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The author watches his tee shot on the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
The author watches his tee shot on the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (Photo by Brian Bateman)

'Now on the tee, a weekend golfer'

Home of the PGA Tour takes players inside gallery ropes

By Ron Driscoll
Globe Staff / July 1, 2007
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH -- I saw my cousin from Florida two weeks before my visit to the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass , and he had an interesting spin on playing the famous island 17th hole at the home of the PGA Tour.

"Number 17 is actually pretty easy," Paul said. "The rest of the course is so tough that the 17th feels like a breather."

Now, having been sorely tested by the first 16 holes, I had reached the 17th tee. There were 130 or so yards of water between me and the safe haven of the green, and a 20-mile-an-hour wind buffeted my face. The course's professional had just hit his tee shot into the drink, and as I mulled my club selection, I recalled my cousin's assessment. Well, I mused, at least he got it half-right.

What brought me to this fabled course, where two weeks before Phil Mickelson had won The Players Championship, was not just the chance to walk in the footsteps of Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh , and every other top male golfer in the world. It was also the chance to enjoy the treatment such top-level players receive. I was here to sample the new PGA TOUR Experiences package.

This initiative by TPC Sawgrass is designed to allow an average, albeit well-heeled, golfer to spend a day in the life of a tour pro, from locker room to lesson tee to a tournament-style introduction on the first tee. Bill Hughes, the course's general manager, described it simply as the "uber, uber experience."

When I met Matt Borocz that morning, TPC Sawgrass's head pro escorted me to the locker room used by the tour players. Nameplates attested that indeed, this is not just the host course for one of the year's most important tournaments, but also the home club for more than 30 tour pros, including stars such as Singh, Jim Furyk, and Fred Funk .

The twist for today was that as part of the "experience," my name was affixed to a locker. The keepsake nameplate noted that the locker was borrowed from tour pro Charley Hoffman , the winner of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in February. (Thanks, Charley.)

I also got a peek inside the locker room reserved for winners of The Players. The first berth on the left belongs to Jack Nicklaus, who won the event three of the first five times it was contested (1974, '76, '78), and the lockers carry the names of most of the top players of the past three decades: Trevino, Floyd, Norman, Price, Couples, Sutton, Kite, Love, Woods, Scott, and Mickelson .

The tournament ambience ramped up with a walk through a corridor that appears nondescript until you spot the black-and-white, poster-size photos of past winners lining the way. At the end of the hall, just before the door, is a sign that reads, "Through this tunnel pass the greatest golfers in the world, competing for the right to be called The Players champion." As I hit the door, it was easy to imagine striding out as the final-round leader en route to the driving range with crowds lining my every step.

"Our goal is to take the PGA Tour and bring it to life for everyone," said Billy Dettlaff , the national director of the TPC Network and the keeper of the tournament's history.

I took my rusty game to the Tour Academy, where Todd Jones , the head instructor, provided a critique and video analysis, then offered a setup tip and a succinct swing thought to improve my balance.

Then it was off to the practice tee, where I met Brian Bateman, my caddie, and found my personal hitting station. Bateman was wearing my name on his "bib," and he immediately set me at ease. He has caddied for star players Singh and Stuart Appleby and celebrities such as former President Clinton, and he also trains those trying out for the job. Surprisingly few make the grade.

"At Pebble Beach or Pinehurst, a caddie will carry your bag, wipe your clubs, and tell you there is a 4-inch break on a putt," said Hughes . "Here they will show you where Hale Irwin hit the shot that he holed out from the fairway. That's where I think we separate ourselves from the others."

What sets The Players apart is that it is the players' championship. Golf's four major events (Masters, US Open, British Open, PGA) are all administered by other organizations; the PGA is run by the Professional Golfers' Association of America, not the PGA Tour.

The Players is the first event played on a course the Tour owns, and it has been played at TPC Sawgrass since Deane Beman, then the tour commissioner, and Pete Dye, the legendary designer, carved it out of swampland south of Jacksonville in 1980.

"It's our first course, and our flagship," said Dettlaff, who oversees 23 courses in the TPC network, including TPC Boston in Norton and TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., with more on the way. "It's been here 27 years, and the history is baked into it."

After the 2006 event, however, the tour decided to change the recipe. The clubhouse was worn and outdated, and the course no longer played the way Dye and Beman had envisioned it. Helped by an additional two months with the event's move from March to May on this year's calendar, they rebuilt the entire property in time for the 2007 playing.

