PONTE VEDRA, Fla. — Bad awkward is out. Good awkward is in.
Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass, long unloved by The Players, has never made anyone feel warm, fuzzy or apt to attack in a way that creates lasting memories. Dye loves making a player feel awkward and, sometimes, fans enjoy that. But as Rickie Fowler’s win here two years ago showed the world, tournament golf is way more rewarding when the course ultimately yields to a player who moves into a superhuman attack mode.
Whether it was that seminal event or simply the change in the PGA Tour’s overall course setup philosophy, TPC Sawgrass has been reinvented again with an eye on the past and a clear vision for the future. This relentless test will still make players feel awkward, but it’ll be the kind of awkward golf that ends with players mulling options and pulling off bold shots in entertaining fashion.
While the new 12th hole is getting all of the attention — as it should given a bold redesign — it’s the noticeable increase in shorter grass heights and an overall refined look to many of the holes that makes a fan-friendly venue even more enjoyable. While this shift will upset some who want Dye’s vision upheld, The Players has struggled with identities far too long and fans should notice a refreshed vibe this week.
Ignore the early week concerns that there will be too much laying up at the 302-yard 12th, a replacement for the woefully dull and strategically deficient 358-yarder that Dye made even less interesting in the 2006 renovation. The new 12th will create thrills, spills and a must-hang on a part of the property that has traditionally been a dead zone. (Having a Taco Lu stand in the oak grove behind the green won’t hurt).
On the golf architecture front, the 12th hole’s obstructed-view approach shot for those laying up will ultimately drive today’s aggressive players to go for the green. And so will the peer pressure of seeing just one player successfully pull off a heroic shot.
Also take note of an element that figures to have a greater impact than one drivable par-4: more short grass around greens and much-muted Celebration Bermuda rough that is, at best, two inches in height. Along the 18th fairway, long another killjoy part of the course where high rough caused dull pitch-outs to deprive fans of recovery plays, there is noticeably lighter, patchier rough. While this still provides an annoyance factor, the recovery shot antics will add some sizzle.
Another huge change can be found in the tight turf now near many greens, most notably left of the par-5 11th green. Not only will this entice more players to go for the green, it’ll lead to a fan-friendly mix of crafty recoveries interspersed with some humiliating dust-ups.
As for the expanded lake at the sixth and seventh holes, the strategic benefits seem hard to pinpoint but the overall beauty adds just another lovely spot for fans to linger should the buzz at No. 17 be just a little sensory overload.
Speaking of fan friendly, the PGA Tour is pushing the envelope with on-site fan enhancements ranging from reality style features in their mobile app and other great things such as MD Anderson skin cancer screenings, Taste Of Jax food and an almost endless list of engaging activities for everyone from kids to seniors.
Put it all together and what was a slow progression toward the future during commissioner Deane Beman and Tim Finchem’s reigns will now accelerate and codify under Jay Monahan. Coming from a sports industry background (along with two years running this event as the tournament director), Monahan wants to make The Players a template for the convergence of fan-friendly amenities and a fan-friendly arena for risk-reward golf.
Strap in and enjoy a less awkward and more fun Players Championship.