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TPC Sawgrass turns 40 and it's even greater than its visionary imagined

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Contrary to lore, this wasn’t what Deane Beman had in mind. At least not exactly.

When then-PGA Tour commissioner Beman set out to build a first-of-its-kind “stadium” golf course and a home for the circuit’s flagship championship, his first option was Sawgrass Country Club, an Ed Seay-designed layout just across A1A from what is now TPC Sawgrass, but the owners refused to sell.

In fact, as the 82-year-old recently explained, it was another parcel of land situated to the south of the current course that also caught his eye. “We almost made a deal to go there. There was 7 miles on the ocean and I wanted to put at least one hole on the beach,” he said.

For a variety of reasons that deal also fell through, which led Beman to Jerome and Paul Fletcher, the area’s largest landowners, and perhaps the most creative deal in the history of golf. The Tour paid $1 for 415 acres of snake- and alligator-infested swampland that would become the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. To be precise, the Tour didn’t pay anything for the land, because the Fletchers never cashed the check. Instead, the payment now hangs in a frame in the sprawling clubhouse.

In hindsight, Beman’s vision was beyond revolutionary.

“The idea of stadium golf goes back to the early 1960s,” Beman said. “I was the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur champion and I made a deal with an architect to partner with him and build a golf course on the eastern shore. I asked him if he could build a course with the holes down and the area around the holes elevated so the galleries would be above the action.”

Look through history: Par-3 17th at TPC Sawgrass

Click through images that show the history of the iconic Par-3 17th on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

Beman proposed the concept of stadium golf to Joe Dey, the chief executive of the USGA at the time and Beman’s predecessor as Tour commissioner. “He thought that was the worst idea he ever heard,” Beman said with a laugh. “He said they would never play a U.S. Open on a golf course that wasn’t at least 50 years old.”

Last Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of TPC Sawgrass’ opening on a cold and wet north Florida day. “It rained like crazy,” recalled Beman’s wife, Judy. Beman, ever the storyteller, perfectly met the moment.

“Some 400 years ago, I believe it was on a day just like this in St. Andrews, Scotland, on a gnarly, windy day that somebody played the first round of golf,” he told the crowd in 1980. “So, it’s not inappropriate that we open a new era here at the Tournament Players Club on just such a day.”

The iconic course that has now hosted The Players Championship since 1982 and has become one of the game’s most recognizable venues, didn’t start out as the circuit’s crown jewel. In fact, the Tour’s policy board didn’t approve any funds to develop TPC Sawgrass, which forced Beman to be creative.

Officials sold 50 corporate membership for $20,000 each, along with 3,000 associate memberships for $50, a move that assured revenue for the new course. Beman also borrowed $4.5 million to build his and architect Pete Dye’s dream.

“We didn’t have any money to put into it,” Beman said. “They say today we created it by mirrors.”

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Deane Beman is thrown into the lake by 1982 Players champion Jerry Pate.

 

Although the course has gone through various renovations and redesigns since its opening 40 years ago, Dye’s original footprint remains. Or, at least the footprint Beman was able to coax out of the legendary architect.

Asked how often he was forced to tell Dye no, Beman said with a laugh, “Everyday.”

“When I inspected the greens before they were grassed they were so severe you wouldn’t believe, so I came in and re-did all 18 greens,” Beman said. “When he reluctantly accepted that and the greens were brought down to what looked like flat tables – they weren’t but compared to where we started they were playable.”

Perhaps Beman’s most historically significant veto involved the famous 17th hole. During construction, the 17th was an afterthought with the lake that now surrounds the island green used as a source of sand, which was crucial to the course’s construction. Beman recalled Dye wanting what is now one of the world’s most famous par 3s to play around 170 yards.

“No. 17 would not have been the most famous; it would be the most violently hated golf hole in the world,” Beman said. “I wanted it to play around 135 [yards] and that’s what we got, thank God.”

The sprawling property that now features a Mediterranean-style, 77,000-square foot clubhouse, a newly rebuilt performance center and a state-of-the-art practice range now completes Beman’s dream.

“It might be just a cut above what I envisioned,” Beman said. “The facilities are a lot more than what I envisioned and I’m proud of what it has become.”