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2 Play the Tips played TPC Sawgrass on Thursday, February 23, 2012

TPC Sawgrass (Players Stadium)

The Big League Players


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The stunning 77,000 square foot clubhouse
#1 - The opening tee shot gives you a taste of what's to come on the par 4s
#1 - There is a nice runoff area behind this green on the right
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Fenway Park - Boston.  Madison Square Garden - New York City.  Lambeu Field - Green Bay.  Centre Court - Wimbledon.  Churchill Downs - Louisville.  Estadio Azteca - Mexico City.

TPC Sawgrass - Ponte Vedra Beach.

All of these places have something in common.  They are the places we imagine playing as kids.  Their names are uttered by the imaginary announcer in our heads when we step up to that pressure-packed shot, or that long birdie putt, or that 'bottom of the ninth, 2 outs, full count' at bat...

There's another special element to these places, though.  It doesn't matter how uneventful, how mundane, how downright boring the actual sporting event is; when you witness it at one of these arenas, it's special.  You'll never forget the first time you saw the field from the stands.  The first time you walked the grounds.  Maybe you still have the ticket stub. 

But Sawgrass stands out from the others in a group like this.  This game gives us the opportunity to play the courses we see on TV.  We can't walk out on to Wrigley Field and play catch.  The security guards at Wembley Stadium won't take kindly to you and a few friends kicking a ball around.  The folks at TPC Sawgrass, however, will gladly accept your presence (and your money), and let you test your game on the same surface that hosts the greatest players in the world every spring. 

If the Players Stadium course was built in the middle of nowhere and no PGA Tour Pro had ever set foot on it, it would obviously still be excellent.  There is no denying, however, that there is a big reason that the course is "better than most."  Whether it's because you watch the Players Championship every year or that you've already played the course 1,000 times (...in a video game), the Players Stadium course somehow gives you a stunning new experience while still making it feel as though you belong. 

We've never seen a course that was more obviously built for tournament golf.  Not only can it be set up to play extremely difficult, but there are spots on every hole where a gallery can comfortably form to watch the best players in the world.  This is where the course earns the "Stadium" part of its name - almost every green is in a sort of amphitheater setting.  Even some of the fairways have some excellent viewing areas, such as the peninsula between holes 6 and 7.  The two holes run parallel in opposite directions with water down the entire left side of each.  Instead of just making a lake, though, Dye filled in the area and it now makes for a great place to watch approaches on both two-shotters. 

When you build a course for the purpose of hosting the game's greats on a yearly basis, you've got to make certain adjustments; not only to keep up your reputation, but to provide a ..."stimulating work environment" for the players.  Pete Dye did just that.  The Players Stadium course is tough.  Really tough.  Aside from the obvious seventeenth, the most 'OMG Factor' characteristic of the course was the width - or lack thereof - of the fairways.  Neither of us had ever seen anything like it.  I would say with relative confidence that the average width of the fairways at Sawgrass is less than 20 yards.  It might even be closer to 15.  Adding insult to difficulty, Dye strategically placed numerous (and I mean numerous) bunkers down the fairways that really force the golfer to play a methodical, Hogan-esque round of golf in order to be successful.  One of our caddies said that Dye once lamented "I put way the hell too much sand out there."

Despite being somewhat of a case study in target golf, Sawgrass has pretty good shot quality.  There are only a few instances where you are really forced to hit a certain shot shape. When you add in the wind there can be some pretty demanding shots, but overall - if you're playing the tees you should be playing - you can pretty much move the ball either direction off the tee.  The difficulty comes in on the approach shot, where Pete Dye really demands great golf shots in order to get close.  As difficult as it is to hit these narrow fairways, the more difficult task is deciding how to attack the awkwardly angled greens.

The best way to break down and analyze this golf course is to look at the one, two, and three-shotters separately.  I'll start with the long ones.

There are a few par 5s at Sawgrass that are among the most memorable on tour.  The back nine's are a bit stronger then the front's, but all are strong holes.  The second hole is probably the weakest of the four.  An overhanging tree on the left side just in front of the tee forces the player to play a draw from the back tee to have any sort of decent second shot.  The green prefers a draw on the approach, but accepts a fade that carries the slight false front.  The only thing that I didn't like about this par 5 was the fact that it is a longer, mirrored version of the first hole.  This would serve as a bit of foreshadowing.

The ninth has a tee shot that can be a bit deceptive the first time you play it.  When I pulled my tee shot a bit, I thought I would be in trouble, but found myself in a decent spot on the left side of the fairway.  Any real chance to hit the green in two, however, is only revealed to the player who places his tee shot on the right side of the fairway (and long).  This requires flirting with the fairway bunker on the right.  An attempt to hit the green in two pretty much requires a draw, unless you're capable of a monster fade that can carry some pretty lofty trees.  The hole finishes off with a green that will punish a poorly placed shot.  The back half of the green toyed with us in a way that was almost embarrassing, with Jason's 30-foot putt winding up about 20 feet right of the hole. 

