I’ve been saving this one, my review of TPC Sawgrass, until the right time. Obviously the week of THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP is a great time to post it. This piece could shape up to be the longest one I’ve ever written and for good reason. There’s a lot to tell.
I was at the PGA Show Friday doing my thing, interviewing people and checking out all the gear. I was talking to Fuzzy Zoeller when my phone rang. Obviously when you are talking to Fuzzy Zoeller, whoever is calling can go to voicemail. When I checked the message it was my buddy Eddie from Black Mesa in New Mexico. His message, “Hey Tony we’re here at the show. Come over and visit us at the food court. We’re playing TPC Sawgrass tomorrow and we have an open spot. Did you bring your clubs?”
I had goose bumps. One second I was planning on a busy Saturday at the show, complete with interviews of Ian Poulter and Erica Blasberg. The next second I knew I was going to be blowing off Ian and Erica and playing one of those “must play” courses of a lifetime.
The TPC isn’t exactly close to Orlando. It was about a 2.5 hour drive. To get there in time to warm up we left at 5 a.m. Needless to say, after hanging out having some adult beverages and stogeys with my two buddies from Boggy golf until the wee hours, I was tired. So was Tom Velarde, head pro from Black Mesa. He almost fell asleep at the wheel. Imagine the story: “Four golfers die in car crash on the way to play TPC Sawgrass.” Fortunately we made it.
The space, and plenty of it
The first thing you notice about TPC Sawgrass is how big and spacious everything is. The area is huge, at 417 acres. That’s more than double what many average courses occupy.
I’m going to hit my coverage of the TPC in the order of appearance for me. The amenities were first. That would be the clubhouse, pro shop, locker room, cafe etc.
The clubhouse is impressive. It is big. 77,000 square feet big and nicely appointed. It could easily handle a large event like say, a really big PGA Tour tournament… They ought to try that sometime. The locker room is nice and spacious and it is cool to see the lockers of famous players there. I wonder if Tiger Woods changed shoes in that same chair I sat in?
The pro shop is very big and has tons of TPC gear in it. It was looking like rain, so I bought a waterproof bucket hat with a TPC logo on it. Naturally it never rained, but had I not bought the hat it would have rained all day.
I can’t attest to the dining or food at the TPC since I didn’t eat there. I did peek in to the “Nineteen” bar and “Champions” restaurant. They looked very nice and I understand the restaurant has won some awards for fine cuisine.
If you want to score well at the TPC, you’ll need to hit the range. When we got to the range it was freezing, almost literally. There was talk of a frost delay and we were very cold while hitting range balls. I almost laughed when they said “frost delay.” When I was playing the TPC there was two feet of snow on the ground at my home course. That’s a frost delay. A six month frost delay.
The range is big and spacious. That’s were I met my caddy too. He was already working, cleaning clubs and helping out while we were hitting balls. All my drivers went to the right on the range. Call that winter rust, being tired and being so cold that my back was tight as a drum.
The practice area has everything you’ll ever need from a great range and practice green, to practice bunkers.
One thing the TPC here has which you never see another course do, is put the practice facility and it’s yardages in the course’s yardage book. Nice touch.
I was playing with Eddie, principal at Black Mesa, his head pro Tom Velarde and Tom’s assistant pro. Tough crowd. All of these guys can play. Tom’s and Eddie’s tee shots went in the trees left. There are trees on this course and a lot of them. And they’re big. Tom and Eddie hit mulligans and ended up in the fairway.
My tee shot leaked right, just like on the range. I caught the back end of the water hazard on the right. They never show the 1st hole at the TPC on TV, but there’s water and I found it. Brand new ProV1 in the drink on the first shot. I however, did NOT hit a mulligan. I just don’t do mulligans. I wanted my golf experience at the TPC to be as pure as possible, even if that meant a higher score. I really wanted to know what I’d shoot there. Unfortunately my winter rust and the cold would combine to produce a really mediocre number, 88. But that 88 has a story to tell.
(Continuing my nuggets in order of appearance) The caddy worked hard and was great at handling the yardages for our group. He told us the right shot and helped us all out with managing the course.
Before we putted the caddy told us, “unless I tell you, these greens don’t break.” He was pretty much right. I had the greens read pretty well and he knew it. He told me he’d only give me reads if I asked because he could tell I had the vision for them. I did ask him for help a couple of times and his reads were dead on. That is a good caddy, knowing when to not give you information.
