From the vantage of a seventh-floor suite at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort and Spa, the grounds of the THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass seem like a cross between private gardens and a manicured wilderness park, with deep shade trees, lakes and canals accented by the flight of snowy egret, blue heron and migrating ducks. From up here it looks like an ideal place for a leisurely, tranquil stroll.
At ground level, finding tranquility may be a bit harder. TPC to its friends, THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is the home of THE PLAYERS Championship, becoming the mecca of American golf for one week of the year. One of five courses at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort and Spa, The Stadium Course has been honored by multiple golf publications as a top golf destination. Golf Digest ranked it 47th among “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses for 2015-2016” and ranked the Stadium Course 10th overall among “America’s 100 Greatest Public Golf Courses” in 2015-2016. Golfweek ranked the Stadium Course the No. 1 “Best Course You Can Play in the State of Florida”.
Beautifully designed by Pete Dye to challenge even the best of players, TPC at Sawgrass is as much a mind game as a physical one, as one need only ask Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Fred Couples or David Duval, all of whom have been tested at TPC. Three of the hardest holes on the PGA TOUR are on the Stadium Course, including the par-5 9th hole and the par-4 18th.
And, of course, there is the 17th hole, with its fabled island green, probably the most famous, and most photographed, piece of course in golf history. Placed in a lake between holes 16 and 18 – because course designer Dye plain ran out of space – it looks like something out of a video game, slightly unreal and gemlike. The short but treacherous 132-yard, par-3 hole has snatched more than one championship away from the best of players, and even stood witness to a few marriage vows.
Outwardly breathtaking, 17 is not the only example of Pete Dye’s ingenious combination of playing challenge and artistic design. The live oaks lining the par-5 #16 are golf’s version of Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree, waiting to devour any shot even slightly out of line. To come out of overhanging trees and find the fairway hiding behind water, multiple bunkers, sand, waste areas and vicious-looking Florida rough at #11 (often called the finest par-5 in Florida) requires the strategic skills of a world-class chess player. The course, full of elevation changes (where the hole may be six feet above the fairway), double-doglegs and fiendishly-placed water, demands a game of precision and tactics, combining the angle control of a pool player and the accuracy of a target-shooter. And don’t forget a large bag of golf balls.
So what do you do with a world-class golf course famous to even non-golfers? Try a total overhaul. Starting immediately after THE PLAYERS Championship ended in March 2006, TPC Stadium Course and its adjoining clubhouse were, in essence, torn to the ground, and reopened after $26 million of renovations. Some of the work was simply due, according to Billy Dettlaff, General Manager and Director of Golf. "We design grass to do specific things," Dettlaff said, "and after 15 years or so the grass just naturally goes back to its original form. So we’d have to replace it anyway." Excavating the course and introducing more than ten miles of pipes and a computer-controlled irrigation system, that will not only sense when the course is dry but also pump out water when it is wet, will make for a faster course, reflecting the modern state of the game.
A clubhouse inspired by the Mediterranean Revival-style Flagler Hotel in St. Augustine has become more accessible and offers better viewing stages of the 9th and 18th greens, with a Hall of Fame and displays of TPC history. While the clubhouse has expanded substantially, with advanced facilities for guests during Championship season and four new banquet rooms for private and corporate events throughout the year, changes to the course are structural, improving playability and access for spectators. The birthplace of spectator golf has added several thousand spaces to view the game, and hospitality zones throughout the course offer refreshments, a giant screen television and electronic leader boards.
When relaying the fact that TPC would undergo extensive renovations, I heard more than one cry of, "They’re not changing 17, are they?" and I was happy to say no.