Sawgrass from scratch: 10 key figures reminisce on the purchase and building of the TPC course

November 11, 2008

The PGA Tour has come a long way since 1978, when it began construction on its flagship Tournament Players Club, the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

The project cost less than $5 million (including $1 for the 417 acres of swampy land, thanks to the generosity of developers Paul and Jerome Fletcher). That price tag stands in stark contrast to the $60 million that's been spent since the 2006 Players Championship to renovate the course and build a new clubhouse. To celebrate the refurbishment, the Tour reunited the people responsible for envisioning, planning, financing and building that original Sawgrass course, a layout that made history and launched the Tour as an amazingly successful business entity. Here are their memories, excerpted from their reunion last March at Tour headquarters.

In The Beginning ...

Deane Beman, PGA Tour Commissioner: I was on the policy board (in 1973) when commissioner Joe Dey and the board voted to move forward with the idea of the Tournament Players Championship, which would be played at a different site every year. I became commissioner in '74, and it became clear that for many reasons rotating courses was not working well. We came to the conclusion that we needed to have our own place.

My son was on spring break — he was 12 or 13 — when we came down to Jacksonville for a tournament I was playing in at Deerwood, and I asked one of the officials if I could find a place to take my son to play.

He said, "Go out Beach Boulevard to A1A, then seven or eight miles south, and on the left there's this place called Sawgrass."

He said that not very many people knew where it was. The original Sawgrass was quite a course. It still is. I cut the afternoon short, went back to those tournament officials and told them what I was really looking for. We made an agreement with the banks and made modifications so that we could hold (the Players) tournament there. That's how we got to Jacksonville.

When I thought the Players Championship had to get to the next level, the group that owned Sawgrass wasn't willing to sell us the course, so we started looking for property. The first time I saw this piece of property, you went in at your own peril. Paul Fletcher showed me around. Pete Dye and his engineers wanted to know what kind of soil it had, so test holes were dug.

The first test hole we looked at had the biggest water moccasin in it. It must have been five feet long and as big around as your arm. That was my first look at this property.

Bob Dickson, PGA Tour Director of Marketing: Deane and I used to play golf against each other. In 1977 I was leaving the Tour and realized that I needed to get a real job for the first time in my life.

Deane initially hired me to look at property. The land here is flat, about six feet above sea level. It was a solid forest. The word swamp never left our mouths — we let other people say that.

Beman: After a lot of discussion we ended up with the $1 deal. That gave us the opportunity we had with the great community leaders who put up about $1 million in capital. The management of the PGA Tour was not permitted to put up any of the Tour's money to do the project, so we had to do this without any money.

Paul Fletcher, President Fletcher Land Development: We were a little behind on the mortgage payments at this point, so Chase wanted us to enhance our collateral.

It was not easy to give away 417 acres for $1. We were kind of fending off Chase.

Vernon Kelly, Project Manager: Everybody thinks, "My God, 417 acres for $1? That's the deal of the century." It was, truly, but the Fletchers had the vision to realize what the course would mean.

With the sale of that land came a world-class course that drove development in the area and enhanced the value of the Fletchers' other land tremendously, so it was win-win.

Dickson: As big as this thing has grown, now people say, "Wow, what a fabulous deal." I want you to know, it wasn't a slam dunk. A number of players said, "Hey, we don't need to own and run golf courses."

Deane had to put on his selling shoes big-time to get the players to sign on.

Beman: I went to the policy-board meeting in June 1978 and briefed the board. They never thought we could get it done, I'm sure. Now all the pieces were together, and everybody was literally shamed into voting for it. We're calling for the gavel, it's going to get done. Our esteemed outside law firm representative, former secretary of state and attorney general (William P.) Rogers, was there.

This happened to be the only meeting he ever came to. His style was, when there's a problem, find a way to split the baby. He said, "Well, if I could make a few suggestions, why don't we have the players vote on it?" I went absolutely white. The board said O.K., and it was gaveled in 10 seconds. My blood hasn't returned to my face, and now we're going to have a vote of the players for the first time in the Tour's history.

The Tour is not a democracy, like the good ol' U.S. of A., and the players had never directly voted on any business issue and never should have. If we had lost that vote, we'd have lost the Tour's ability to function as a really good business, and then that would become a bigger issue than the golf tournament.

I went out on Tour for six to eight weeks and scheduled player meetings at the most inconvenient times I could because I didn't want more than five or six players at any one meeting. I had meetings at five or six in the morning or in the afternoon before the pro-am, when half the field was on the course. It was impossible for them to be there.

I put up a voting sheet on the bulletin board and went to the first 10 or 12 players that I knew would go for it and had them sign the sheet under yes. There was nobody on the no side. After that, the sheep followed the shepherds.

Fletcher: What was the final vote?

Beman: It was 100 to four.