"They said it couldn't be done," said Hughes. "We did it in 14 months, from demolition to completion."

The crews descended on April 3, 2006, and didn't stop until they had removed 24,000 tons of topsoil, laid an equivalent amount of sand (enough to fill a 7-mile line of dump trucks) and 60 acres of grass, and installed a state-of-the-art irrigation system to help the greens drain even in a Florida gully washer.

The clubhouse is 40 percent larger than the White House at 77,000 square feet , and it also acts as resort, tour meeting place, and museum. The halls of the Mediterranean Revival-style building are filled with artifacts of the tournament and the course, including a club donated by each winner, a cocktail napkin with an early concept sketch of the course's back nine, and huge murals of memorable events, such as 1982 champion Jerry Pate sending Beman and Dye into the lake at the awards ceremony, then joining them. Dettlaff has even assembled a staff of docents to help people find their way and interpret the displays.

One phenomenon even staffers have a difficult time explaining is the 17th hole. It was replicated at 25 percent scale in New York's Rockefeller Center the week of The Players for passersby to try to hit. It has probably become no less than the third most famous hole in golf, after the 18th at Pebble Beach and No. 17 at St. Andrews, the "Road Hole," and that has brought some surprising requests.

"We have had marriage proposals on that green," said Hughes. "We have had a half-dozen people seek permission to spread a loved one's ashes. I don't know what that thing is out there. It's a cultural phenomenon."

During the tournament, people begin staking out spots around the lake at Nos. 16 and 17 around 7 a.m. -- a full 10 hours before the leaders arrive -- and roughly 35,000 can watch the play there. On this day, only shells of the tournament grandstand were left.

As I played with Borocz, Bateman shared tales about Singh, Appleby, Funk, and colorful Englishman Ian Poulter , while pointing out where Dye tweaked the course during its facelift, and offering continuous encouragement and suggestions.

Now on No. 17, he advised me to hit my "165-yard club" even though the hole only measures about 140. The wind, Bateman, and Borocz's tee shot that fell short of the island swayed me to hit a 5-iron. I hit it well, just to the left of the flag, but it was struck "thin" with a low flight, which was compounded by the wind suddenly dying .

My ball sailed over the green into the water, much as Sean O'Hair's shot did on the tournament's final day. Well, sort of like his shot did . . .

I hit another ball from the drop area about 90 yards away, landed it safely in the center of the green, and took a double-bogey 5 and a notebook full of memories from TPC Sawgrass.

Ron Driscoll can be reached at rdriscoll@globe.com.

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If You Go

How to get there

The Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass is in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., about 35 miles south of Jacksonville International Airport, and about 130 miles northeast of Orlando. Delta has one nonstop daily flight from Boston to Jacksonville. Golfers must stay at the affiliated Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa to play TPC Sawgrass, unless they are members of the TPC Network.

Where to stay

Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa
Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
904-285-7777, 800-457-GOLF(4653)
sawgrassmarriott.com
The hotel recently underwent a $16 million renovation, which includes upgrades such as flat-screen plasma televisions in each room. Rates start at $249 double occupancy. Its Cabana Beach Club on the ocean is a five-minute shuttle ride (1.8 miles. Recreation options besides golf and beach include an on-site spa, tennis, swimming, 24-hour fitness facilities, hiking, biking, volleyball, and deep-sea fishing. The resort also has a kids' club for ages 5-12. Carey Transportation provides a shuttle from the airport for $75 one way.

What to do

TPC Sawgrass
888-421-8555
pgatourexperiences.com
PGA TOUR Experiences at TPC Sawgrass is available for up to eight players a day and is one of a number of golf packages at Sawgrass Marriott. It includes accommodations, locker room privileges, personal caddie, reserved practice area, Tour Academy instruction with take-home DVD, first-tee introduction, bag tag, money clip, yardage book, lunch, and other amenities and costs $1,295 per person, double occupancy in summer and shoulder season, $1,455 in fall and winter. The Stadium Course stay-and-play package includes room, breakfast, 18 holes, forecaddie, commemorative pouch, and use of practice area starting at $599 for two players, double occupancy.

Where to eat

Augustine Grille
Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa
904-285-7777
A specialty restaurant serving grilled seafood, steak, and chops in a "casually elegant" setting. Entrees $20-$29.

Ruth's Chris Steak House
814 Route A1A North
904-285-0014
ruthschris.com
The ultimate steak place is open from 5 p.m. daily, until 10:30 weekdays, 11 on Saturday, 9:30 on Sunday.

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