Tag Archives: TPC Sawgrass

THE PLAYERS: Van Sickle’s View

Gary Van Sickle, our chief course rater and principal PGA Tour correspondent, moonlights as a Sports Illustrated senior writer. In that capacity he is, at this very moment, covering THE PLAYERS at the 51st-ranked TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, Fla. Busy as he is, Gary was kind enough to slide a few thousand words of cogent analysis under our door, asking only that we not identify him as the author. We therefore ask that you, the readers, honor his request.

Phil Mickelson

Mickelson, a former PLAYERS champ, was happy to take the Fifth. (John Garrity)

Gary’s chosen topic, by the way, is “THE PLAYERS: Is It the Fifth Major?”

Repeat after me: There will never be a fifth major championship.

Now repeat after me again: Never say never.

It is no longer a stretch to use the words fifth major in the same sentence as THE PLAYERS. It’s been done. In fact, starting in the pages of Sports Illustrated in 1984 when Dan Jenkins, famous sportswriter and soon to be World Golf Hall of Fame member, wrote about the Tournament Players Championship (a.k.a. The Players). “For two years,”Jenkins wrote, “the pros had been howling louder than a North Florida wind about the horrors of the design of their own course at their own headquarters and the site of their own championship, which has certainly become the ‘fifth major.’”

Ahh, you say, but Jenkins is a comedian and a master of sarcasm. Those aren’t quote marks around fifth major, you say, those are Dan’s dried tears from laughing so hard at his ironic use of “certainly” and “fifth major.”

Fine. Let’s go to Pebble Beach during the West Coast Swing of 2008, where Phil Mickelson was answering a question about where he plays. “What’s difficult from a player’s point of view,” Lefty said, “is scheduling, because if you take the five majors, counting the Players, and the three World Golf Championships, which is eight…”

Five majors. He said it!

Not so fast, you counter. Phil, too, is a comedian and… wait a minute, didn’t Phil win The Players the year before this comment? He’s counting The Players as a major because HE won it!

Gee, you people are so cynical. I don’t even know you anymore.

Let’s agree on two things, at least. One, golf history is fluid. It meanders like the mighty Mississippi. Even the Masters wasn’t always a major. Adding a fifth major championship may seem as unnecessary as dunking an Oreo in hot fudge, but hey, it might happen in this now-now-NOW world where yesterday’s tradition is today’s who cares?

Two, the competition for any future fifth-major status looks a lot like a Soviet election—only one real candidate. The Players is effectively the last man standing.

You’re not so sure? Well, follow along as I weed out the pretenders, who will fall away, one by one, like those sniffling, rose-less Bachelorettes.

Let’s start with the weakest.

A friend, whom I will identify only as a “Mr. Google” in order to protect his true identity, found this in a 1981 Associated Press story: “Tom Watson, who turned back the Masters bids of Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, can expect a challenge from a different quarter this week in golf’s “Fifth Major,” the $300,000 MONY Tournament of Champions.”

Sounds like the new kid at the AP desk swallowed some bad press release for lunch. The T of C was a small-field event for winners only. Not a major. Not even close.

Next, from the bargain bin at Borders, there’s Tales from Q-School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major, by John Feinstein. Horror stories from the PGA Tour’s qualifying tournament could, indeed, fill a book, but if Q-School is really a major championship, you should be able to name a Q-School winner of the last 30 years.

Can’t do it? Didn’t think so. Case closed.

Next up is AmateurGolf.blogspot.com with the headline, “THE FIFTH MAJOR: THE U.S. AMATEUR.” Yes, it used to be called the National Amateur, and it was once part of the Grand Slam (or the “Impregnable Quadrilateral,” a nickname that somehow didn’t stick), won by Bobby Jones in 1930—the U.S. and British Amateurs, the U.S. and British Opens. That was back when amateur golf mattered and pro golf was viewed as a troupe of unwashed vagabonds. The National Amateur faded in relevance, however, well before the 21st century.

