Man About GolfMarch 30, 2016

The First Stadium Course

It's a place called Augusta National

Deane Beman won the U.S. Amateur twice and the British Amateur once, and from 1969-’73 he won four times on the PGA Tour. But he also stood outside the ropes occasionally, and when he did he had a problem that will seem familiar to almost anyone who has spent time in a golf gallery. “I couldn’t see what the hell was going on,” he told me recently, “and not because I’m 5-7.”

Beman became the tour’s commissioner in 1974, and several years later he built the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, which has been the home of the Players Championship since 1982. The course was designed to increase the enjoyment of tournament attendees, and it incorporated innovations that Beman had first thought about more than 20 years before. Pete Dye is the TPC’s architect of record, but Beman can be considered its co-creator. Because of him, the holes are clustered in what he calls “hubs of activity,” within which spectators, without moving very much, can almost always see something worth watching. The mounds are huge and are shaped to serve as grass-covered grandstands, and most are positioned so that the galleries on their banks face right-handed players as they swing. (“Not spectator-friendly for Phil Mickelson, but for almost everyone else.”) Beman also incorporated “flip disk” leader boards, which he had noticed at LaGuardia Airport in 1974 and ordered from the same company. They enabled spectators to keep track of birdies and bogeys they couldn’t see.

Beman was a golf visionary, and not just in terms of tournament amenities. But many of his ideas about accommodating spectators had been anticipated, decades earlier, by another golf visionary: Clifford Roberts, the co-founder and first chairman of Augusta National. Beman told me that the Masters never influenced his thinking, except perhaps negatively. (When he attended the Masters on days when he wasn’t playing in it, he said, he had as much trouble following the action as he did at other tournaments.) But I think a case can be made that Roberts and Augusta National were the inventors of stadium golf.

It seems inconceivable today, but when the Masters began, in 1934, the club had a tough time even giving tickets away. The national economy was a wreck, Augusta was hard to get to, and few people knew anything about the course. The big draw was the return of Bobby Jones, but after 1934 that novelty was gone. The Masters field actually shrank through the 1930s, from 72 the first year to 46 in 1939—a smaller turnout than my club’s member-guest. Roberts believed that, if Augusta National and the Masters were to survive, the club had to focus obsessively on the experience of the spectators.

Many features that fans today think of merely as standard elements of competitive golf actually arose at Augusta National: The Masters was the first 72-hole tournament to be played over four days, rather than finishing with 36 holes on Saturday, a change that made the final round more enjoyable for spectators and competitors; it was the first tournament to use grandstands; it was the first to rope every fairway, making approach shots easier to see; it was the first to provide free daily pairing sheets and course maps; it was the first to erect a network of on-course leader boards, linked by dedicated telephone cables; and it was the first to be conducted on ground that was repeatedly reshaped to improve spectators’ sight lines and walking routes.

Not all the innovations were salutary. In the 1950s, Roberts removed the mounds around the eighth green because he believed they blocked the view. (He was right, although removing the mounds ruined the hole; they were restored in 1979.) But every change was intended to make the tournament more enjoyable for the people watching—exactly what Beman and Dye did at TPC Sawgrass. It’s no wonder that the Masters is the tournament that golf fans everywhere dream of attending, or that the Players is the one most often described as golf’s fifth major.