The Players Championship has been one of the most important tournaments on the PGA Tour since it started in 1974, but especially since it moved to the TPC at Sawgrass for the 1984 tournament. Jerry Pate won the PGA Tour's flagship event that year. He pushed course architect Pete Dye and then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman into the lake left of the 18th green, and followed them in. The Players–or PLAYERS, as the PGA Tour has it–has provided drama and craziness since.
Most of that is because of the course, which led to just about every golf writer in the world referring to it and its designer as "diabolical." I walked the property before the course was built. It was a swamp. Dye was in his mid-50s then. He'd played the 1957 U.S. Open and won the 1958 Indiana State Amateur Championship. Dye had visited the Royal Dornoch Golf Club in the Scottish Highlands and loved the links so much he first called his firm The Dornoch Company. Nobody would say the TPC at Sawgrass looks anything like Royal Dornoch, but its ground features around the greens echo those at the links in the town where Donald Ross, a towering figure in the world of course design, was born.
The swamp where I walked with some people from the PGA Tour involved in the development of the course morphed into the TPC at Sawgrass. Some players at first found the course bewildering and unfair. When the greens were concrete-firm and linoleum-fast, they often repelled shots that weren't badly struck. Jack Nicklaus said, "I've never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car." Fuzzy Zoeller quipped, "Where are the windmills and animals?"
The course was soon softened, but it still played difficult when the ground was firm and the wind was up. Still, it wasn't often the course that Dye wanted. In the early days I attended a Golf Digest dinner during a Players Championship. Dye and his wife Alice, also an architect, and the one really responsible for the island green 17th hole, held court. Dye was not unhappy that Nicklaus, Zoeller, and others were less than pleased with his near-zany creation. He had multiple ways of saying that golf wasn't meant to be a fair game and the 18 holes he invented for the Players Championship were his demonstrations of that belief.
As the course softened, though, it yielded lower scores. Greg Norman played magnificent golf to win the 1994 Players, when he shot 63-67-67-67 to take the tournament with a 24-hole score of 264. Diabolical course? Hardly. Its nature had been blunted.
The course eventually was put under the knife, so to speak. A $10-million renovation and update took place in advance of the 2007 Players. The course will still yield low scores to first-rate play, but it can also be a rugged challenge even today when golfers are hitting the ball so far. They're hitting it so far that Dye wants to add length. He believes par-fours should play up to 520 yards so that the golfers are forced to hit long irons into the greens. Long irons? The shot has almost disappeared from the modern game.
Meanwhile, the course remains "tricky," which is how Tiger Woods described it this week. There's been a lot of rain in the Ponte Vedra Beach area, but the sand-capped layout has absorbed the deluge and is expected to play harder and faster as the tournament progresses.
The TPC at Sawgrass is not as diabolical as when it first hosted the Players Championship. But it's a stern enough test and can generate enough fright in players to make the last few holes a chamber of horrors. The 132-yard 17th hole with its island green is the course's most famous hole, and it's fun to watch. There's no doubt about that. But it will never be other than a gimmicky hole that's been emulated far too often. Dye, of course, loves that. He must have enjoyed what Woods, who won the 2001 Players, said about playing the hole.
"I've hit 5‑iron into that hole," Wood said. "Not a good hole to hit 5‑iron to. The flag is dancing up there, and it's cold and it's about 40 degrees out. That was one of the tougher shots I've ever faced."
The tougher the shots the players face at the Players, the more Dye feels he's done his job. At the Players, he's always wanted to play with a golfer's mind. The evidence is that he's succeeded. This week's tournament will provide more evidence. It's a must-watch, for sure.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein