“It’s a shrine to golf, it’s built for golf fans to have the best experience in professional golf”
By: Tim Baines
It just got a whole lot easier for Canadians, specifically those from Ontario, to get a first-hand look at a golf course some PGA stars dread playing – where the dramatics of the best golfers in the world facing possibly the most famous hole of them all (No. 17) give The Players Championship a magical aura.
With Air Canada bumping up its start date for non-stop flights between Toronto Pearson Airport and Jacksonville International Airport two weeks, to May 7, golf fans can hop on board and attend The Players Championship, which begins May 10 in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. The direct flight schedule will see departures out of Toronto Saturdays at 9:20 and out of Jacksonville at 12:15 p.m. on Sundays.
“We are thrilled with this new service and schedule,” said Matt Rapp, executive director of The Players. “As we continue to grow our national and international fan base, a non-stop flight option from Canada will help give our neighbours to the north an easier way to be a part of history at The Players in May as we showcase the very best field in golf on an incredible course.”
It’s a trip you need to make. TPC Sawgrass, The Players Stadium course, is much more than just a wonderful golf track, it’s an experience, a spectacle steeped in history. And it’s a helluva challenge to play. I know. Along with The Traveling Golfer himself and two other golf journalist types, I took it on in late January, valiantly battling the elements, which included a snowflake or two, a big chill and the mother of all winds. We felt more cold than beat up. For me, it was TPC Sawgrass 1-Baines 0 – two golf balls into the water on 17 forced a white-flagged surrender. Most of all, though, it was 18 holes of awesomeness.
“This golf course changes very quickly when the wind picks up,” Bill Hughes, the extremely affable, humble and award-winning GM of TPC Sawgrass (tpc.com/tpc-sawgrass), had earlier warned us. “It’s a hard golf course with no wind, it becomes nearly unplayable when it’s windy.”
Let’s talk the legendary 17th hole, “The Island Hole,” where dreams have been shattered and tournaments have been won and lost. Because it is a stadium course, if you visit to watch The Players Championship you can get up close and personal with the agony and ecstasy.
“I’ve seen carnage on the 17th hole,” said Hughes. “Forget about the tour pros, I watch junior tournaments here all the time. I saw a kid from Sweden with a seven-shot lead lose by three. He makes 11 on the hole because you start hitting it in the water and all hell breaks loose. There are tour pros who hate the thing. It’s very controversial, but it’s a marketing gold mine. Everyone from around the world wants to play that one golf hole. I charge $495 for a green fee. I could charge it for one hole and I would still have them lined up. It’s because of 16, 17 and 18, that three-hole stretch.”
On a brilliantly-thought-out design by Pete Dye, it was actually his wife Alice who can take credit for the layout of 17.
“He was taking all these dead trees and organics and he was throwing them in there,” said Hughes. “His wife (Alice), said: ‘What are you doing?’ He said: ‘I’m just going to follow the plan.’ She said: ‘No, no, no, you’re going to build a bulkhead around the green, then you’re going to fill that thing with water and create a lake and you’ll have the first island green in North America.’ I’ve heard Pete say 100 times, ‘I built 17 holes at TPC Sawgrass, but my wife Alice built the most famous hole of all.’ ”
At TPC Sawgrass, sure it’s about that 17th hole, but really, there is so much more to savour.
Hughes, who built a golf course for the PGA tour with Arnold Palmer in Ohio in 1999 and another in Dallas in 2003 with Tom Weiskopf, has been instrumental in most everything that’s happened at TPC Sawgrass, dating back several years.