The caddy has a story to tell
One thing the caddies are supposed to do at the TPC is “story telling.” There are many stories of great shots at the TPC, from the Tiger Woods “better than most” bomb of a putt he made on #17 to the two Hal Sutton hole-outs for eagle on #4, to the amazing shot Davis Love III hit on #16 from the trees in his rain suit.
It was cool when the caddy said “you’re standing right where Hal Sutton holed out for eagle, twice” and “there’s where Steve Elkington hit his approach shot from to be the only winner to ever win THE PLAYERS by birdieing the 18th, even to this day.”
Pete Dye is one of the most famous golf course designers in golf history. He’s designed many great courses from Crooked Stick to Whistling Straights. I’ve played a few Dye courses including Desert Pines, LV Paiute, Carmel Valley Ranch and The Ledges (Dye’s nephew).
The routing of the TPC is tremendous. The course covers the 417 acre spread well. Almost all the time the hole you are playing feels like the only hole within a quarter of a mile. The space between fairways is big.
There’s a definitely personality or vibe to the holes at the TPC. They are all precisely shaped and formed by Mr. Dye. The fairways and hazards are all shaped with the doglegs. Most every par-4 and par-5 has a set of key elements, fairway, waste bunker/sand trap, water, which are all shaped parallel to the shape of the hole. The water and sand hazards are very long and big. And we can’t forget that every water hazard must have that trademark Dye/TPC railroad tie retaining wall.
One interesting twist to the long bunkers was the fact that they double as a cart path on several holes. You drive the golf cart right down the middle of the trap!
Playing the course. Would I melt down on the 17th like thousands of others before me?
I hadn’t picked up a golf club in nearly eight weeks and my first round back is the freakin’ TPC Sawgrass? That’s the ultimate in pleasure and pain! If I miss four days I lose about 50% of my very limited game. Going eight weeks is almost like starting over.
I struggled on the front nine since I was super rusty and since it was very cold. If I mishit a shot my hands would go numb for 5-10 minutes. The temps came up a bit on the back nine and my swing improved with the temp. I started to feel pretty good about my ball striking on the 10th tee.
As the temps increased my level of play increased. I started parring holes and hitting solid shots. By the par-4 14th hole I was feeling it. #14 in THE PLAYERS is the 2nd hardest hole on the course and the longest par four of the TPC at 481 yards. I knocked my 7-iron approach to TWO feet. My first birdie of 2009 was on the 14th hole at the TPC Sawgrass.
My confidence was really riding high when I got to famous 16th hole. 16 is the par-5 that Davis Love III hit the incredible 2nd shot out of the trees, en route to his TPC victory. My caddy said, “the best tee shot is to aim at the trees on the right and hit a draw.” Is it that easy? That’s exactly what I did! Unfortunately for me, that was the last instruction I’d be able to follow from my caddy for the rest of the round.
On the 2nd shot of the 16th I could see the water to the right. It was the water where the famous 17th island green lay. My caddy told me to hit toward the trees left, a 7-iron. That would leave me a perfect sand wedge to the pin which was tucked right, by the water. I completely gagged my 7-iron, chunking it right on line with the green. It was pure luck that it didn’t bounce in the water.
As I walked to my 3rd shot on 16, I finally got that view I’d been waiting to see for years. That would be the view of the 17th green from the 16th fairway, which was to instill fear in me. How many times have we heard the announcers on TV talk about this being the first chance the players get to see the 17th, which they’ve been thinking about all day. I couldn’t be that weak could I? I looked over at the 17th and it looked so far away and small. I realized I wasn’t thinking bout my 3rd shot on 16, I was thinking about 17.
My 3rd shot on 16 was worse than the 2nd. I bladed my 8-iron over the green. The caddy said “that may be in the hazard.” I questioned, “there’s a hazard behind the green?” Yes there was. I was lucky. My blade ended up about three feet from the hazard behind the green.
Somehow I managed to hit one of the best chips ever. The chip was about 60 feet, but the pin was below a tier which was only 15 feet from the pin. I had to die that chip just at the top of the tier and let it slowly go down to the hole. It did! I knocked that chip to about two feet. That would be the last good shot of the day. I gagged on that two foot par putt on 16. Gagged. I don’t know if 17 got me or just my LOFT (lack of f&*%ng talent).
Playing the famous 17th island green
The view to the 17th green from the tee is totally unlike I thought it would be. The shot was about 150 yards. That is cake right? But I’ve never seen 150 yards look like 230 yards. You can’t really see much of the green at all from the tee and it looks so far away. It is a tiny little patch.
