PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - When the Players Championship moved across the street 30 years ago, leaving Sawgrass Country Club for a new, controversial course built on dangerous Florida swampland, player reaction was swift and nearly unanimous.
Their words were mostly forgotten, replaced by the replays of tournament winner Jerry Pate shoving then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman and course architect Pete Dye into the enormous lake to the left of the 18th hole before diving in himself.
Three decades later, player reaction about the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass remains more or less in unison. With two drastic changes, though: The comments now are nothing like the venom being spewed in 1982, and nobody has duplicated Pate’s plunge.
When the 39th Players Championship starts on Thursday, it will be held on a course that’s been the home of the PGA Tour for 30 years. The mortgage might not be paid off (the new clubhouse, built in 2007, cost $32 million, after all), but the course has become universally praised and frequently photographed. It doesn’t hurt that the Players offers a $9.5 million purse, the richest in golf.
“What I’ve come to appreciate over the years is that as difficult and penalizing as it is for a mis-hit, it’s very rewarding on the greens if you’re able to find them,’’ said Phil Mickelson, the most recent American to win the Players, in 2007. “The risk-reward, taking on and executing a great shot, is very well done in its design.’’
Simply buying and building the place was a huge risk. Beman wanted an appropriate base for his tour, and had the vision of turning 415 acres into what TPC Sawgrass has become: state-of-the-art, featuring practice facilities and a course commensurate with the expectations of the world’s best golfers.
As author Adam Schupak describes in “Deane Beman: Golf’s Driving Force,’’ the commissioner found a pair of land owners who were convinced his plan had merit. He bought the 415 acres from Paul and Jerome Fletcher for $1, then went about creating a golf course. But not just any course. Beman wanted the layout to provide a stern test for players, yet ample sitting and viewing areas for spectators. The concept of stadium golf was born.
Dye was the designer, at least for 17 holes. His wife, Alice, had the idea for the 17th hole, which has become the most photographed golf hole in the world. Not long (135 yards) but with a large green shaped by railroad ties and surrounded by water on all sides, an estimated 100,000 balls splash and sink to their graves every year.
The first Players Championship held at the new course was 1982. It offered a purse of $500,000, with $90,000 going to the winner. This week’s winner will pocket $1,710,000.
Looking at the names from the first Players at the Stadium Course, it’s a list befitting an elite event. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Gary Player, Johnny Miller, Lanny Wadkins, Ben Crenshaw, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Miller Barber, Fred Couples. All of them - except Couples - are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. All of them missed the cut in 1982, and moaned to Beman and Dye about the unfairness of the new course: greens that were too hard and fast, rough that was too tall and thick, misplaced pot bunkers.
To their credit, the commissioner and course architect listened to the criticism, and reacted. Dye even walked the course, hole-by-hole, with Nicklaus, Crenshaw, and others, who pointed out where they thought things should be improved.
With any new course, it takes time to mature. Tweaks have been made, plus an occasional overhaul (new drainage, new grass in 2006-07).
The date of the tournament has also changed: from 1982-2006, the Players was held in March, before the Masters, and frequently encountered cold, wet weather.
It’s been the site of plenty of history. Tiger Woods won his first US Amateur here, in 1994. Local boy Len Mattiace, with a chance to win in the final round, put two balls into the water on No. 17 and made a quintuple-bogey 8. Couples also found the water on the 17th one year, teed up his ball from the same spot, and flew his next shot into the cup for an unlikely hole-in-three.
If we’ve come to expect anything since the Players moved to the Stadium Course, it’s the unexpected.
Over the past 19 years, the Players has been won by 19 different golfers. Long hitters, short hitters. Young and old (Adam Scott was 23 when he won in 2004; Fred Funk was 48 when he triumphed a year later). The Stadium Course, it seems, plays no favorites.
“When we think of the Players historically, we think of three things. We think of the quality of the field that we have, the golf course we play on, and the champions who have won here,’’ said Tim Finchem, who replaced Beman as tour commissioner in 1994. “From a golf course standpoint, I don’t know how it could be any better.’’
For 30 years, the venue has been as big of a story at the Players as the players. With the three-hole closing stretch that TPC Sawgrass features - reachable par 5, devilish par 3, brutal par 4, all protected by water and bringing numbers large and small into play - it’s given a recognizable signature to the course that Beman envisioned years ago.
“You’ve got places where there’s a lot of history,’’ said Rory McIlroy, the top-ranked golfer in the world who has missed the cut in two previous Players. “But I think the main three are probably the Masters, here, and St. Andrews whenever the [British] Open goes there.’’