Since the debut of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass at the 1982 Players Championship, players and fans have either loved or loved to hate its iconic island-green 17th hole. Even Sports Illustrated couldn't decide whether the fact that it's simply "one of the few holes that truly scares Tour pros" outweighs the feeling that "something's just not right" about it in its Players Championship preview issue in 2014.
"It's created a bit of controversy, but I don’t think anybody would debate that it’s been exciting," said Bryan Ness, an associate at Populous, a Kansas City-based architecture firm that specializes in sports facility design. "That hole is unique and special, so there are some things we can draw from it and use in a positive way."
At Golf.com's request, Populous looked a decade into the future and designed temporary stadium infrastructure for a PGA Tour event aimed at enhancing the fan experience without drastically altering the host course.
As major spectator sports try to reposition themselves to capture the interest of the next generation of fans, the primary challenge is competing with what fans can see on television, says Brian Mirakian, director of Populous Activate, the firm's experiential marketing arm. Stadiums must combine the best of the broadcast with "incentives to pull fans out of their living rooms and onto the golf course."
Populous imagined a golf stadium that clusters amenities -- traditional seating, concession stands, retail kiosks -- with media platforms into a "Social Fan Hub" where "people can gather and really take in the great social atmosphere of a PGA Tour event." Mirakian says Populous' demographic research suggests that younger fans are more "experientially-driven," so creating opportunities for them to engage and participate in the event at interactive stations like demo tents and test ranges rather than passively watch is crucial, especially since golf is unique in that the vast majority of golf fans actually play golf themselves.
Populous' golf stadium also aims to integrate the tools of the "Information Age" into the physical environment. A growing number of sports fans are using other devices (computers, tablets, smartphones) to track statistics or interact with other fans on social media while watching television, a trend known as "second screen," but attending a PGA Tour event often cuts you off from the steady stream of information enjoyed at home. Most clubs prohibit cellphone use outside of designated areas, and unless you happen to be near one of a few leaderboards stationed around the course, it can even be difficult for fans to find out how the field is faring. Digital glass in a "Tee Box Tech Suite," however, could seamlessly incorporate many of the advanced statistics -- ball flight, speed, distance -- fans have grown to rely on to enrich their experience.
Finally, golf fans may never be able to watch every hole of a tournament -- at home or at the course -- but they should at least be able to watch how the pros play a single hole from tee to green, a difficult feat for a single golf fan with a limited perspective in the middle of a large gallery. From the elevated vantage points in Populous' "Fairway Treehouses," modeled after the camouflaged television towers already capturing the action at PGA Tour events, fans would get a bird's eye view of the course and a unique experience they can't find anywhere else.
"Golf hasn't changed in 100-plus years," said Mirakian, " so I think there's a real opportunity to honor the traditions of the game and the beauty of the courses by helping spectators see the game a little differently."