Author: Sam Gemini
MADISON – As I prepare to disparage one of the most overrated golf courses in the world, I would first like to emphasize that I am just as excited as anyone about the return of the Players Championship after its cancellation last season. As always, the field will be loaded with the best players in the world, and the high-stress design of Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass always fosters drama. I’m simply not gaga over the Stadium course in the same way that many are, and I will explain why in this article. To show that I’m not just a Dye hater, I’ll start by highlighting the things that Sawgrass does well; there are a great many.
Make no mistake: TPC Sawgrass is a great golf course. One of its best attributes is the variety of angles it presents to the golfer throughout the round. Shots must be shaped both right and left, and there is no shortage of orientations and looks. A great illustration of this comes on hole four – in my opinion, one of the best holes on the course. This short, 380-yard par-four is awkward from the beginning: Players face a narrow, angled fairway that bends to the left and slopes subtly away from the tee. Because of the small, tight nature of the fourth, many will choose an iron for their first shot, as holding the small green from the rough is nearly impossible. Like the fairway, said green is oriented diagonally to the golfer with a terrifying creek running just short and left. This type of angling is seen all over the property, with more water and bunkers providing a charming mode of punishment.
The Stadium course also boasts wonderful aesthetics, capturing the essence of east Florida beautifully. The collage of vegetation, palmettos, and pines is present across the layout; sprawling, flat, white-sand bunkers interrupted by swampy ponds blanket the land. Pete Dye’s greatest strength as a designer is embracing and showcasing the natural environment of the course’s region. Sawgrass creates a feeling of isolation in the middle of the Florida wilderness.
Now that we’ve established Sawgrass’s solid qualities, we can look at the characteristics that make it fraudulent. First, I have always believed that there should be far less credit given to a design located on an exciting, beautiful piece of land and far more to one built on a dry, empty field. As previously documented, the Stadium course inherited an exotic expanse of swamp near the Atlantic coast of Florida, so right off the bat, one would expect it to be far more scenic than most courses in the Northeast or Midwest. Furthermore, a water hazard is present on seventeen of eighteen holes at TPC Sawgrass. The strategy of “insert water here” in an attempt to make a course more difficult is boring, uninventive, and, in some cases, downright lazy. The use of a huge lake on every other hole takes minimal thinking, and (contrary to what many believe) it does not make golf more fun to play or to watch. There is far more entertainment in seeing brilliant recovery shots around the green than in watching a rules official tell a player where he must drop his ball after dunking one.
And now we arrive at the biggest problem with the Stadium Course: For all the hype, wild holes and water hazards, it just isn’t difficult for a PGA Tour pro. We see winning scores in the mid-teens under-par frequently at the Players Championship, and rounds of sixty-five – like the one Sergio Garcia turned in on Thursday – are a daily occurrence. The famed, par-three seventeenth – although unique in the world of golf for its legendary island green – routinely averages under par for the Players Championship field. In contrast, Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania has hosted a record nine U.S. Open Championships, and the previous two at this venue had winning scores of four-under-par (in a week when rains caused the course to play as easily as it possibly could) and five-over-par. But here’s the best part: There isn’t a single water hazard on the entire property. This is greatness. This is brilliant. And this is something that TPC Sawgrass will never be.
To be fair, Oakmont is considered by many to be one of the greatest and most difficult golf courses in the world; I am not so big of a snob to consider any course below Oakmont to be unworthy of my time; however, rather than treating Sawgrass as though it were one of golf’s hallowed grounds, we should think of it more like the way we think of the Marvel movie franchise: fun, entertaining, and popular, but if we want truly elite quality, we go to the Dark Knight – or, in the context of Florida golf, Seminole Golf Club – the Oakmont of the South.