There was a bit of wind in my face and the pin looked to be back. So I pulled out my 7-iron. I felt great, until I started my back swing. When I started my back swing something happened. I finally “knew” what the TV announcers were talking about with regards to the anxiety and pressure of that shot. Suddenly I felt like I was swinging a solid lead sledge hammer, with rubber arms. Tee shot #1 weakly draws left into the water.
Not realizing that I was now swinging a 500 pound sledge hammer with spaghetti noodle arms I casually teed up and hit my 7-iron again. I compensated for the weak draw this time though. This time I hit a nice gag fade to the right, missing the green and my 2nd Pro V1 in the drink. At this point I started to think I couldn’t ever hit the green from the tee.
TPC Sawgrass 17th hole trivia
They fish out 120,000 balls from the water on #17 every year. That is an average of three balls per player. I can only conclude then, that I’m average. I knocked at third ball in the drink from the tee. My caddy had already left.
The shot from the drop box was about 100 yards. Pumped up on adrenaline from gagging three shots into the water already, I flew my 100 yard club over the whole green. It hit the back of the green and somehow didn’t go in the water. The ball was between the rough and the trademark railroad ties. I chose putter, knocked it 10 feet by the hole and two putted for my NINE. Solid.
Better than most
My buddies had already left the green and were heading to 18 but I took a moment to observe. I stood right where Tiger Woods hit the famous “better than most” putt. Let me tell you. That putt could have been a small wedge shot. It was freakin’ long with a severe elevation change in the green. I tried to imagine making that putt, under those circumstances. All I could do was shake my head and walk off the green in awe.
The 18th hole at the TPC is a monster. The intimidating tee shot of the 17th is history by now and I’m realizing that the 18th is a “big boy hole.” Tom, the Black Mesa pro, had honors. He smashed a perfect drive with a bit of a draw on it. It was an aggressive line. I literally lost my breath when I saw that impressive drive splash in the water left of the fairway. I was sure he’d clear the hazard. Not only did he crush his drive on a great looking line, we weren’t even on the “TPC” tees on that hole. They were closed. The TPC tees were a good 20-30 yards farther back.
Naturally Eddie and the assistant pro wet mega-right after watching the Tom’s shot hit the drink left.
When I teed up my shot on 18, I was so humiliated by missing that two foot par putt on 16 and dropping a massive nine on 17, that I didn’t even feel nervous. I crushed my drive. I was extremely proud and even my caddy liked it. My “crushed” drive left me 220 yards to the green, confirming that this really was a big boy hole.
I did my Adam Scott TPC imitation for my 2nd shot, which was near the plaque in the fairway where Steve Elkington birdied from to win the tournament. He was the only player to EVER do that. If you don’t know what that meant, I pulled my 2nd shot into the water. Unlike Adam, I didn’t make a miraculous bogey to win THE PLAYERS. I limped home with a double.
I can analyze my 88 at the TPC until the cows come home. I hadn’t played for weeks. I was cold and stiff. I was nine over par for the last three holes. If I par those three I shoot a 78. If I take that mulligan and count my mulligan par on #1, that 78 becomes a 76. While I’m enjoying a trip to Fantasy Island I might as well include a hot date with Anna Rawson after the round. Why set limits?
Despite not playing as good as I would have wanted, I truly enjoyed my TPC experience. I’m sure everyone has a story to tell after playing there. My highlights would be my birdie on #14, completing the 17th in honest fashion, and scoring a true round with no mulligans or illegal drops. I hit some solid shots and shot a score some amateurs would be happy with, on a course which ranks harder than any course I’ve ever seen.
Every golfer has a short list of golf courses to play before he or she dies. Most lists include playing Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, Augusta National and the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course. I’m happy I ponied up the $275 plus caddy, to play this amazing course and scratch this one off my list.
Every time someone asks me what playing the TPC is like I can only say one word, BIG. The course is big. The fairways are big. The trees are big. The layout is big. The clubhouse is big. My score was big. The number of balls I put in the drink on 17 was big.
The TPC is truly like no other course I’ve played. I really want to take another crack at it. I’d love to play the course in the summer, when the conditions and temp are better and when my game is better. I think with a little course knowledge I could break 80 on this course, which rates out at 76.8.
TPC Photo Gallery
I have a photo gallery of well over 100 images, along with the entire 40 page TPC yardage book. Click here for my TPC Gallery.