Imagine a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Now think about renovating the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. It’s architect Pete Dye’s masterpiece and his legacy. Like any piece of great art – or Dye-designed golf course for that matter – the Players Stadium Course is in the eye of the beholder. The course has been called a number of things, good and bad, since it opened in 1982 and Ol’ Pete wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bill Hughes, General Manager/Regional Director of TPC Operations at PGA Tour, calls this renovated version (there also was one in 2006 when the current clubhouse was built), which opened this past fall but really had its coming out party at The Players Championship (won by Si Woo Kim) this past May, “like a pair of new old shoes.’’
It’s one of those “you have to be there’’ things to understand what Hughes means, but those familiar with the course before the renovation — and for PGA Tour players and average Joes (the latter of whom shell out upwards of $500 to play during peak season) who have played it since it re-opened — know exactly what Hughes is talking about.
“Everything that’s been done to that golf course has been done for one week per year,’’ Hughes said. “Do we get to take advantage of if the rest of the year? Absolutely. People come here from all over the world.’’
Whether it’s one week or the entire year, the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course, perhaps more than any course in the country, is an acquired taste. The more you play it, the more you appreciate it — or at least understand former Tour Commissioner Deane Beman’s vision and Dye’s design.
That doesn’t make it any easier – it’s still one of the more difficult courses you’ll ever play — but it does make you more familiar with the subtleties of one of the world’s great golf course designs. Those who play this renovated version (with the work done by the Tour’s in-house design staff in consultation with Dye) for the first time might not see the changes; those familiar with the course will definitely see them, beginning with the addition of the lake between the sixth and seventh holes that opens each hole more than before.
Creating more open space doesn’t really enhance either hole, but it makes each hole more viewer friendly for the Players Championship.
There was no work done on the course’s final three holes, including its signature par-3, island green 17 hole. But one big change that definitely got the pros’ attention in May is the removal of the dogleg left at No. 12. It now basically plays as a straightaway, drivable par four of 280 to 360 yards, giving long hitters something else to think about. The intent for the Players Championship was (and is) to potentially keep more players in the hunt on the back nine as they go into the finishing holes. It’s also to create more viewing excitement for the fans – similar to the par-4 17th hole at TPC Scottsdale.
Mission accomplished? The 12th yielded only two eagles and 127 birdies.
Here’s Phil Mickelson, who finished T41 at the 2017 Players Championship:
“I thought 95 percent of the new hole on 12 was really good, I really liked a lot of it,’’ Mickelson said. “But the one thing that will keep me from going for it a lot is the area of the bunker and the front edge of the green — the way [it] takes off into the water.
“What's uncomfortable about that is that you always like a hard edge, you always like as a player knowing that if you are right of this tree line or left of this tree or whatever, you know the ball’s okay. But on 12 it's a very uncomfortable tee shot because the mounds where you want to land the ball between the bunker and the green are taking the ball off into the water and so there's a kind of a soft edge that as a player doesn't feel good.’’
The Players Stadium Course, however, isn’t about making players feel good, unless you eagle No. 12 and birdie No. 17. It’s about vision and that one week per year during the Players Championship.
“It’s always been about the fans; always been about the viewing lines,’’ Hughes said. “That focus has never changed. The original business model of this course did not include the resort and everything that’s here now. It’s been a constant evolution since the day it opened.’’