The only thing funnier than last year’s Golf Boys’ video was when the European Tour issued a press release touting its BMW PGA Championship as golf’s “Fifth Major.”  Yes, seven of the top nine players in the world ranking competed, and yes, golf’s pendulum of power has clearly swung toward Europe for the first time since America invented the game. (Just kidding—laugh, Scotland!)

Said England’s Lee Westwood, a delightful and clever chap, “The Players probably used to be regarded as the fifth major, and it felt that way back in the late ‘90s. But since the invention of the World Golf Championships, it’s actually stepped back. So what is it, eighth on the list now?”

Ouch. Added South Africa’s Ernie Els, “This event is definitely taking the place of the TPC. I also feel we’ve got a stronger field here and a classic golf course.”

Naturally, their comments were totally objective. Westwood is a longstanding critic of The Players, notably skipping it, and Els needed to justify his redesign of the Wentworth Club course, which drew loud criticism even though everybody loves Ernie.

Golf’s Fifth Major, the BMW PGA? Please, serious attempts only, gentlemen.

Here’s what a real Fifth Major contender looks like. The Australian Open, the toast of an entire continent, dates to 1904, is played on classic layouts such as Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath, and its roll call of champions includes Gene Sarazen, Norman von Nida, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Bobby Locke. Gary Player won it a record seven times. Nicklaus won six.

Even better, Nicklaus called it the fifth major on his many trips Down Under, which is noted in nearly every Aussie Open reference. When the Greatest Golfer of the Twentieth Century speaks, people listen.

But when the Greatest Golfer of the Twentieth Century writes, they don’t read. In his 1969 biography, The Greatest Game of All: My Life in Golf, Jack stated, “In conversations with friends I referred to the Australian Open as a major championship, but they knew and I knew I was kidding myself. Being the national championship of a golf-minded country, the Australian Open was a most estimable tournament to be won but simply wasn’t a major championship except in the eyes of Australians. Of course, the men who won it prized it highly.”

Sorry about that, mates. No Jack endorsement plus few top American players in the last 20 years equals no major.

Gary’s rant will resume shortly. (Our fact checkers need a breather.)

 

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Z Boaz Was One of “America’s Worst”

In my last post I promised that “tomorrow” I’d reprint a report on 11,237th-ranked Z Boaz Golf Course from my almost-best-seller of 1994, America’s Worst Golf Courses. By “tomorrow,” of course, I meant “next week.” I’ve spent much of that week searching Catch Basin for my file of Z Boaz photographs. When I find them — and after they’ve been digitally enhanced from the drab colors of the last century to glorious black-and-white — I’ll present them in gallery format. Meanwhile, here’s what America’s Worst Golf Courses had to say about Z Boaz:

“Riding on its reputation.”

 

That’s what you hear whenever Z Boaz shows up on the latest list of America’s worst courses. And it’s true — this vintage layout has suffered numerous improvements since its debut as a WPA project in 1937. The spindly trees have grown into impressive oaks; ponds and creeks have filled with water; once-faceless sand bunkers now yawn impressively. It’s a far cry from the hardpan heaven that earned Z Boaz the nickname “Goat Hills New.”

 

Richard Teague, the muni’s current assistant pro, looks out the clubhouse window and shakes his head over the changes. “When I played here, there wasn’t no trees,” he says. “Wasn’t no grass, either, for that matter.”

What Z Boaz has going for it is its legacy. In a memorable article in Sports Illustrated called “The Glory Game at Goat Hills,” writer Dan Jenkins recalled his student days at nearby Texas Christian University, where he and his band of rowdy, bet-happy ne’er-do-wells wasted their afternoons on the parched fairways of the old Worth Hills Golf Course.

 

Overtaken by development — not to mention good taste — Worth Hills went under the bulldozers some years ago, causing SI  to remark that “it was nice to learn that something could take a divot out of those hard fairways.” Z Boaz carries on the tradition as best it can. Every summer, Jenkins invites a touring pro and a bunch of lesser lights to Z Boaz for a one-day tournament, the Dan Jenkins Partnership & Goat Hills Glory Game Reprise. Although not as bleak as Worth Hills in its prime, Z Boaz still offers a pungent contrast to Fort Worth’s elegant Colonial Country Club, some miles away. No clipped hedges and high-dollar homes here — just a stark rectangle of Texas Hill country bounded by a railroad line and three busy streets.

