Mostly sports relegate fans to the role of spectator — you’re never going to hit a home run at Yankee Stadium or charge into the end zone at Soldier Field. Only golfers can cast themselves as the leading men in the game’s greatest dramas on the very same stage, like the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass, the PGA Tour’s most celebrated venue and home of its most stomach-churning hole.
Are you ready for your close-up there? The Stadium Course will close for renovations soon after the Players Championship (March 20-26) until November, so pack your clubs and Dramamine before the curtain falls.
TPC Stadium Course
6,954 yards, par 72; Greens fee: $212
The first of the stadium courses is still the best — it ranks No. 29 on our Top 100 Courses in the U.S. Don’t make the mistake of treating the first 15 holes as mere appetizers before the famed closing holes that you’ve seen on television for 24 years. If you step on the first tee already thinking ahead to the island green, you’ll find your scorecard shredded long before you get there. The Stadium Course is a superb layout, but unrelentingly punitive for the wayward and the overconfident. Take the fourth hole, a seemingly benign par 4 of 380 yards that only plays short from the middle of the fairway. Find the bunker (or water) on the right or the ankle-deep rough on the left and suddenly the bulkheads (and water) fronting the green look more ominous than the gators that prowl the lakes here. The peninsula green at the 172-yard 13th is less daunting than the 17th, but has more curves than a repeat visitor to the hotel buffet.
But it is the closing holes that draw visitors here. The 497-yard 16th tempts longer hitters to attack the green, and that’s probably not a bad play since the landing area for lay-ups is pinched by water right and a lone tree on the left. The 17th is simply the greatest knee-knocker you’ll ever face. The final hole is distilled Dye: a risk-risk par 4. You can opt to bite off the water on your tee shot, or you can tackle a long approach shot to a severely contoured green that lies hard against the aqua. It’s a bit like being asked if you prefer to be hanged today or tomorrow.
The Stadium Course is golf’s Autobahn: There’s really no slow lane where you can cruise. You play at full throttle or you get throttled. And even if your fate is the latter, you at least have the comfort of knowing that the greatest players in the game have walked to the gallows before you.
TPC Valley Course
6,864 yards, par 72; Greens fee: $147
Rumor has it that the Valley Course might be renamed to give it a sexier sheen, the theory being that it is lost in the long shadow cast by the Stadium Course. This may have worked for John Wayne (born Marion Morrison), but it won’t disguise the basic reality: The Stadium Course is one of the world’s finest tracks, and the Valley Course is not. That’s not to say it isn’t a very good course — it is — but it just happens to be a homely girl next door to a supermodel. Who do you think is going to get more visitors? There are three par 5s in a five-hole stretch around the turn, but they are essentially the same hole: doglegs left around bunkers and water. It starts to feel like Deja Dye all over again. There are several holes here that are mirror images of Stadium holes, like the peninsula green second (echoes No. 13 on the Stadium) and the 18th, a par 4 with tempting driving lines and water guarding the right side.
Despite the cluster of Mini-Me holes, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Valley Course as the Stadium without steroids. There still are more than enough solid holes to make the course well worth a visit, and there is no better preparation for the real thing.
Sawgrass Country Club
East Course: 3,571 yards, par 36
South Course: 3,471 yards, par 36
West Course: 3,488 yards, par 36
Greens fee: $127 for 18 holes
This private gated community was the home of The Players Championship from 1977 until 1981 and is right across Highway A1A from the Sawgrass Marriott Resort, where you need to stay to get access.
Ed Seay crafted the layout, which is a tougher proposition than it seems on paper when the wind kicks up. One standout hole is the 509-yard ninth on the South nine, a great, hitch-yer-pants-up-and-go-forit par-5. You’ll certainly rinse fewer balls here than you will at the TPC courses across the street.
Where to stay
The Marriott Sawgrass Resort & Spa
The only way for non-TPC members to get access to the courses at Sawgrass is to stay at the Marriott, set on 4,800 acres near the Atlantic beaches. There are 508 guest rooms — avoid rooms on the central atrium, which can get a bit noisy on weekends — and a new 20,000-square-foot spa. If you ask nicely, the staff might summon the nowretired sommelier, Ricardo Gracia, who invented the pina colada in 1954. And keep an eye on the Starbucks in the lobby, a favorite hangout of Vijay Singh when he’s not beating balls on the range. Christmas packages run until the end of the month. Starting at $435 per night, guests will receive double occupancy deluxe room accommodations and one round of golf on the TPC Valley Course. The package goes up to $481 per night in January, but your course options increase.
Where to eat
Cafe Italiano Located in the hotel lobby, the Cafe serves up great pasta dishes that seem as bottomless as a Pete Dye water hazard.
The Augustine Grill A little more formal and expensive than the Cafe, but you get what you pay for. Superb steaks and a great wine list make for a meat lover’s paradise.
The 100th Hole This poolside cabana bar serves a mean sandwich at lunch.
Aqua Grill A two-minute drive from the resort, this lagoon-side eatery has great seafood and steaks. 904-285-3017
The Card Wrecker
No. 17, Stadium Course; 132 yards, par 3
How could it be any other hole? The 17th is the shortest hole on the course and boasts the largest green, but it sure won’t feel like it when you stand on the tee. No hole better illustrates the thin line between ecstasy and despair. We asked Ponte Vedra Beach resident Jim Furyk how to tread that line.
Jim Furyk on how to play it
“The 17th ought to be one of the most simple par 3s in golf, but it’s gotten into the head of every amateur on the planet. It psyches them out before they’ve even hit their tee shot on the first hole. What you really need to do is eliminate the pin from your target focus and aim for the dead center of the green. Don’t go for the edges because you’re dying to say you aced or birdied it. Just forget it. Put it in the center of the green, get your two-putt and live to brag about parring one of the most famous holes in golf.”