The Best TPC Golf Courses You Can Play

After a year's absence, the PGA Tour's Booz Allen Classic returns to the TPC at Avenel in suburban Washington D.C. — Potomac, Maryland to be precise. And speaking of absences, most of the Tour's marquee names are MIA this week. Some no shows are battered victims of the obstacle course Winged Foot West presented. Others are skipping this event simply due to its timing on the schedule. A handful, however, bypass the Booz because they're less than enamored with the host course.

Following a couple of recent tweaks in the design department, Avenel is a better, fairer, more interesting course than when it debuted in the late 1980s, but unquestionably, it's had trouble shaking its early reputation.

Tournament Players Clubs, as conceived by then commissioner Deane Beman, made their debut for the 1982 Players Championship, when the TPC at Sawgrass — and its island green par-3 17th — made its unforgettable debut. Reactions from players ranged from comedy to horror. "This is Star Wars golf," pouted Ben Crenshaw. "The place was designed by Darth Vader!"

Actually, Pete Dye takes design credit, but even his former partner (at Harbour Town), Jack Nicklaus, let him have it. "This course plays all around my game and never touches it," roared the Golden Bear. "I've never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car." Jokester Fuzzy Zoeller weighed in with, "Where are the windmills and animals?"

It took a few years, but the pros eventually began to respect and even like the TPC at Sawgrass. By 1993-94, top pros were complaining that the course had become too docile. Tour officials reacted like the Dentist in "Splash," when Eugene Levy groused, "I don't want any Novocain, just drill," and the doctor responded, "Oh, so you WANT pain?"

Since the mid-1990s, Sawgrass has presented a stern, yet utterly fair test, one that rewards old-fashioned shotmaking and course management over modern smash-and-grab golf. As for all the subsequent TPCs built since 1982 — it's been a mixed bag. Greg Norman once called the TPC at Eagle Trace, "Carnival golf," while the former Honda home, the bunker-sodden TPC at Heron Bay, put fans and tour pros to sleep. Yet, the TPC at River Highlands near Hartford, Connecticut hosts the second largest crowds on Tour and the TPC at Sugarloaf near Atlanta is treated by three-time champion Phil Mickelson as the perfect tune-up for Augusta.

As of June 2006, 25 TPC facilities make up the network, ten of them open to public play. Perhaps the private TPC at Avenel has always suffered image problems with the pros and the public, due to its proximity to historic, treasured Congressional Country Club, where Sergio Garcia won the 2005 Booz Allen. Avenel is no match for Congressional in golf lore (Ken Venturi and Ernie Els have won U.S. Opens there, Dave Stockton a PGA Championship and Tom Weiskopf a U.S. Senior Open), but many feel it's no match for Congressional on the design front, either.

Regular folks can't rate the TPC at Avenel, as it's private. However, here's a list of the five best TPCs that you can play — and rate.

1. TPC at Sawgrass (Stadium Course), Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
The granddaddy of TPC courses has it all, including unrelenting challenge and incredible lore. Just to say you played the island-green 17th, let alone parred it, is one of public golf's holy grails. Yet, the other 17 holes comprise a textbook of modern design, with its variety of water hazards, humps, hollows, pot bunkers, waste bunkers, reachable par-5s, and differing textures in grasses. Throw in the boomerang-shaped 18th hole that curves along a lake, plus memories of Tiger and Davis Love and Freddie Couples and you have the ultimate in public-access golf that's not on an ocean. Look for a redesigned facility and course changes for 2007.

2. TPC of Scottsdale (Stadium Course), Scottsdale, Ariz.
Sure, it gets a little crazy in late January at the FBR (nee Phoenix) Open. Eighty degree sunshine, a river of cold beer and icy margaritas and wall-to-wall people in search of the desert's ultimate party lead to Saturday crowds in excess of 150,000. Still, it's undeniable that the Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish design has contributed to the excitement. While the front nine in Scottsdale may be tougher, albeit lacking in memorability, the back nine might be the most underrated in the Southwest. The reachable, island green par-5 15th, the loudest hole on Tour, the par-3 16th, the driveable par-4 17th and the robust par-4 18th, all with McDowell Mountain views, make for pure fun down the stretch.

3. TPC at Deere Run, Silvis, Ill.
The Quad Cities event on the PGA Tour has never attracted a stellar field, owing to crummy dates and an early, benign Pete Dye course called Oakwood that bared none of the fangs of his later efforts. Somehow, however, you had history made here. Sam Snead became the first ever to match, then beat his age in a PGA Tour event in 1979. Tiger Woods made his pro debut here in 1996, nearly winning before Ed Fiori overtook him. And in 2000, this latest TPC debuted, designed by three-time Quad Cities champ D.A. Weibring. Reviews have been hugely positive, including a ringing endorsement by 2003 champ Vijay Singh. Amazing variety and elevation changes characterize the layout, which is routed through massive oaks, sycamores and rock outcroppings.

4. TPC at Sawgrass (Valley Course), Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Long overshadowed by big brother the Stadium Course, the Valley is a heck of a strong golf course in its own right. Designed by Pete Dye and Bobby Weed, the Valley proved a worthy host for the 1988 and 1989 Senior Tour Players Championships, won by Billy Casper and Orville Moody, respectively. As with the Stadium, there's water on virtually every hole, but here, it's often placed to the sides of targets, rather than in front of them, so it's a nightmare for hookers and slicers, but a terrific test for folks who can keep it in play. Get greedy and the course is as tough as its sibling.

5. TPC of Myrtle Beach, Murrells Inlet, S.C.>
Tom Watson captured the 2000 Senior Tour Championship (known these days as the Charles Schwab Cup) at this eight-year-old Tom Fazio/Lanny Wadkins design, which today remains one of the most interesting, playable courses in the entire Myrtle Beach area. Huge greens, bunkers and lakes define the course and while there's nothing that's terribly original out there, it's wrapped up in a perfect package for resort golfers looking for a handsome, big-time test that won't take five and a half hours to play. Noteworthy is the right-swinging, 472-yard, par-4 ninth and the watery par-5 18th.

The Best of the Rest: Five Other TPCs to Sample

  • TPC of Tampa Bay, Lutz, Fla.
  • TPC at The Canyons, Las Vegas, Nev.
  • TPC of Virginia Beach, Virginia Beach, Va.
  • TPC at Heron Bay, Coral Springs, Fla.
  • TPC of Louisiana, Avondale, La.

  • Joe Passov is the Architecture and Course Ratings Editor of GOLF MAGAZINE. E-mail him your questions and thoughts at askjoe@golfonline.com

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