Fletcher: I bet you remember those four.

One Big Dye Job

Alice Dye, Golf Course Architect: Deane, you never fessed up on how you happened to hire Pete (Dye).

Beman: I hired Pete because Harbour Town was one of the best competitive courses I had ever played. I thought it was a gem and set the standard for tournament courses. I wanted the man who built Harbour Town building my course.

Alice Dye: One morning our phone rings. I hear Pete talking and later he says, "That was Deane Beman. He wants me to build a course for him." I said, "You're crazy. You can't build for Deane. He's too good a player. He's particular, he's efficient — he's all the things you aren't, and he'll have his hands in there trying to tell you what to do. Don't do it." Boy, was I wrong. Deane was wonderful. He let Pete do his thing.

Pete Dye, Architect: We looked at every piece of land in the world — north, south, all over. I finally ran into Vernon Kelly, and he brought me to this property and found the only dry spot. I kept saying, "I don't think we'll ever get this damn place done."

Vernon Kelly: I told Pete we needed a set of plans for the bank, and he said, "O.K., I'll get you some." Finally it came down to the loan-closing day, and we didn't have a set of plans.

Miraculously, a day later the plans showed up, so we gave them to the bank and they were tickled to death. The closing occurred, and everything was fine. The first time I went on-site with Pete, we drove out in a pickup truck. We were walking to look at the cut lines from the survey, and I said, "Wait a minute," and went running back to the truck and got the plans.

When I got back, Pete said, "What's that?" I said, "Well, these are the plans." He said, "Put them back in the truck. I don't want to see them again."

The Island Green

Alice Dye: One day Pete came to me and said, "We have a big problem. I only have 17 holes out there. Where the par-3 is supposed to be, all I have is a gigantic hole in the ground."

So we drove out and looked. I said, "Why don't you put the green back where it was and leave the big hole filled with water?" So he built the green. The (front) two thirds of it went back toward the tee, and the back third sloped straight down to the lake. I said, "Pete, you know the tournament's in March. I can just see the TV — we're on the air, and the first threesome is still on the 17th tee. Nobody has been able to stay on the green." So, thankfully, he enlarged the bunker in front and smoothed the back.

Beman: Pete did raise the back of the green a little bit, but it still fell away. If somebody goes in there 100 years from now, they're going to find a second bulkhead. We added it and brought the green up even higher because there wasn't enough room.

Pete Dye: I probably wanted to make the hole 200 yards. Deane got it down to 135 or 140.

Beman: Pete never quit on that one. Two or three years later he wanted to move the tee to the right and back, where the cart path is now. I wouldn't let him.

Alice Dye: Let me tell you about Pete playing that hole. Several years ago he hit right onto the green and said, "I don't understand why they have such trouble with this hole." I said, "It's different when it's only your wife and a frog looking at you."

The next day was the pro-am, and they had the markers on the pro tee. They had beautiful young ladies sitting there with a bucket of balls in case you hit one in the water. Pete strides up there, like no problem. While his ball is still in the air, the girl rolls him another ball. Put a scorecard in your hand, and that hole gets tougher.

Kings of the Jungle

Dave Postlethwait, Construction Superintendent: You had to wear special equipment to work — snake boots and hip waders.

Kelly: The only way you could get to the property was when we dug a ditch from the pump station. Six months into the project, Deane asks Pete, "Are we on schedule?" And Pete says, "Oh, yeah, Deane, we're on schedule." Then he turns me to and says, "Are we to the property yet?"

We took the soil from the ditch and flattened it out, and that was the only road into the property. When we started the clubhouse, Dave would stand at the end of the road and tell the cement trucks to come on in. They'd get about 100 feet in and get bogged down up to their axles. At that point we had 'em because they couldn't get away. We'd come get 'em with a bulldozer.

Beman: One afternoon we were leaving the property behind the 15th tee, and Vernon was leading the way. Vernon took one step and went down to here (chest) in a gator bowl. You know those cartoons where a guy leaps up and his feet are going but he ain't going anywhere? I'm telling you, it was some scare.

Kelly: I was with Paul one time, and we were in this peat — the water was probably a foot and a half deep, and it was really dark. A moccasin comes swimming right toward us. I'm in front, Paul (Fletcher) is behind me, and he reached around with a machete and hit the snake on the head. Well, all that did was push it underwater and make it mad. Plus, Paul had churned up the water so bad you couldn't see the snake anymore.

So I'm standing there — I don't know where Paul is now, but he's a long way away — waiting on the snake to come up. Fortunately, it came up facing away from me and went the other way.

Postlethwait: I had my moments of silence out there. You were better off carrying a stick when you were in high water. When you saw a snake, you started looking around for another one. You get into it when you get into a family of them. You take that stick — you wouldn't want to make them mad, now — and simply brush them, and they go about their business. I got to know those rattlers so good, they rattled like they were waving at me, like, Hey there!