 

The din of traffic, in fact, is an inescapable feature of golf at Z Boaz. The neighborhood is rich with furniture showcases and warehouses, most of which provide a pleasing backdrop to the golfer about to play a shot. Batting cages, miniature golf, and a life-size statue of a giraffe enhance the northern boundary, while empty storefronts and a karate school line the seventh fairway on the east side. And where, save for the finishing holes at Cypress Point, will the golfer find two more natural greensites than Z Boaz’s sixteenth (at the foot of the neon “Checks Cashed” sign) and seventeenth (hard against Long John Silver’s Seafood Shop)?

 

Surely, this is what Robert Louis Stevenson meant when he described Z Boaz as “the most beautiful meeting of land and transmission shops that nature has produced.”

Can such a course really be at death’s door? Will golfers no longer gather on the banks of the Firth of Camp Bowie to ponder its murky depths and weigh the risks of reaching for a muddy ball. Will dog owners and skate boarders defoliate the sacred sward?

Stay tuned for further updates.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but THE PLAYERS Championship has begun on Pete and Alice Dye’s 51st-ranked TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, Fla.   Described on a PGA Tour web site as “perhaps the world’s most famous golf course,” it is not. 

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Ozark Course Not Short on Charm

“You know what I hate about course rankings?” asks a reader from Branson, Mo. “A course has to be a so-called ‘championship’ course to be rated. You can have the greatest 18 holes in golf, but if it’s a par 64 it’s an ‘executive course’ — strictly for kids and old folks. I, for one, am tired of it. That’s why I don’t even read the rankings.”

Well, reader from Branson, it’s obvious you haven’t read the adjoining list. The current Top 50 includes two classic Scottish courses, Kinghorn and Balcomie Links, which are par 65 and 69, respectively. Our course raters, at their 40-day training camps, are taught to disregard a course’s par.* The only par-related point deductions are for arithmetic errors — e.g., when the sum of the individual holes is incorrect on the scorecard.

We don’t even accept the convention of allocating two putts per hole. If a green has a visible trough leading to the flagstick, we consider one stroke to be “par.”

Thousand Hills Golf Resort

A picture of Thousand Hills is worth a thousand, uh .... dollars?

Our correspondent, by the way, plays most of his golf at Branson’s Thousand Hills Golf Resort, currently ranked 178th in the Top 50. Thousand Hills, designed by Bob Cupp, is a 5,111-yard, par-64 track just off the famous Branson strip of big-time entertainment venues. The favorite haunt of music headliners like Marty Haggard and Shoji Tabuchi, Thousand Hills is a two-time winner of “Best Branson Golf Course.” Golf Digest gave it four stars in its “Best Places to Play” issue.

Not bad for a course with nine par 3s.

I drove down to Branson last week to check out Thousand Hills, my curiosity piqued by the course rater’s claim that he had spotted Ann Margaret and the Blues Brothers fighting over logoed merchandise in the pro shop. I promptly ran into Haggard, who pulled out his guitar and sang me a five-star version of his father Merle’s hit, “Silver Wings.”*

I am not making this up. If a single asks to join you at Thousand Hills, he or she will almost certainly possess a platinum record or two, be an accomplished adagio dancer, or be capable of performing handstands on a wobbling chair balanced upon Andy Williams’s forehead.

Anyway, I found Thousand Hills to be anything but an executive course. Only two of the par 3s are shorter than 160 yards from the tips, and two of them measure more than 200 — and that’s with creeks, ponds, ravines, and stone outcroppings to negotiate. The 425-yard, par-4 16th, with its marshside green, is as strong a hole as you’ll find in the Ozarks, and the finishing hole is a 533-yard par-5 lined with Nashville agents and Chinese-acrobat groupies.

