At TPC Sawgrass' Stadium course, the most serious treachery is subtle
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Few courses have enjoyed the exposure the Stadium Course at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass has. Every March the world watches the professionals at The PLAYERS Championship battle the course and their wits, particularly at the par three 17th, the most photographed hole in golf.
Yet for all its popularity, the Stadium Course is relatively misunderstood outside the final three made-for-television holes. The catastrophe that awaits competitors coming down the stretch at The PLAYERS Championship -- to the right and long at 16, everywhere at 17, and all left at 18 -- leads many to believe that this is an in-your-face, do-or-die golf course throughout, that at every turn there is a forced carry or penal hazard. It's simply not the case. The most serious treachery at the Stadium Course is subtle, and when found it creates compounding moments of mental and physical stress.
"It's an incredibly demanding golf course for everyone," says Director of Golf David Kraus. "There are so many hidden pitfalls out there it's unbelievable. It's target golf, and that's the way Pete Dye set it up. You have to hit it to point A to get to point B in order to get to point C."
Dye once said about tour pros, "When you get those dudes thinking, they're in trouble." That also applies to everyone who plays the Stadium Course, where the mind can be a terrible thing. On a course where the cruelest punishments are caused by the unseen -- a masked bunker here, a little knoll that deflects a ball into the rough over there -- the player's psyche is likely to receive the most damage.
"It's not enough just to hit good shots," Kraus explains. "You can hit good shots that take bad bounces and you end up in jail. It exposes your game ultimately. It gets everybody, even the pros."
Kraus says it's the accumulation of small breaks that can lead to high scores, but the character of the Stadium Course isn't found in the hazards themselves but rather in how the player reacts to the trouble that will inevitably come. It takes a stout constitution to remain level-headed when a good play ends up in a bad spot.
"Most golfers know the course is going to get up and bite you eventually," says Kraus. "But most people are masochists. I see people every day who want to play the back tees and there's no way they should play back there. I actually think most people want to shoot a high score here."
Measuring only 6,954 yards from the "TPC" tees, the course doesn't intimidate with length, and the most obvious hazards -- water in play to some degree on nearly every one, extensive waste areas bordering fairways, and knobs and hillocks disguising the greens -- can be avoided with steady play. But the collective presence of these, coupled with the mysterious rolls and bounces that occur everywhere, conspire to weigh heavily on the player's conscience.
Since no hole resembles another and many of the hazards are tucked in crannies or obscured by mounds or moguls, the player rarely feels comfortable over any given shot. Rarely before the final trio of holes are the most penal of hazards presented so obviously, and by the time 16-18 are made it's impossible to predict what demons dance in the player's head.
In its heyday the terror was located principally in the green complexes, a severe a set as has ever been manufactured since the days of bulldozers and durable, hybrid grasses. Since then, mostly as a result of nearly unilateral complaint from the pros, the greens have been humanized. Dye has returned to Ponte Vedra Beach a number of times to tweak the course, first to soften its rough edges and later to kick up its defenses after Greg Norman beat par by 24 strokes in 1994.
Though the final three holes do make great theater for the cameras, it is the rhythm and design of the previous 15 that make them so rewarding to actually play. The underrated moments include the short approach to the first green if the pin is cut on the elevated rear level, the pitch across the canal at the remarkable 4th, the masculine drive over water and waste at the par four 5th where the player can cut off as much as dared in an attempt to catch the downslope and a few extra yards, the tricky second shot between the pines and bunkers at the narrow par four 6th, any putt from the left side of the 8th green, the second shot at the par five 9th that must be perfectly placed on the right to circumnavigate the oaks for the third, every play at the 11th, and the second "Alps"-like shot at the short par four 12th if the drive has not been played far enough down the right side.
Then comes the second shot decision at the par five 16th, the inevitable flinch at the top of your backswing on 17, and the terrifying approach to the 18th green, even though it's the drive that gets all the attention.
Credit goes to the player who can consistently control emotion hole after hole on the Stadium Course, something with which even the professionals struggle. This is the duel beauty of the layout. At its core it is flawlessly conceived with some of the soundest strategic values to be found anywhere, absolutely no repetition, and incredible shot demands. Yet hidden are nuances that will haunt the id of the caring player and certainly wreak havoc in future rounds. Some first time players are able to run the gauntlet relatively unscathed. The design rewards accuracy and controlled play, and not knowing what evil lurks can be blissful. Aside from the 17th -- which is perhaps the most completely and originally penal hole ever devised -- there is room to play conservatively on every shot, and the waste bunkers outlining so many fairways and hazards actually provide some of the best and most playable lies on the course.
Still, Kraus insists the Stadium Course will get the last laugh. "It's unique because there aren't any breather holes out there. The pros will tell you that too. When the pressure's on to hit every shot precisely, sooner or later you're going to hit a bad one, get a (bad) bounce, or make a big number somewhere along the way. The wheels come off eventually."
Want to find out if the course is in your head? Just see if you can resist the urge to sneak a peak at the 17th green out in the lake as you stroll up the 16th fairway. If you want to look, chances are you've already been had.