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

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

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.


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