Early in the wee hours when the sun is just peering over the horizon, the shadow of an industrial-sized lawn mower can be seen rolling over the greens while sprinklers are watering the bright pink azaleas with the faint smell of jasmine in the air. Nearby, servers are setting up tables and golf carts are getting the 5-star detail treatment in preparation for the day’s festivities.
It’s this calm before the storm where only those who arrive early enough, can take in the true beauty that is TPC Sawgrass before thousands upon thousands of spectators show up to cheer on their favorite golfer in what many consider the 5th Major, THE PLAYERS.
But TPC Sawgrass wasn’t always home to one of the most iconic golf tournaments in the world.
In its early history, The Tournament Players Championship (THE PLAYERS) was played across the street from its current location at the Sawgrass Country Club. Deane Beman, the PGA Commissioner at the time, actually approached the company that owned the course, the Arvida Corporation, in hopes he could purchase the land and create a tournament that could be owned by the PGA (something the league had never had). But Beman was turned down.
Remaining determined, Beman sought out other options within Ponte Vedra Beach and eventually found it within the Fletcher brothers who were major landowners in the area. Arvida Chairman, Charles Cobb still wasn’t confident a new deal would go through and even proposed a $100 “business sportsmanship” bet that the new deal would never materialize.
But Beman had one team in his corner. The Fletcher brothers, major land-owners in the area, believed in Beman’s dream so much, that they sold 415 acres of Florida swamps and wetlands to the PGA for a mere $1. As you can imagine, approval within the PGA passed quickly to initiate the building of “The Stadium Course” that would keep “spectators in mind and improve the on-site fan experience”.
“We needed to build a facility that was the epitome of a golf fan” said Beman.
Before THE PLAYERS, almost all golf tournaments were played at private facilities where the average fan didn’t have access. THE PLAYERS would change all that in that this would be the first course that would compliment all styles of play, be completely accessible for the average fan and for the first time in golf history, spectator viewing was involved in the planning stages of the course design where much like a football stadium, there wouldn’t be a bad seat in the house.
In the late 70’s, construction started with the help of golf course architect Pete Dye, who relied heavily on building lakes and using the leftover sand for the “stadium seating” mounding with some as big as 30 feet high. But it was because of this lake construction, that we were given one of the most iconic by-products in the golfing world; the island green of #17.
What started out as a small pond near #17 turned into a green that was completely surrounded by water because of the 50,000 cubic yards of valuable sand base surrounding it.
Unsure of what to do, Dye eventually took the advice of his wife, Alice, who came up with the idea of building an island green after witnessing the construction site.
When construction was finished in 1980, Beman received a special plaque that still hangs in the clubhouse today.
The plaque, which has a $100 bill displayed, reads “To Deane Beman, the man who did what we said couldn’t be done. From Chuck Cobb and his associates at Arvida, who bet on the difficulty of the task, not on the capability of the man doing the task.”
The task of obtaining the land and building The Stadium Course was indeed difficult. But it all became worth it when golf’s biggest field of competitors showed up to play in 1982 during the inaugural PLAYERS Championship.
It was this first year in which the iconic image of tournament winner, Jerry Pate, pushing commissioner Beman and course architect Dye into the pond by the 18th hole before jumping in himself that forever noted this event as the tournament for the fans.
Through the years, THE PLAYERS has seen many upgrades. An addition of a sister course, Dye’s Valley Course (named after the famed-architect, Pete Dye), 77k square foot Mediterranean-style Clubhouse upgrade and strategic move from being held in late March, to the second weekend in May.
With the timing reconfigured, the PGA holds a marquee event in six consecutive months leaving many to consider THE PLAYERS as the 5th Major next to The Masters, US Open, The Open Championship, and the PGA Championship.
Since the early 80’s, THE PLAYERS is now broadcast in over 120 million households in the United States and 805 millions houses worldwide in over 225 countries and territories.
Local pro golfers also share in their love for the event as evident by the amount of wins. Fred Funk, David Duval, Matt Kuchar, Mark McCumber and Davis Love III are all locals who have won THE PLAYERS.
And even the NFL’s Jaguars mascot Jaxon DeVille can hit the green on #17 in full mascot attire.
Perhaps the most important part of THE PLAYERS is the economic impact it has had on the First Coast. $150M is the estimated economic impact on the area with $52.8M generated for Northeast Florida charities, $6.5M of which is from 2012 alone.
There’s no downplaying the importance THE PLAYERS has been to the Jacksonville community and its surrounding areas. The direct financial impact that our city see’s is a result of the vision Deane Beman had in the 70’s that brought THE PLAYERS to one of the most influential golf tournaments in the world. And it’s all right in our backyard.
This article originally appeared in the Golf Issue of Void Magazine.
Featured image via PGA TOUR