Birth of the Stadium: TPC Sawgrass allowed fans to see golf in a whole new way
Serious golf fans will never forget the 1982 PLAYERS Championship, the first ever contested at the TPC Sawgrass.
We remember the tiny, terrifying, island-green 17th, the players' comments (Fuzzy Zoeller: "Where are the windmills and animals?") and the post-round splash by winner Jerry Pate.
The legacy of the 1982 event is memorable as well for the legion of other TPC facilities and events it spawned. In many respects, the growth of the TPC network was profit-driven, as cash generators for the Tour, via real estate, licensing and site fees. I've got no problem with that -- but it didn't really concern me, or my dad or my sister, for that matter. But it changed how we felt about attending a golf tournament.
Take my hometown event in Phoenix, for example. From the first tournament I attended in 1979 through 1986, our PGA Tour event took place at venerable old Phoenix Country Club, a layout that was as flat as the desk my laptop sits on. Few of the greens had grandstands, let alone the fairways, so mostly you couldn't see much of anything at crunch time. If you were lucky, you purchased one of those cardboard periscopes -- and if the mirrors adjusted just right, you could actually witness a golf shot.
Stadium golf changed all that. In 1987, Paul Azinger captured the Phoenix Open at the new TPC Scottsdale Stadium course, where every hole had hillsides at fairways and greens to let you see all the action. On a sunny Saturday in January this year, the Tour's one-day attendance record was shattered. More than 179,000 people dropped by that day, and they witnessed all of the golf shots they wanted to see.
Deane Beman had the initial vision for Stadium golf. He first discussed the topic with then-commissioner Joe Dey in the 1960s, and he ultimately chose Pete Dye to execute that vision, mainly because he liked what Pete had done on similarly flat, swampy ground up the coast at Hilton Head's Harbour Town.
Pete and his wife Alice traveled up to Toronto to see Glen Abbey, site of the Canadian Open. Jack Nicklaus, Dye's design consultant at Harbour Town, created Glen Abbey in 1976 and it was the first course to have specially constructed spectator mounds. The TPC Sawgrass Stadium course took the concept into the stratosphere. I'll let Dye himself explain how he did it.
"The easiest way to build a golf course on flat land," he wrote in Bury Me in a Pot Bunker, "is to dig a big hole for a lake and then use the dirt to elevate certain areas of the course ... When we emptied out space for a lake or pond, the resulting muck was piled up in the areas along the fairways and roughs and alongside the greens. Using this excess muck, we began to build the large spectator mounds that would provide perfect viewing areas for golf fans."
Dye continued, "The spectator mounds that became so famous at TPC were never envisioned to be anywhere near the height they rose to be. If I had told Deane Beman that he would have mounds as high as three-story buildings beside his low-profile greens, he would have fired me right then.
"During the months of constructing the course, the huge mounds simply evolved. The more muck I dug up, the higher the mounds became, but to our pleasant surprise, they looked great. We planned on ten- to twelve-foot-high mounds, but soon they approached thirty to forty feet and provided an amphitheater effect that really embellished the course.
"These spectator mounds were positioned on the right side of the hole so the gallery would be looking into the golfers' faces, and they were built on the northwest side to block out the prevailing wind. This also permitted the walking gallery plenty of room to move about the course."
Course critics have labeled these mounds as "unnatural" because they don't blend into the landscape. Ask me, or my dad or my sister if we care. We paid our money -- we wanted to see the golf shots.
(Photo: Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated)