The 17th does not disappoint
Before you ask, the answer is, ’yes of course I did’. A pulled 8-iron long and left had more chance of finding the walkway than the putting surface.
What you might not realise about the 17th is that the drama begins as you play your second shot to the previous hole. That is when you catch your first glimpse of the 17th, which runs in the opposite direction.
You are then transfixed as you walk halfway round the lake until eventually reaching the tee, the drama building all the while. The green is actually fairly generous in size – it’s just hard to make your regular swing and not try to be too precise. I chose to reload rather than use the drop zone – the 80-yard shot from there looked harder to me than the original tee shot.
They’d really like it to be a Major
TPC Sawgrass is the headquarters of the PGA Tour and for all the power they wield, none of the four Majors are under their control.
So this is their biggest week of the year in many ways. You have probably never seen a bigger or grander clubhouse – it is the size of a respectable hotel at 77,000 square feet.
All visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the lobby, where portraits of all the champions and their memorabilia hang from the walls.
One issue they have to counter is the overall quality of the champions the event has produced – more journeymen, relatively speaking, have won here than you suspect they’d care for. In recent years, there has been the likes of Tim Clark, KJ Choi and Fred Funk. All fine players, but none of them exactly box office.
It’s quite short by modern standards…
You might have thought that a course designed explicitly for the PGA Tour would be long and expansive. Yet Sawgrass is actually quite claustrophobic. Many of the par 4s are around the 400-yard mark, which means you’re typically asked to hit something like a 3 wood and a 9 iron. The par 5s are generally sporty and very much in range – the exception being the 9th – but the penalties for taking them on and failing are severe.
Even the last hole is, at 450 yards, at least 20 yards shorter than you would expect. It just goes to show how much has changed in the last 30 years or so since Pete and Alice Dye designed it in 1980. And also reveals the playful, some would say sadistic, nature of the architect.
The greens are tiny…
They are amazingly small. And firm. And very often raised. And invariably surrounded by very sticky bermuda.
That all places a premium on precision and positioning. You can’t play this course from the rough. And there are certain angles from where you are struggling to hold the green, even with a short iron.
It all makes for some intimidating approach shots and it can wear you down. because you know that should you miss these greens chipping it close will be very difficult.
Point of fact, if chipping is not your forte you can easily find yourself going back and forth across the greens.
Before you ask, the answer is, ‘yes of course I did’. A pulled 8-iron long and left had more chance of finding the walkway than the putting surface.
There are many dog-legs and overhanging trees
It is very tight from the tee and most of the fairways either run out, or turn markedly, at driving distance.
That means, for the pros, hitting a lot of fairway woods and positional drives.
This is no place for the bombers – length must be allied to strategy and once you make a mistake it is easy for it to be multiplied unless you are prepared to take your medicine. The best drivers probably do not receive as much of an advantage as they do elsewhere as the chief must stay in the bag a little more often than they would like.
You can make birdies here
Even for the (competent) amateur player, there are birdie chances here, for the simple reason that you often have a short iron in your hand. You see in the Players each year that tour stars can get on a run and make a serious move up the leaderboard.
Good wedge and short iron players can go low here. Then again, you can just as easily get on a run of bogeys (or worse) and a loss of patience will invariably result in a telephone number of a scorecard.
Every hole has a story
Pete Dye has been accused by his critics of over-complicating his golf courses. But I would argue Sawgrass is a brilliant technical design. No hole is a filler, and each one demands your attention. Everything happens for a reason. The building up of tension towards the end is brilliant. You have a couple of very solid par 4s at 14 and 15 before the classic 5-3-4 finish.
The 16th is a very short par 5 with easily the widest fairway on the course. Dye really wants you to have a go at the green and for the top players it’s only a mid iron in – but the green is incredibly narrow and the water is tight on the right with a little pot bunker (really) on the left. Then you have the thrill of the 17th which, like it or loathe it, dominates anyone’s thoughts throughout the back nine. And finally the menace of the 18th with water stretching all the way down the left. You can finish 3-2-4. Or 6-6-6. Or anything in between.
The old March slot was too early
Until 2007, the Players took place in March. Now it has a home in May. The main reason was to give six consecutive months through the spring and summer an obvious highlight – the Masters in April, then the Players in May, the US Open in June, the Open in July, the PGA in August and the Tour Championship in September.
But an additional bonus was that the greenkeepers no longer had to worry about the dormant bermuda grasses not starting to grow early enough. Here in north Florida, the winters can be quite cool and that made it a real challenge to get the course as they wanted it come the tournament.
Now they have plenty of time to ensure all is as it should be.
It feels special being here
Sometimes championship courses can be a disappointment and leave you wondering what the fuss is all about. Not Sawgrass. It’s cool, it’s larger than life, it has a sense of occasion and I absolutely loved it.
About the Players Championship
Venue: TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Date: May 9-12
TV: Sky Sports
Last year: Matt Kuchar held off the challenges of Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Martin Laird and Ben Curtis, who each finished two behind at 11 under. Luke Donald was another shot back in a tournament best remebered for the slow and painful collapse of the leader after three rounds, Kevin Na, who fidgeted, backed off and waggled his way to a final 76.
NCG’s top pick: Donald hasn’t hit top form this year but the course sets up very well for him. Too good not to fire eventually.