Said Hughes: “The Commissioner (Deane Beman) called and said, ‘We’re going to spend about $80 million here, let’s build a clubhouse and renovate the golf course.’ I said, ‘But I don’t want to do it like we did the last two. Brick and mortar is brick and mortar and tree and grass is tree and grass. After about six months or a year, it’s just exactly that. Donald Trump is going to build a bigger and nicer clubhouse somewhere, someone’s going to build a more beautiful golf course, let’s do something very magical here.’ He said: ‘What do you have in mind?’ I said: ‘Let’s tell stories, let’s create kind of a museum, let’s tell the history of the Players Championship, the history of TPC Sawgrass, the history of the PGA, let’s tell it in the annals of these hallways.’ ”
And that’s what they’ve done, that’s why a visit to the course, which started as 415 acres of wetlands and swamp and was purchased by the PGA Tour for $1, has become majestic. Everything that’s on the grounds is educational, captivating and magical. There are 60 guys in burgundy coats waiting to tell you about the history and the lore. Lightposts bear the faces of past champions. The walls of the clubhouse are full of portraits of past champions, a Who’s Who of the game.
“This place is about one week a year,” said Hughes. “The clubhouse, everything we do here, is about The Players Championship.”
The atmosphere at the fan-friendly tournament is out of this world, with customer satisfaction a high priority. There’s room for 10,000 cars to park on site, then there’s the stadium seating which gives fans a view they won’t get elsewhere.
“One of the things people don’t understand about this event is it’s not just golf,” said Hughes. “People watching, people coming here, it’s even – 50-50 girls and guys. We are in the entertainment business, we welcome people.
“It’s a shrine to golf, it’s built for golf fans to have the best experience in professional golf. This was built for the tour. There’s never been another course built like this and I don’t think there ever will be. They had a vision for the absolute best experience in golf. It’s designed to be the truest test. We’ve got arguably the most dramatic finishing sequence in golf.
“Pete Dye did a masterful job when he laid this out. I’ve played most of the great golf courses. I’ve never seen a course with so much risk-reward. I’ve never seen a course that favours no one. We’ve had Fred Funk, the shortest hitter on the planet Earth, win this tournament and we’ve had Greg Norman and the long boys win this tournament. It doesn’t favour any style of golf. It favours a guy who thinks well, a guy who’s a strategic player. It’s a fair golf course, but you have to control your distance and your trajectory and play the angles. Very few players actually love this course, some fear it … but they all respect it.”
Many celebrities can be spotted on the golf course over the course of the year. Among them: cast members of Duck Dynasty, ESPN’s Chris Berman, model Kim Alexis, ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard, rock star Alice Cooper, country band Rascal Flatts and rockers Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. The day we were on site, many of the cast members of M*A*S*H were there for a fundraiser.
Nearby is beautiful St. Augustine (augustine.com), the oldest continuously occupied city in the U.S. – a city with brick-paved streets, full of amazing architecture, eclectic dining and electric nightlife, along with the serenity of the beach with ocean waves gliding into the shore.
Just outside of St. Augustine, there’s the World Golf Village (worldgolfvillage.com), a smorgasbord of awesomeness for golf fans, with a couple of excellent courses – the Slammer and Squire (Sam Snead and Gene Sarazan) and King and Bear (Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus). There’s also a PGA Tour Golf Academy and the Renaissance Resort along with the Murray Bros. Caddyshack, a bar/restaurant opened in 2001 by funnyman Bill Murray and his five brothers.
As impressive as anything you’ll see at World Golf Village is the World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum (worldgolfhalloffame.org), a delightful walk through history where you can almost hear whispers from many of the greatest names in golf. It opened in 1998. There are tributes – including Bob Hope’s Shanks for the Memories and a tribute to African-American golfers – with plenty of artifacts, audio, video, art, photographs and interactive exhibits including a simulator. You can peek into the lockers of golf’s elite, the Hall of Famers. Dr. Tony Parker, the hall’s historian and the former curator of the golf collection at the University of St. Andrews, is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, with golf story after golf story. A tour through the exhibits should be on the bucket list for any golf enthusiast.
For information of Stay & Play Golf at World Golf Village and TPC Sawgrass visit Florida’s First Coast of Golf www.florida-golf.org