a 20-foot-deep bunker. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill made that bunker famous when he threw the ball out of the hazard after several unsuccessful attempts to extricate his ball.

    The 17th hole was a sequel to TPC Sawgrass’ most famous hole, re-creating the “unadulterated excitement,” in Dye’s words, that an island green offers.

    And No. 18 was a long par-4 lined by water. Dye said PGA West’s final three holes may be the most difficult closing stretch he’s ever created, dubbing it “hang-on-to-your-hat time.”

    The PGA West Stadium Course was the 30th-toughest course among the 50 used on TOUR last season, playing to a 71.6 stroke average. Advances in technology and training have mitigated some of the course’s challenges.

    Forgiving equipment and lower-spinning golf balls that fly farther and straighter help today’s players avoid PGA West’s many pratfalls. Advances in physical and mental training, and the advent of analytics in course management, also help players. Smoother playing surfaces reduce uncertainty or misfortune.

    “We have better athletes, better knowledge, better equipment. All these things that make the game a little bit easier for us,” said 2016 CareerBuilder champion Jason Dufner. “We're playing golf courses, because of the state of agronomy, that are in better shape than we have ever seen. You play these golf courses, it's like hitting off carpet and there's no imperfections.”

    Much has changed, but Dye’s design still requires players to execute difficult shots, as exemplified by Dufner’s playoff victory over David Lingmerth in the Stadium Course’s return to the TOUR two years ago. Dufner needed an improbable bit of luck to earn his first title since the 2013 PGA Championship.

    Victory looked like it would elude him when his ball bounced through the island green on 17. Instead of going in the water, it landed on a small patch of dirt between the rocks surrounding the green. His chip shot struck the pin, allowing him to save par.

    The playoff showed that success on a Dye design often comes from exercising prudence at the proper time. Dufner and Lingmerth twice played the par-4 18th hole in the playoff. On the first extra hole, Dufner decided to eliminate any risk after hitting into a fairway bunker, laying up from 180 yards. He got up-and-down from 100 yards to extend the playoff.

    “It was probably a shot I pull off maybe two out of 10 times or three out of 10 times,” Dufner said about what confronted him if he tried to reach the green. “The other seven or eight times it probably hits the lip or goes in the water.”

    On their return to the 18th hole, it was Lingmerth who missed the fairway. He took a chance, and it cost him the title. He pulled his 184-yard approach shot into the water.

    “I should have probably choked up a little bit more on the grip,” Lingmerth said. “A small mistake that was very costly."

    Those are words that undoubtedly would bring a smile to Dye’s face.

    Dufner’s victory meant that the first two PGA TOUR events at the Stadium Course were won by major champions (Pavin would win the U.S. Open eight years after his triumph in the desert).

    Last year, Hudson Swafford birdied three of the Stadium Course’s final four holes for a one-shot win over 54-hole leader Adam Hadwin, who shot a final-round 70 one day after firing 59 at nearby La Quinta Country Club.

    Swafford showed the variability in scores that the course’s closing stretch can provide. He birdied both 16 and 17 in the final round, playing those two holes in six strokes after needing 11 the previous day. Swafford double-bogeyed No. 16 in the third round after his second shot landed in the hole’s famous hazard, which Dye called “the deepest greenside bunker this side of Mars.”

    Such extreme hazards were necessary even 30 years ago. Though the debate about technology’s role in the game continues to get increased attention, it’s been an argument that has gone on for decades.

    Doak said that in the 1980s he was ghost-writing articles for Dye about the need to rein in equipment. This was a time when most players were still using persimmon.

    “Changes in maintenance standards and technological advances in golf balls and clubs give the professionals too much control over a course,” Dye wrote in his autobiography, “Bury Me In A Pot Bunker.” “The Stadium Course was built to offset that advantage and permit those professionals to perform their skills at the highest levels.”

    PGA West’s Stadium Course played to a scorecard yardage of 7,113 last year, short by today’s TOUR standards.

    “It would still be one of the hardest courses in the world if we’d left them room to extend it to 7,800 yards,” Doak said.

    Even with the gains in distance, the Stadium Course’s return to the TOUR has shown that players must still be wise about how they approach Dye’s design. Chi Chi Rodriguez’s quote about the Stadium Course still holds true today.

    “Golf was meant to be a game of skill, not just strength,” he said. “To get around here, you have to have the skills.”

    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.

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