Nine Things to Know: TPC Sawgrass
11 Min Read
Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
THE PLAYERS Championship is upon us, and it means another week to appreciate the genius of Pete Dye and Deane Beman. THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was designed to offer an unparalleled spectator experience while testing the strongest field in golf with a pure test that doesn’t favor any single style of play. Dye’s design culminates with a dramatic finish that includes one of the game’s most famous holes.
Let’s dive in and take a closer look at the annual venue for THE PLAYERS Championship.
1. A DOLLAR AND A DREAM
PGA TOUR Commissioner Deane Beman purchased the 415 acres on which TPC Sawgrass was built for just $1. Talk about a bargain.
Beman’s vision for the course, and the tournament it would host, convinced the owners to hand the land over for next to nothing. The site was a heavily-wooded swamp, which made the creation of TPC Sawgrass an adventurous process.
“When I first inspected the proposed site for (TPC Sawgrass), my only compatriots in the impenetrable swampy jungle were deer, alligators, wild boar and deadly snakes,” Dye said.
He encountered a snake before he even started building the course. When he dug a hole to test the soil, a large water moccasin popped out of the hole.
“It must have been 5 feet long and as big as your arm,” Beman said in the book “Golf’s Driving Force.” Dye estimated that they killed 70 rattlesnakes during construction, and “all of them were 5 to 6 inches around.”
That $1 check – dated Feb. 1, 1979 -- isn’t the only memento from TPC Sawgrass’ early days that hangs in the course’s clubhouse.
There’s also a placemat that was the canvas for Dye’s first sketches of the course. He quickly laid out a rudimentary plan after hearing Beman’s vision for the stadium golf concept.
Building a unique course was key to giving THE PLAYERS Championship its own identity and adding prestige to the PGA TOUR’s flagship event, which started in 1974 and had been played on four different courses before finding its permanent home at TPC Sawgrass.
“Deane decided that the way to build this championship and make it significant in the eyes of the professionals and the press was not to compete with the other majors but to create a separate identity,” Dye wrote in his autobiography. “In his opinion, this is just exactly what the concept of stadium golf could accomplish.”
Dye eventually submitted more extensive plans, but often deviated from them. He was a creative genius who often improvised. The course’s most famous hole – the island-green 17th – is one prominent example. We’ll get to that later.
“I finally had to submit a complete set of plans for the Stadium Course,” Dye wrote in his autobiography. “I suppose Deane’s bankers must have been afraid I would kick off midway through the job and they would be left with half a golf course.”
3. STADIUM GOLF
So, what is stadium golf? It’s an architecture philosophy with the fan in mind. Large spectator mounds give gallery members an unobstructed view of the action. Holes that run parallel to each other, and return to the clubhouse, create hubs of activity where fans can see multiple holes at once without walking miles.
Beman knew first-hand how hard it was to watch a golf tournament. The Phoenix Open was the first event he attended after becoming Commissioner in 1974. He stayed outside the ropes to get a fan’s-eye view. Beman, who stood 5-foot-7, often had trouble seeing the action. He noticed that some fans brought stepladders for a better view. Others bought periscopes.
“I’m looking through the back of some head, trying to figure out who is doing what,” Beman said in “Golf’s Driving Force.” “I said to myself, ‘Wow, can you imagine coming out here and walking 5 miles to watch this?’”
TPC Sawgrass was built on flat ground, so the spectator mounds were built with the soil that was excavated to create the course’s water hazards.
4. ISLAND OF ADVENTURE
The 17th hole is the most famous amphitheater at the Stadium Course. Thousands of fans congregate on the spectator mounds to watch players take on one of golf’s most famous holes. Dye’s original plans didn’t call for the course’s penultimate hole to have an island green, though.
The 17th was supposed to be a peninsula with a lake guarding the right side of the green. However, the 17th hole also was the site of the property’s best sand, which they used around the course. The more they excavated, the larger the gulf grew.
“Pretty soon there wasn’t anything left but this little old place to put the pin,” Beman said in “Golf’s Driving Force.”
The next part of the story has become part of Dye lore. “We have a big problem,” Pete told his wife, Alice. “I only have 17 holes out there.”
It was her idea to make the green an island.
“She said to me, ‘Throw a bulkhead out in the middle of it and put some sand and dirt on top of it,’ Dye said. “A light went on and that’s exactly what happened.”
Despite being a short hole with a relatively large green, Dye knew that it would become one of the most intimidating holes in golf.
“We had created a hole that was planted in the player’s mind from the very first tee,” Dye said.
Mark Calcavecchia, a 13-time PGA TOUR winner, compared the hole to a 3 p.m. root canal.
“All day, you know it’s coming,” he said. “But that doesn’t make it any easier when it’s finally time to confront it.” The 17th is sandwiched between the short, par-5 16th and a punishing finishing hole. That closing stretch, which can create large swings in scoring, was designed to encourage dramatic finishes.