Putting on my golf architect’s hat (and pants), I’ll just point out that Cupp made wise use of the mountainous terrain. He could have dynamited some escarpments to create longer holes, but he chose to flesh out the obtainable par 3s, much as Michelangelo chipped away the pieces of marble that weren’t David to create “David.” Cupp also proved himself a smart cookie by providing a three-hour round of golf that aging crooners — and their fans — can squeeze in between matinee and evening performances.

Fear not, reader from Branson. The Top 50 recognizes that short sometimes beats long.

Top 50 on TV: The Players Championship (with a nine-hole cameo by Tiger Woods) is being contested at 51st-ranked TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. “The layout will swallow you up and spit you out if you don’t bring a complete game,” says the 2011 edition of Golfweek’s “Best Courses You Can Play.” That’s more or less an insinuation that you are indigestible —  but I try not to second-guess my competition.

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Island Greens: Time to Drain the Moat?

The debate over island greens has raged for three decades. The argument started in 1982, when Alice Dye unveiled her bulkheads-in-the-swamp design for the par-3 17th at the Tournament Players Club of Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla. It grew in intensity when Alice’s husband Pete surrounded his own version of sod a l’leau with boulders at the PGA West Stadium Course in La Quinta, Calif. It reached a fever pitch when developer Duane Hagadone and architect Scott Miller planted the 14th green at Club Coeur d’Alene on a 7,500-ton barge and set it adrift on a glassy lake in Idaho.

But now that an oil slick the size of Donald Trump’s ego has hit the Louisiana shore, the debate should end. Island greens are a bad idea.

This will not be news to current or former PGA Tour players, who have suffered the most extreme humiliations trying to land their tee shots on the original island green at Sawgrass. “When I play that hole, I don’t know whether to genuflect or spit,” says Brandel Chamblee, analyzing this week’s Players Championship for the Golf Channel. Chamblee echoes the sentiments of 8-time major champion Tom Watson, who after his first exposure to the TPC of Sawgrass asked, “Is it against the rules to carry a bulldozer in your bag?”

Granted, island greens appeal to the eye. My all-time favorite is — or rather, was — the notorious “Jaws” par-3 7th at Stone Harbor Golf Club in Cape May Court House, New Jersey.* Jaws featured a boat-shaped green flanked by toothy island bunkers, separated from the putting surface by narrow moats. The designer, Desmond Muirhead, said he was inspired by the story of Jason and the Argonauts, with the boat-shaped green representing Jason’s boat and the jagged bunkers representing the blue rocks thrown down by the gods to crush the boat.

*I use the past tense because Stone Harbor’s members — stung, perhaps, by my droll critique of the hole in America’s Worst Golf Courses — destroyed Muirhead’s inspired design and replaced it with a conventional island green.

But aesthetics and playability issues aside, island greens suffer from erosion, mould, wharf rats and bad drainage, require Army-Corps-of-Engineers-scale infrastructure to ferry players and caddies to and from the putting surface, and raise the risk of involuntary baptism by forcing players to chip or putt while balanced on slippery timbers. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the current Top 50 recognizes only one course with an island green.

Downpatrick Head

The island-green 17th at Downpatrick Head, Ireland. (John Garrity)

I must add, however, that I have a soft spot for the island-green 17th on yet another Pete Dye track, the Pete Dye Challenge at Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage Calif. I registered my only hole-in-three there some years ago, holing out a re-teed range ball after drowning my 8-iron tee shot near the pilings. Fred Couples duplicated my feat during the 1999 Players Championship, gaining greater-than-deserved attention because he covered the same distance with a 9-iron.

I can also appreciate the need for water around the green on the par-5 18th at the adjoining Dinah Shore Tournament Course, No. 44. Without the moat, LPGA players celebrating victory by leaping headfirst off the final green would break their lovely necks.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but last Saturday was Demo Day at the New Richmond Golf Club, No. 29. A half-dozen equipment reps hawked their wares on New Richmond’s Top 10-quality driving range while I sat at a table and autographed copies of my latest book, Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations, in a three-club wind. Space does not permit a full report on “The Augusta National of Small-Town Courses,” but on the basis of my most recent round I will be very surprised if New Richmond doesn’t move up in the next Top 50 ranking. Watch your back, Pacific Dunes!

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