TPC Sawgrass Designer Pete Dye Needed Only a Few Minutes to Conjure His Creation

December 8, 2011

From a distance the drawing looks primitive and chaotic, like a toddler’s school project. There are squiggles and curlicues and wandering lines, and at the bottom, what appears to be a stick figure.

But take a few steps closer and the picture begins to look different. The lines begin to resemble fairways. That stick figure? One of the most famous holes in golf.

“Most of the courses that I’ve had anything to do with, I’ve never drawn any plans — I just dug it out and built it,” says course architect Pete Dye. But on May 16, 1978, at a restaurant in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., Dye made an exception.

You can still get fried chicken at the Homestead, same as you could 31 years ago, but the place is different these days. The bar has been expanded, and the fare goes beyond Southern fixings to include fine dining — rack of lamb, filet mignon, salmon Florentine.

But in May 1978, when PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman and Tour project manager Vernon Kelly invited Dye to the restaurant to discuss a home course for the fledgling Tournament Players Championship, they stuck to the Homestead’s signature dishes. “When you went to that place for dinner,” says Beman, “you knew you were having the fried chicken or the fried fish.” Adds Kelly, “They had the best fried chicken in the world.”

After being served glasses of ice tea and soda (“Pete is not a drinker,” Kelly says), the three men launched into a discussion about building a course the likes of which had never been seen. Beman, who had become the Tour’s commissioner in 1974, had been thinking about a concept for stadium golf since the 1960s, when a course project he was working on in Maryland — the plans called for a transportation system, raised viewing mounds and hubs of activity — fell through.

Now that Beman was commissioner, however, the concept of stadium golf took on renewed importance for him in the face of competition both within his sport and outside it.

In golf “the 800-pound gorillas were the Masters, the U.S. Open, British Open and the PGA Championship,” says Beman. “We had the Tournament Players Championship, but it was a money loser. My strategic plan was that we could either boycott or co-opt the major championships — and that would have been disastrous — or try to build our own important events and build TV packages around them. The first was the Tournament Players Championship. I decided the way to do that was to build a unique golf course dedicated to the galleries, a stadium course where the tournament would be held year after year so people would become familiar with it.”

Moreover, during a trip to the Phoenix Open, the former Tour pro got a glimpse of how difficult it was to watch golf on the ground. “I’d never been on the other side of the ropes,” Beman says. “There was a five-deep gallery, and they all had periscopes. I couldn’t see anything. It became apparent to me that trying to compete with other sports at stadiums where fans are seeing the action in one place was a real challenge. If you walk four or five miles, you ought to be able to see what you want to see.”

At dinner that May evening Beman explained all of this to Dye, whose Harbour Town course had long been one of Beman’s favorites as a player and was the main reason Dye had been selected to build the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass.

Kelly remembers Beman also telling Dye that he didn’t want one side of the course to be tougher than the other. He wanted each nine to be on the same competitive footing.

“Then Deane started talking about the finishing holes,” Kelly says. “He wanted to have three really tough holes that tempted people to play aggressively. A real risk-reward. So Pete takes this place mat and starts making a sketch.”

Dye quickly began drawing holes on the place mat, keeping in mind Beman’s instructions: a tight routing so spectators could see several holes from the same seating area. A strong finish.

“You mean like this?” Dye said minutes later, showing Beman and Kelly what he had drawn — a rough rendering of what would ultimately become the Stadium course’s back nine.

Dye says he likes courses to end with different pars on the last three holes, and 31 years later the sketch reveals the flourish that is the Players Championship’s finishing three in their as-built positions: Number 16, a reachable par-5, is written in light pencil toward the bottom left-center of the place mat. To the left of the 16th, pointing in the opposite direction, is the par-3 17th (though not yet with an island green). To the left of number 17, in darker pencil, a rogue line appears, doglegging from right to left. This is the menacing par-4 18th. Off the top of his head, Dye had created three of the most famous — and feared — finishing holes in golf.

Dinner was coming to a close. Beman snatched up the place mat, and the men bid one another a good night. “It was that quick,” Kelly says. “Pete will tell you he’s a barnyard engineer, but he’s a genius.”

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