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Players Championship 2022: The curious history of TPC Sawgrass’ most redesigned hole

TPC Sawgrass

Dom Furore / Golf Digest

March 08, 2022

Following the 2016 Players Championship, the PGA Tour did something it had never done since moving the competition to the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in 1982: It completely tore apart one of the original holes and built a new one.

Pete Dye had renovated or remodeled TPC Sawgrass—perhaps his most transformative piece of architecture—about a half dozen times between 1983 and 2011, but most of those changes were cosmetic or agronomic. In constructing an entirely new par-4 12th, the tour and lead architect Steve Wenzloff changed the complexion not just of that hole but the choreography of the tournament on the second nine.

That was the intent.

From a spectator’s point of view, the 12th hole was one of the weakest. The entire concept of the course, at least as envisioned for the Players Championship, was to place the golf within amphitheaters of fans who were provided elevated viewing perspectives on high grass embankments (the first iteration of TPC Sawgrass actually had squared-off bleachers). At the 12th, however, there was no good vantage point to the green, which was raised above its surrounds and pushed back against trees with little traffic flow around the hole. Fans who did gather to watch often couldn’t see approach shots due to a large mound blocking the left side of the green and fairway.

There was also the matter of how the hole was being played. At roughly 360 yards, Dye’s original 12th was a model of the short par-4 concept he used on numerous courses, with a semi-blind green tucked behind a tall grassy mound on the left. With the putting surface sitting up like an island surrounded by bunkers and hollows of long rough, almost every player approached the hole the same way, hitting irons and metalwoods to a common layup area leaving repetitive wedges into the green—along with a minefield of divots.

“We were very much looking at how little movement there was on the back nine in terms of scoring,” says Stephen Cox, PGA Tour senior tournament director. “We began to consider if there was a way that we could add a little bit of drama early on the back nine with guys making moves."

VIDEO: A FLYOVER OF THE PAR-4 12TH HOLE AT TPC SAWGRASS:

Cox noted that the tour had seen other tournaments interject swing holes by incorporating drivable par 4s. In turn, his group began exploring something similar at 12 to enhance both the competition and the fan experience.

With four Players contested using the reimagined 12th hole, it’s worth a look at how successful it’s been at achieving the tour’s goals. Given the repetitive way that players were approaching the 12th previously, it’s little surprise that from 2010 through 2016 it played to a stroke average of 3.894, never fluctuating more than .1 stroke year to year, and yielded 111 birdies per tournament on average.

The new 12th that Wenzloff designed is normally around 370 yards from the championship tees but has been set up in the 280- to 320-yard range for most of the rounds played since 2017. Wenzloff, who has worked for the PGA Tour since the 1990s and was involved in a comprehensive reconstruction of the Stadium Course in 2006, took the canal that cuts near the 11th tees and extended it down the left side of the 12th hole, pushing the water up to the edge of the green complex. A long, low waste bunker borders the left edge of the fairway, and a mound, riffing on the mound fronting the old green but on the opposite side, was erected on the thru-line right of the green, which is banked toward the water.

Wenzloff had conversations about changing the hole with Dye shortly before the architect ceased working. Dye, who passed away at the beginning of 2020, was initially reluctant to embrace the idea—he didn’t build many traditional drivable par 4s, and an old saying went that if Dye had wanted players to get to the green in one, he’d have built a par 3.

“He understood our perspective of what we were trying to achieve with the golf hole, and that may not have been the same as what Deane Beman had asked him to do with that hole when they worked together originally,” Wenzloff says. But, he adds, “He opened up to what we were asking for and assisted us early on in the process with some of the macro aspects of the golf hole.”

Building a great drivable par 4 that is adequately tempting for tour pros, however, isn’t simple. During the 2017 Players, the first year the hole was used, the majority of the field played it the way they did the old 12th, laying up with irons. The redesign didn’t lead to much of a scoring change (3.827), appreciable number of birdies (127) or, for that matter, scoreboard swings.

“A lot of the feedback in 2017 was guys saying, ‘I’m not going to take it on—it’s just not worth it so I’m just going to lay it up to my number and hit a wedge shot in,’” Cox says. After the tournament, the hole was modified again with the most noticeable change a reconfiguration of the waste bunker down the left and an adjustment to the knoll on the right.

“We just dialed it back a little bit to open the entry into the green, to take a little of the obscurity out of the right side,” Wenzloff says.

Those second changes worked. According to ShotLink data, 64 percent of the field took a shot at getting home in 2018 and 2019 as players became more comfortable with the hole, including 67 percent on the weekends. That resulted in lower scores (a 3.621 average in 2018 and a 3.533 average in 2019), as well as more birdies (187 and 217, respectively).

Returning to play last year after the Players was cancelled due to COVID in 2020, the tour used the back tees on Thursday and Friday for the first time, turning the hole back into a true two-shot, short par 4. The scoring average on those days jumped to over par. It’s something they’ll likely continue to do going forward, in part to manage the flow of competition (players go off split tees the opening two rounds) and also to honor the spirit of Dye’s original hole.

“We were never interested in just building a drivable par 4 and that was it,” Cox says. “We asked Steve to go out and do something that hasn’t been done very often, and that’s create a par 4 that retains the values of the original 12th hole but also gives us the versatility to move the tees up and make it exciting to create more drama.”

The 12th has yet to provide a signature moment on the back nine of a Sunday the way similar drivable par 4s at TPC Scottsdale (No. 17) and TPC River Highlands (No. 15) have, but it does provide set-up flexibility. Pegging the tees in the 360-yard range creates a traditionally challenging par, especially when the flag is located on the more dangerous right side of the green since players are weary of leaving themselves touchy recovery shots back to a putting surface that runs away toward the water if they miss. When shifted up to the 300-yard range, the 12th is a true half-par hole that might yield an easy 3 or even a 2, particularly when the hole is on the green’s front or in a gathering spot left-center.

The test of a great drivable par 4 is whether it fosters irresistible temptation in the face of rational caution. The opportunity to score must provoke an aggressive play, often against better judgment, that overrides more prudent calculations. It must also induce some sort of decision-making when not going for the green, a tricky drive and approach that must be planned out, not just a layup and green-light wedge shot. Mostly, it has to make the player see a color of red that’s, ultimately, blinding.

“I want them to walk off that green having made 4 and be disappointed,” Cox says. “If they’re up and around the green and they don’t make birdie, that’s when they should be disappointed.”

Sometimes expectation is a hole’s true defense, and the 12th at TPC Sawgrass is certainly capable of stimulating it. Time will tell if it’s capable of greatness.