Marroitt Points

Kelly: You remember our weapons carrier? It was the only way you could get around the property. It had big tires but no springs. One day we had been waiting for (hotel magnate) Bill Marriott to visit. He got there late, and we said, "Let us take you around the property."

So we put him in the weapons carrier, and there weren't enough seats. He was magnanimous and said, "I'll sit on the hump in the middle." There was a stump in the road. You'd hit it every fourth or fifth time you went out, so it was never annoying enough to fix, but when you'd hit the stump in that weapons carrier, it was like World War III.

By this time, Bill Marriott told us that he'd told Deane that he'd never build a hotel in Florida that wasn't right on the beach. We're coming back to the compound, and I was driving, and I hit that damn stump. Bill Marriott flies up in the air, hits his head and crashes down onto the floor.

I'm thinking, "Oh, my God, I've killed Bill Marriott." When he left, I told Deane, "I am so sorry. I didn't mean to do that." And Deane says, "I wish you'd broken the s.o.b.'s neck."

Alice Dye: Marriott ever been back here since then?

Judy Beman, Deane's wife: Oh, yes. They built the Sawgrass Marriott Resort on PGA Tour Boulevard — right where Bill said he would never build.

Firing Line

Postlethwait: You know those Palm Valley (local neighborhood) boys? They didn't like me. They shot my truck. I had bullet holes in my truck. They used to hunt wild boar on the golf course property.

Deane Beman: The Palm Valley boys felt as if they owned the property. They hunted there their whole lives, so as far as they were concerned, it was theirs. When we set up the (construction) trailer, we had all kinds of problems. They spiked the road. We drove in and got flat tires. Then they started setting fires around the equipment and set one pretty close to the trailer one time.

Your man Dave went down to one of the leaders of Palm Valley, right to the gentleman's home. He came out on the front porch, and Dave says, "We've been having some fires up around the trailers; it's getting a little dangerous."

And the guy says, "Yep, so what?" And Dave says, "It's a funny thing about fire. It can jump all the way from those trailers right down here to this house." We didn't have any more problems.

Indiana Jones Returns

Kelly: There were these mounds pretty close to the entrance. We thought they were WPA projects. There was a Fort Diego. The Spanish had their forts one night's march apart, and this is one night's march from St. Augustine. The fort was an earthworks and had a farm. Nobody knew for sure where it was. I was sitting in the trailer on a Sunday — I mean, it was really remote — and there was a knock on the door. This guy says, "I'm an amateur archaeologist, live in Ponte Vedra and am here looking for Fort Diego. I think I've found it in a sink hole."

There was a sink hole right in the middle of the 5th fairway. I said, "Well, it's just a sink hole." He said, "Yes, but you're going to have to stop construction while we check it out with the state." And I said, "You're trespassing. I'm going to have you arrested."

Heroes and Goats

Kelly: Pete had the idea — sheep made the original bunkers in Scotland, but we couldn't get sheep, so we used goats. We fenced them off in the area between the 1st and 2nd holes.

They would eat the underbrush and did a terrific job. But people would see them and thought they were so cute that we started letting them out. We'd come in the morning, and if it had been raining, there would be all kinds of sheep excrement around the clubhouse because the sheep didn't want to get wet.

One time we were in the clubhouse dining room, and this baby goat went to the lake to drink. A gator came up and knocked him in the water with his tail, then pulled him under. Everybody eating lunch was horrified. This cute baby goat (was) getting consumed before their eyes.

All of a sudden the goat pops back up, and he's swimming like crazy. The gator is coming behind him, and everybody in the dining room is yelling, "Go! Go! Go!" Somehow, the little goat made it out.

Pete Davison, Head Pro: Operationally, the goats were a problem. They had incredible reproductive powers. We started with eight, and within weeks there were 20, then 30, then 40. It was unbelievable. We'd pen them up, but they'd get out. Anytime it rained, they'd herd under the porte cochere, and in the morning it would smell like a zoo. It was brutal.

Kelly: Yeah, those goats didn't smell good. The thing was, after we got rid of 'em, we had to add eight people to the course maintenance staff.

Parting Shots

Judy Beman: Deane gets a lot of credit for having the vision for this place, and he definitely did. He's a visionary. I think the best thing was putting together the people who built it. We all laughed our way through this whole mess because it was a mess. But you know, we still are a family.

Deane Beman: This course didn't get built by anybody's book. It got built by true grit and ingenuity and solving problems that people building a course never faced before. It's a tribute to Vernon Kelly, Pete Dye and Dave Postlethwait, who got the job done. We kept taking people over to see the construction, and that probably wasn't a good idea because everybody who came over thought we'd never finish. Neither did I.