Ogilvy playing TPC Sawgrass at the 2011 Players Championship
I would love to have played TPC Sawgrass just after it opened in 1980. The pictures I have seen of the Pete Dye-designed Stadium course back then look so cool. The fairways were beautifully maintained, but outside those playing areas there was an unkempt, Pine Valley-type feel to the place.
Not that I've ever seen any of that at Sawgrass. In my time on the PGA Tour, it has always been strictly maintained and manicured. Which is a pity. I'd like to see the course allowed to be a little more "wild." It's a bit too neat. It would be nicer to look at if it wasn't so nice to look at, if you know what I mean.
It could be done too. The green complexes are sufficiently challenging. You could get rid of the rough and create some interesting angles for the approach shots. Right now, scoring isn't easy even from the middle of every fairway, because that isn't necessarily the best place to be on any given hole. It isn't playing from the rough that makes the course so difficult, it is missing such undulating greens in the wrong spots.
Take the rough up the right side of the par-4 18th. Essentially it's fine, but it does represent a double punishment for anyone who hits away from the water. Having trees in the way for your approach shot would be enough. If there were no rough, the ambitious recovery shot would now come into play. Instead of watching us chip out every time, wouldn't it be fun to see guys trying to cut balls around trees, out over the water and back onto the green? The hole might be slightly easier overall, but it would also be a lot more interesting for spectators.
The purist in me also yearns to see the Players played somewhere like National GL or San Francisco GC. I'd like the PGA Tour's biggest event to be like the U.S. Open and visit the very best courses across the nation. But I can appreciate how appropriate it is that the very first TPC venue hosts the Players and so, in turn, garners the attention it does.
Undoubtedly, Sawgrass is a very punishing course, especially toward the finish. The penalty for just missing your target is brutal. I would argue too much so, actually, on the par-3 17th. The par-5 16th and the 18th are great holes. If you hit good shots on each, good things will happen. But on the 17th that's only true some of the time. I've seen solid shots go in the water there. Come Sunday, with so much on the line in such a prestigious tournament, that's not the most comforting scenario to be facing.
Plus, in terms of actual shotmaking, the 17th is inherently dull. We all stand on that tee and try to hit essentially the same shot with a short iron. There's not a lot of imagination required. But there is some luck. Two balls landing maybe a foot apart can lead to a birdie or a double bogey. The line is that fine.
On the other hand, the 17th is great theater. It is hard to criticize too much without coming across as a golf snob. But the hole is a bad fit. The difference between good and bad is too many strokes. We've seen too many guys--having played a great tournament--come completely unraveled there with one bad shot that would normally have led to a bogey but on that hole meant double or triple. I'm not quite sure that is appropriate in the circumstances.
Having said all that, outside of the major championships, the Players is clearly the biggest week on tour, and it gets more publicity--by a wide margin--because of that island green. It's a bit like Amen Corner in that it's almost more famous than the course. Even nongolfers tune in to watch what happens on 17. Although I suspect most are not so secretly hoping for the golf equivalent of a car crash, you cannot argue with the visibility and attention the prospect of all those splashes brings to the event.
In effect, the 17th is the ultimate commercial hole in an event run by a quintessentially commercial organization. The prize fund is certainly bigger than it would be if 17 were a "normal" par 3. So it's a perfect fit for the PGA Tour, but not the USGA. Which is why we'll never see the U.S. Open at Sawgrass. It's too hot there in June anyway.