Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 14, 2021

TPC Sawgrass, From Reviled To Revered

When it first hosted the Players Championship in 1982, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, which was to serve as the permanent venue of the one event on each year’s PGA Tour schedule that is wholly owned and operated by the Tour, did so to less than universal acclaim from the professionals who are the Tour’s primary constituents and the main beneficiaries of a tournament sporting the largest purse of any golfing competition in the world – $15 million this year. The Pete Dye design was derided by many pros for severely sloped greens, abundant bunkers, and the overall difficulty of a layout that sprawled across 400 acres of reclaimed swampland in Ponte Vedra, Florida, a mile inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Ben Crenshaw suggested the architect wasn’t Dye at all, but Darth Vader, a reference easily understood at a time moviegoers were anxiously waiting for “Return of the Jedi” to calm the fears raised by the cliffhanger ending of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Jack Nicklaus said the course’s firm greens didn’t suit him since he’d “never been very good stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.”

Some tweaks by Dye and the maturation of the landscape that only time can bring have gradually changed opinions, and today most members of the Tour sing the praises of eighteen holes that can yield a strikingly low score to one member of a pairing while punishing his fellow competitor with numbers more familiar to a weekend hacker. While TPC Sawgrass stretches to 7,245 yards, the difference between glory and the gutter is often measured in feet, with a shot landing in one spot bringing a smile to a golfer’s face, while another effort coming to earth nearby catches a slope and bounds into trouble, or worse.

As the years have passed and players’ opinions have mellowed, the elevation of the tournament to not-quite major status has ensured a big TV audience and made at least parts of the course familiar to even casual golf fans. TPC Sawgrass’s final stretch, centered around the par-3 17th with its island green, are instantly recognizable. Just before that ever-so-simple yet excruciatingly difficult short hole, the par-5 16th tempts every golfer whose tee shot finds the fairway grass to go for the green in two. But with water to the right and behind the green, and two bunkers with overhanging trees guarding the left, the penalty for a misplaced approach can be severe. Then the home hole offers no respite, with a massive lake bordering the entire length of the long, narrow, curling par-4 on the left while trees inhibit the natural tendency to bail out to the right.

Like the entire course, the final three can yield scores below par, but the loop is just as likely to ruin an otherwise pristine scorecard. That variable alone often makes for high drama on Sunday, which is exactly what Dye had in mind. In 2015’s final round, Rickie Fowler played the three holes eagle-birdie-birdie to force his way into a playoff with Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia, which he won after four holes by birdieing the 17th twice more. Seven years earlier, Garcia claimed the title in another playoff that ended practically before it began. Journeyman Paul Goydos was on the cusp of a career-defining win, but he bogeyed the 18th to fall back into a tie with Sergio. With the playoff starting on 17, Goydos hit first to the island green and put his shot in the water. Once Garcia’s tee ball finished on dry land, that year’s Players was effectively over.

It would be unfair to say that the famous closing stretch was devoid of drama at this year’s Players. But while the outcome was still in doubt as the final pairings made their way around the horseshoe formed by the final holes, the tournament was largely decided much earlier in the round. Yes, Lee Westwood missed a six-footer to save par on the 17th, an effort he surely rued after sinking a long birdie at the last to come up one short. And yes, winner Justin Thomas hit a hooking drive from the final tee box that landed perilously close to the water, but somehow bounced straight ahead instead of caroming towards the lake, as both the shot’s curvature and the fairway’s slope suggested should have happened. Instead of trying to recover from a penalty, Thomas was left with one of the day’s shortest approach shots to the 18th green.

But Westwood’s putt was no gimme, and since he hadn’t missed from inside ten feet all day, golf fans simply nodded their heads and said, “he was due.” As for Thomas’s fortunate bounce, it came long after many viewers had concluded that this was going to be his day. That’s because over a four-hole stretch in the middle of the round, on a part of TPC Sawgrass that gets far less coverage, both electronic and physical, this year’s Players Championship was decided.

While TPC Sawgrass wanders mightily, the 9th through 12th holes are not that distant from the closing troika. But unlike, say, the island green, they are seen by television viewers only when the leaders are making their way through them. The same is true for many of the fans on site. The walk from the massive parking lot through the TPC’s gates and past the merchandise tent takes spectators right to the 17th tee, quite literally the middle of the course’s famous closing stretch. Many fans never move much beyond that, content to watch in person what they know from years of flatscreen spectating.

What they miss is that every hole on the course offers both challenge and opportunity, and on Sunday Thomas made the most of the 9th through the 12th. After a bogey on the 8th, he was 1-over for his round and drifting away from the lead. Then he went birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie, slashing par by five shots in four holes and surging to the front of the pack. The eagle-3 on the 11th, a par-5 that tantalizes players to go for the green despite copious sand and water, was especially impactful when both Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau only managed to par the hole.

Along with those two, Thomas’s five closest pursuers played the same stretch in a combined 4-under, cumulatively unable to match Thomas. Individually each lost from three to six shots to the eventual winner.

Justin Thomas is arguably the best golfer of a preternaturally talented generation. Yet perhaps it’s appropriate that a player still working – from all reports seriously – to overcome the notoriety of uttering a homophobic slur at this year’s first tournament, played his best away from the spotlight. It still resulted in a win, one that reminded fans, both those on the grounds and the vastly larger number who watched from afar, that there is much more to Pete Dye’s signature creation than the handful of holes that made it famous.

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