Sawgrass Revolution


Were so busy using the present to get ahead, theres no time for looking back.
Youre familiar with the feeling. An accidental chance to see some old video ' for instance, Jack Nicklaus at Baltusrol in 1980 ' and you remember what your hectic chase for the future made you forget about the past. Man, he was good. Electrifying, even after all these years.
That must have happened to the folks at the PGA Tour recently. While preparing for the 25th anniversary of The Players Championship and looking at photos of former commissioner Deane Beman and golf course architect Pete Dye during the building of the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in the late 1970s, they must have thought, Wow. This was quite an accomplishment.
It was. The land on which the course now stands was as formidable a swamp as any in Florida. Clearing it to make way for a world class golf course and resort, along with the practice areas and other amenities good enough to attract the worlds best professional golfers, appeared to be such a huge task that some privately doubted it could be done well.
But it never paid to doubt Beman or Dye. And so today, the Tour has both a tournament and a facility that are the envy of the sports world.
So why would they want to tinker with it?
This isnt about making The Players Championship a major, said Bob Combs, the Tours senior vice president of communications, and its not about moving it from March to May.
The whole major debate isnt relevant to a tournament that has developed such stature. And the May move, while possible, misses the point of the Tours just-announced campaign to rejuvenate The Players Championship. (The changes, which we reported on Golf Central on Oct. 11, would be complete in time for the 2007 tournament.)
Twenty-five years ago, we reinvented the next generation of [professional] golf, says the Tours presentation materials. Our goal is to elevate the entire experience for players, spectators, members and guests ' to reinvent the next generation of golf again.
Youve got to admire anyone who wants to reengineer a brand while things are good, instead of waiting until problems crop up. So what will the new Players Championship look and feel like?
As the Tour has said, it all begins with the golf course.
Its a part of the life of any golf course. Over the years, organic matter (dead turf, weeds, insect remains, you name it) builds up under the turf and blocks proper drainage. Rain pools, turf gets spongy, and roll off the driver simply stops while water trickles through oh so slowly.
At Sawgrass, the Tour noticed, it affected scoring. In soggy years, the winner averaged almost 14 under par (Greg Norman, a bomber in his day, go it to 24 under in 1994). But in years when the course stayed dry, scores went up; winners averaged between eight and nine under. Driving the ball long involved the risk of sending it through the fairway into the famed penal rough, or into areas hemmed in by trees. Approach shots that werent well placed could run through the green; comebackers are especially touch at Sawgrass.
Fortunately, Dye is still around to help solve the problem. To prove his point about the organic muck below the turf, he personally shoveled soil samples from the course, bagged them, and put them on current commissioner Tim Finchems desk. Replacing that junk with sand, Dye said, would speed up drainage and make the course play firm, fast and fair even after torrential rains. Were talking 24,000 tons of sand, enough to fill a line of dump trucks seven miles long. That, and special vacuums to suck moisture out of the greens (such as those found at Augusta National), would be part of a hefty price tag to update the course, between $6 million and $8 million.
The Tour never hesitated. The turf will be peeled back after the 2006 tournament and the muck removed, and the sand will be put in. Its been done on a few holes already as an experiment, and the locals ' that is, the tour pros who live at Sawgrass ' are happy with the results.
In conversations with media, Tour officials have said they admire the quick drainage and hard-and-fast nature of the great Scottish courses. The bounce and roll encountered on the Auld Sod, they say, invigorate golfs challenge. Thats what theyre looking for in the new Sawgrass. They also want The Players Championship to set the bar for what a PGA Tour event can be. They want it to be something the other 47 official money events on Tour can aspire to. And while not every Tour venue has a few million dollars available to redo its substrate, some will ' and that could make for exciting play.
From the fan and member points of view, the extracurricular amenities are no less ambitious. A permanent entry walkway, built to welcome and inspire, will get fans in the mood for a top sports event before they even walk out on the course. Remodeled mounding (there goes another 65,000 tons of soil) will improve sight lines and on-the-ground sitting comfort, and new Jumbotron-type scoreboards will show action on other holes. A huge clubhouse, whose 80,000 square feet will be reoriented to face down 18, will include everything from interactive history exhibits to Mediterranean Revival architecture.
Also, based on data that show that nearly a third of the fan base at the course every year is from outside the Jacksonville/PonteVedra area, the Tour is making sure to 'nationalize' its spectator marketing and amenities so The Players Championship will be welcoming to both locals and out-of-town visitors.
Between the fan friendliness and the firmer, faster golf course, the 2007 Players Championship will feel like a new event.
Or perhaps, in 25 years, one that will make us think, Wow. That was quite an accomplishment.
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