The eleventh.  Extremely difficult.  Extremely famous. Extremely quirky.  A big tee shot down the right side will give the golfer a knee-knocking opportunity to reach the green in two.  The real quirk, though, is what happens when you don't play a perfect tee shot.  In this case, you need to make a decision.  Do you want to lay up to the right of the water (with like... a nine iron) and face an awkward angle to the green on your approach?  Or would you rather face the awkward shot now - a mid-to-long iron to a strip of fairway that lies to your far left and on an awkward angle - followed by a more straight-forward pitch to the green? Oh, and by the way, there's sand everywhere.  And water behind the sand.

Sixteen was our favorite par 5.  The trees on the left of the fairway do a great job of pushing your tee shot out to the right, simultaneously concealing the wonderment that lies up near the green.  The walk down the fairway starting at roughly 200 yards is one of the better walks in golf.  Once you clear the trees on the right you can see 17 green in the distance.  The lake, 16 and 17 green, and all the grandstands and viewing areas make for a stunning scene on a day where your foursome are the only people around - we can't imagine how astounding it must be during The Players Championship.  The hole isn't just a great view, however.  The second shot either demands near-perfection to hit the green in two, or politely suggests hugging the right (water) side for an unobstructed view of the flag on your short approach.  The fairway flares out to the left at about 90 yards, but two trees in the left fairway bunker restrict an approach from that direction. 

The par 4s, in our opinion, were the least impressive part of the course.  Designer George C. Thomas, Jr. once said that "when you play a course and remember each hole, it has individuality and change.  If your mind cannot recall the sequence of the holes, that course lacks the great assets of originality and diversity."  With the exception of 12 and 18, the par 4s at Sawgrass lack originality and diversity. 

There is a design theme at Sawgrass.  Tee shot with a long fairway bunker on one side, the hole jogs over in the direction of that fairway bunker (with the exception of 7), leaving an awkward approach - probably over sand or water - to the green.  It's almost like there was one hole design and they just kept flipping it over and stretching it out to give it some semblance of variability.  Two of these holes - four and six - are slightly more interesting than the others.  Four has a gorgeous green and difficult approach that can be testy when there is any wind, and six is framed really well with trees on the right of the fairway and left of the green.  The others, however, are not very unique and, frankly, get a little boring after a while. 

Two of the par 4s are great, though.  12 is an excellent risk/reward.  You can hit the big ball over the hills on the left to an unseen green, or you can play a hybrid or fairway metal to the fairway and face a short approach.  If you come up short with driver, you could potentially face and extremely awkward chip or flop to a green that runs away from you and has plenty of difficult pin placements. 

The final hole is among the great holes in golf.  The lake looms on the left like a monster, waiting to gobble up your slightly pulled or slightly over-drawn tee shot.  Fortunately he got no treats from our group, but I can assure you that this monster is well fed.  Outside of competitive golf, the amateur would be hard pressed to find two more nerve-racking shots to complete their round.  The combination of the difficult tee shot, slightly uphill approach, deep greenside bunker on the left, and the 77,000 square foot clubhouse dominating your view make for a finish that you won't soon forget. 

The par 3s at Sawgrass are of great quality.  The third and thirteenth are somewhat secluded one-shotters that require a mid-to-long iron to reach the sizable but difficult putting surfaces.  These settings were the calmest on the course (thirteen especially).  The eighth hole can be set up to be quite demanding with a pin placement on the right that can only be reached with a fade.  Trees on the right of this teeing chute also make it more difficult to play a right to left ball to a middle or left pin. 

ALRIGHT.  Time to talk about the island.  Much like 16 at Cypress Point, the walk to the tee at 17 is tantalizing.  Its almost as if playing with your nerves went in to the design of the golf course.  The 80-or-so yard walk to the tee allows you to really take in the setting, which is much more expansive than it looks on TV.  This setting is what makes this golf hole so great.  From a tournament standpoint, the place is just a huge bowl.  There are hills on the left where spectators can park themselves all day, and viewers standing near 16 green can see 17 as well.  From a design standpoint, though, the setting makes reading the wind very difficult.  There is a line of trees behind the green and another behind the tee that prevent the player from sensing any upper-level wind.  The bowl created by 16 and 17 also causes the wind to swirl, forcing the thought of "I need to hit this before the wind changes" to float into the minds of the golfers.  If you aim at the dead middle of the green and execute the shot, there is a very slim chance you will miss the green.  Couple a slightly mis-hit shot with an aggressive line, however, and you'll likely be pulling another ball from your bag. 

Overall, Sawgrass was one of the best experiences we've had, especially for a public facility.  From the breakfast sandwich to the practice facilities to the caddies to the clubhouse, everything was top notch.  We couldn't have written a better script.  Our trip to the Stadium was everything we hoped for.  We'll even hang on to the ticket stubs...

"The moment of truth here, folks.  With a one stroke lead, he steps up to the tee at the famous island green.  The tournament is on the line.  Let's see how he handles it..."

...It's the stuff of legends.





TPC Sawgrass Homepage

TAGS:  PETE DYE, PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP, BUNKERING , GOLF