TPC Sawgrass alterations for Players Championship

Don’t mess with a masterpiece.

That seemed to be the thinking in some quarters when it was announced last year that there would be changes made to architect Pete Dye’s gem, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, on the grounds of PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Most players and fans will get their first look at those changes this week in the 44th Players Championship, which has earned its nickname of golf’s “Fifth Major.”

Defending champion Jason Day of Australia got a sneak preview of the alterations two months ago on Players Championship media day and said the fans should enjoy them, especially on No. 12, which has become a driveable par 4.

“Obviously with the changes on (Nos.) 12, 6 and 7, to make it more exciting in a way that shots can go either way on the golf course, leads can change quickly,” said Day, who won the Players by four strokes over Kevin Chappell last year. “It’s what fans want to see, not so much what players want to see but what fans want to see, definitely.

“It’s going to be interesting where they position the tee (on No. 12). … It’ll be interesting to see if a lot of guys go for it. The biggest thing is that left-hand side. If balls are bounding down there, will they go in the water or not, that will determine a lot (for) guys, because I think you’ve got to go 20 to 25 yards between the mounds and the fairway where it kind of runs down, so you’ve got to be pretty accurate.

“If you lay back far enough, you can shoot yourself straight up the green. If you lay back but you’re too far up there, then you’ve got that 45-degree (shot) over the mounds, and you can possibly go in the water.

“A lot of thinking, which is what they probably wanted, especially when you’re standing on the tee on a Sunday.”

The Stadium Course was able to reopen this year despite losing more than 200 trees and being flooded when more than 14 inches of rain fell during Hurricane Matthew last October.

In addition to the par-4, 360-yard 12th hole being shortened to 302 yards, where golfers are tempted to go for the green despite water, a long bunker on the left and three pot bunkers right of the green, a lake was added between the sixth and seventh holes.

Also, all 18 greens were replaced with TifEagle Bermuda grass, with two new greens added to the practice area, which was expanded with input from three-time PGA Tour winner Jonas Blixt of Sweden.

“By having greens on the range, you can see how the ball reacts,” Blixt said. “You can get a visual of how the ball really works on the golf course.”

The changes, made with the blessing of 91-year-old Dye, did not involve the last three holes of the Stadium Course, already considered one of the most difficult finishes in golf.

The 16th is a 523-yard par 5, where Rickie Fowler hit a brilliant approach shot from 239 yards to within 2 feet to set up an eagle en route to winning the Players in 2015.

No. 17 is the infamous 137-yard par 3 with the island green, where Tiger Woods sank his memorable “better than most” putt from 60 feet on his way to the title in 2001.

And No. 18 is an intimidating 462-yard par 4, with water all the way down the left side and trees on the right. In 2004, Adam Scott of Australia hit his approach on the 72nd hole into the water but sank a 10-foot bogey putt to win by one stroke over Padraig Harrington of Ireland.

Of course, Scott also hit two balls into the water and made a quadruple-bogey 8 on the hole last year.

“You ain’t got no room to bail out anywhere on 16, 17 or 18,” Boo Weekley said. “The 16th is a great hole, a great risk-reward kind of hole. Those last two holes? Praying doesn’t hurt.”

Although most players enjoy the challenge of the Stadium Course, it is really a love-hate relationship, but that is different from when it first opened, when it was more like hate-hate for most of the best golfers in the world.

Dye’s creation, inspired by the vision of then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, was not an instant hit in 1982, except maybe with Jerry Pate — who won the first Players contested on the Stadium Course, then took Dye and Beman with him for a celebratory leap into the water.

“They ruined a perfectly good swamp,” J.C. Snead said. “(It’s) 90 percent horse manure and 10 percent luck.”

Added Tom Weiskopf: “It’s like being inside a great big pinball machine.”

Of course, the layout matured over the years, and the fact that top players such as Woods, Day, Scott, Fowler, Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Tom Kite, Fred Couples, Steve Elkington, Justin Leonard, Lee Janzen, Henrik Stenson, David Duval, Sergio Garc1a, Sandy Lyle, K.J. Choi, Matt Kuchar and Martin Kaymer have won the Players at TPC Sawgrass speaks volumes.

“It’s one of the biggest tournaments of the year,” Day said. “It’s one you want to win (because) it might help put you in the Hall of Fame.”

Many of those guys are either already in the Hall or well on their way.

–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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