Picture the golf course you most enjoy playing for a round. Then imagine that one day you show up and are greeted by an army of earthmovers scraping the land abutting the fairways and fronting the greens. Then fill all those new trenches with water and decide how long it will take you to choose a new favorite. Welcome to the TPC Sawgrass — the Wisconsin Dells (the waterpark capital of the world) with 18 greens.
For years former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem tried to sell the notion that the Players Championship was golf’s fifth major. He inflated the purse. He recruited the elite fields. He pumped in so many perks to the winner that it was a win every player desired. That didn’t make it a major.
Two things are true of golf’s four majors. They have history, and they are played on great venues that fairly challenge every aspect of a player’s game. There are many adjectives that correctly attach to Sawgrass, but “great” should not be one of them. Golf course architecture is where the artists of the game reside. If Alister MacKenzie is the Rembrandt of the game, if C.B. Macdonald is its Degas, Pete Dye is its Jackson Pollock.
Look at the venues for this year’s majors. Augusta National has water on five of its final nine holes, but players can cautiously take them out of play. Erin Hills, site of this year’s US Open, is largely devoid of water and out of bounds. The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale is a seaside course, as are all on the Open rotation, and the only water on the course is for drinking. The newer design at Quail Hollow, where this year’s PGA Championship will take place, uses water prominently only over its closing holes.
The newly redesigned Sawgrass brings water into play on all but one hole. It is not just difficult. It is severe. Its major design philosophy is the penalty stroke. It is the Talladega of professional golf, designed to create crashes and necessarily played with the caution light on much of the time. The new design at Sawgrass now features a drivable par-4, a concept put into vogue by the USGA’s Mike Davis and now almost mandatory in the professional game.
There is one hole at Augusta that has invited the drivable risk, the par-4 third. It is one of the most strategic holes early in the round. The new 12th at Sawgrass is also drivable. It is flanked by water down its entire left side. Bobby Jones and MacKenzie considered artificial water hazards a bastardization of golf design. Pete Dye considers it a mainstay.
Golf is played with sports’ smallest ball by players standing with a yard-long implement in their hands, trying to move that ball as accurately as possible. At its best it is imprecise, and the scoring is designed to reward and punish those efforts. There are penalties in the rules to discipline the most egregious mistakes. Any course that invokes penalty drops excessively is in opposition to the way the game is intended to be played.
This year, as in most, penalty drops were excessive at the Players. Comfortably more than 200 balls went into the water during the week — nearly six dozen on the infamous 17th Island Green alone. There were 56 holes with scores higher than double bogey recorded for the week. This from a field heralded as the best players in the world.
Consider some of the final-round totals for players either in contention or regarded as the game’s best. Third-round leaders J.B. Holmes and Kyle Stanley — 84 and 75 respectively. Masters champion Sergio Garcia — 78. Jason Day, 2016 Players Champion — 80; Rickie Fowler, 2015 winner — 79. England’s Justin Rose — 80. Sandy Tatum once said about a US Open set up, “We are not trying to embarrass the best players in the game. We are trying to identify them.” Can Pete Dye defend Sawgrass in the same way?
None of this in any way tarnishes the brilliance displayed by 21-year-old winner Si Woo Kim. The young Korean played his last 20 holes without a bogey and last 36 with only one. It is also true that the chaos created by Sawgrass makes for entertaining television, including the litany the failures at the 17th. The mood swings over the final three holes have been dramatic over the tournament’s history. And golf will always need drama to hold an audience, but turning to Ringling Bros. for the thrills is not in the spirit of the game.
Pete Dye once commented on his designs that golfers were by nature masochists who would travel a thousand miles and pay hundreds of dollars to get beaten up by a course. He never said if they would make the trip ‘twice.’ On the PGA Tour, they have to make the trip every year.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.