“I wanted the finish to be iconic,” Beman said.
5. FAIR AND BALANCED
THE PLAYERS Stadium Course wasn’t just built with fans in mind, though. Beman, a four-time PGA TOUR winner, also wanted it to be a fair test that didn’t favor any single style of play.
That desire can be seen from the start of the round. Beman didn’t want a player’s tee time to give him an advantage, so he ensured that each side of TPC Sawgrass has an equitable start. The first and 10th holes are relatively similar par 4s. The first hole measures 423 yards. The 10th is one yard longer. The first hole promotes a fade off the tee and a draw into the green. The 10th hole curves right-to-left before bending left-to-right.
The second hole of each side is a reachable par 5. Both holes call for a draw off the tee and a left-to-right shot into the green.
Nos. 1 and 10 run in opposite directions, with the second and 11th holes turning back toward the clubhouse. This ensures that the wind doesn’t disadvantage players starting on one half of the course.
6. THE SPICE OF LIFE
TPC Sawgrass also asks players to hit a variety of shots. Holes bend in both directions so that one trajectory isn’t favored off the tee.
“Nearly all the par 4s are s-shaped,” said famed architect Tom Doak, who interned with Dye. “Pete was big on balance, so he was big on getting both the fade and the draw in play.”
The four par 3s also offer a myriad of challenges. The 17th is a short hole with a high degree of risk. Nos. 3 and 13 are two holes of moderate length – measuring 177 and 181 yards, respectively – that require accurate mid-iron shots. And the eighth hole is a 237-yard brute that asks players to hit a long iron, or more, into a large, but receptive, green.
The par-5 16th, which measures 523 yards, is easily reachable for the majority of the field, but they must be willing to take a risk to hit the green in two. Nos. 2 and 11 are medium-length par 5s that still offer eagle chances, while the ninth hole is much more difficult. Many players will play the hole as a three-shoter.
TPC Sawgrass’ par 4s range in length from the 302-yard 12th to the 481-yard 14th. There are three par 4s under 400 yards and three that measure 470 yards or longer.
“(The course) doesn't really suit any style of game,” said 2019 champion Rory McIlroy, “but everyone feels like it's a challenge.”
There’s also a fine line between success and failure at TPC Sawgrass. That explains why no one has been able to have consistent success at THE PLAYERS.
“The mark of a good golf course is when one player can be going for 63 while six others are struggling for 78,” Dye said.
7. WORTH THE WAIT
The Stadium Course’s democratic nature is displayed in the fact that just five players have won multiple times at TPC Sawgrass: Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Steve Elkington and Hal Sutton. It’s an impressive group.
All five are major champions. Couples, Love and Woods are in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
The two-time winners at TPC Sawgrass had to wait an average of 11.6 years between victories, though. This is further proof that the course doesn’t favor any type of player.
Elkington is the only player who didn’t have to wait more than a decade between victories at the Stadium Course. He won THE PLAYERS in 1991 and 1997. Love won in 1992 and 2003. Couples (1984, ’96) and Woods (2001, ’13) both waited 12 years between wins, while Sutton’s two PLAYERS wins were 17 years apart.
No one has won more than two times on THE PLAYERS Stadium Course.
8. ON THE MARCH
In 2019, THE PLAYERS Championship returned to March after a 12-year stint in May. There is a greater variety in scoring when the tournament is played at an earlier date.
The winning score was double-digits under par in 11 of the 12 years THE PLAYERS was contested in May. The winner shot between 11 and 15 under par in eight of those years.
In March, the winning score has ranged from 3 under to 24 under. David Duval shot 3 under to win the 1999 PLAYERS, while Greg Norman set the tournament scoring record in 1994.
The scores are more unpredictable in March because the weather is fickle. The course is overseeded for March, as well. That means the rough is lusher, but the course may play softer. Northeast Florida can get cold, dry conditions in March, but it also can receive lots of rain.
The wind is more unpredictable in March. The final two holes often played downwind in May, but the wind often blows in the opposite direction in March.
“I think that's the way it was designed to be played. And whether it's firm or soft, it plays much better with that kind of overseed ryegrass and bent greens,” said Adam Scott, who won the 2004 PLAYERS in March.
9. REVOLUTIONARY DESIGN
TPC Sawgrass was a revolutionary golf course when it opened. It was the rare championship course that was accessible to the public, and players were not accustomed to a course that was so visually intimidating and so penal for misplayed shots.
That’s why players revolted during the 1982 PLAYERS Championship, the first one played at TPC Sawgrass. Dye’s intentions weren’t to drive the players insane. He wanted to give them a course that allowed them to show their skills.
“We tried to create a golf course to bring out all their shots, all their great shots, that the professionals are capable of hitting,” Dye said.
Players thought the course was too harsh, though. Ben Crenshaw called it “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 Sports, finished 27th in the first PLAYERS at TPC Sawgrass.
“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."
Now Dye’s design is one of the most iconic courses on TOUR.
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.