The Other Island Green at the TPC at Sawgrass

The seventeenth hole at the TPC at Sawgrass is deservedly famous, but the thirteenth, which is also a par-3, can be almost as intimidating, since from the farthest tournament tee it’s more than 180 yards long, and, to a right-handed player who draws the ball, its green might as well be an island.

TPC 13

I had a demoralizing encounter with the thirteenth twenty years ago, during a tournament on the Partners Tour, a short-lived (and almost certainly money-losing) program that the PGA Tour briefly offered to ordinary golfers. For $1,275, I got one practice round (on the Stadium Course), three tournament rounds (one on the Stadium Course, one on the adjacent Valley Course, and one at Jacksonville Country Club), unlimited extra golf on the Stadium and Valley courses, four nights at the Marriott at Sawgrass, three breakfasts, three lunches, two dinners, and a money clip made of goldium. I also got a locker with my name on it. It was next to the locker of Deane Beman, who at the time was the commissioner of the PGA Tour. I didn’t see Beman, but I did get a pretty good look at his shoe trees and a pair of his socks.

During the first round of the tournament, I was briskly confident as I stepped up to the thirteenth tee. We were playing from the blue tees, from which the hole measures about 150 yards. (The same tees were used during the second round of the Players Championship this year.) The day before, during my practice round, I had chipped in from the fringe for a birdie, and I had birdied the following hole as well, and (because golf is an easy game) I had parred the hole after that. Now, waggling my 8-iron and visualizing a soaring draw, I glanced one last time at the flag, and half-shanked my ball into the trees on the right.

No 13

“I’d better hit a provisional,” I said, without feeling particularly concerned. I teed up another ball, and, with a swing grooved through long and patient repetition, half-shanked it into the same stand of trees.

“I see the second ball,” someone shouted. Five minutes of crawling through dense undergrowth failed to turn up the first. I crouched in a bush to survey my prospects. To put my second ball on the green, I calculated, I would need to hit a crisp thirty-yard smother-hooked 4-iron through a window-size gap in the branches, applying enough backspin to keep the ball from skidding into low earth orbit. I declared the ball unplayable and returned to the tee. Taking a deep breath, I swung again. My third ball found the water on the left.

Sawgrass 13th

An eerie hush fell over my playing partners. I felt my consciousness rise slowly out of my body and gaze down, with ineffable pity, at my golf hat. I dropped a fourth ball, at the front of the teeing area, and with my pitching wedge yanked it safely onto the far left corner of the green, perhaps fifty feet from the pin. Three putts later, I had my ten.

From that point forward, my memories of my round are indistinct. I had been playing pretty well before my disaster, but I ended up with a 102, including double- or triple-bogeys on all the remaining holes except the celebrated seventeenth, on which I had a seven. (First ball into the water over the green; second ball into deep rough next to a piling at the rear of the green after bouncing hard and high off a piling at the front; chunky chip; three putts.) As I watched an official inscribe my score on the big board near the clubhouse, I wondered whether I ought not to give up golf altogether, for the good of the game.

Because I had played so poorly in the first round, I was demoted to the old-guy flight for the second round, which we played at the TPC’s Valley Course. The Valley Course, which is right next to the Stadium Course, is very different—it was designed by Pete Dye and Bobby Weed—but it’s still a good, challenging course. (The N.A.I.A. championship had been played there two days earlier.) I was grouped with an old guy from Texas named John, an old guy from South Carolina named Glen, and a regular guy from Florida named Gerry. Like me, Gerry had had a terrible round the day before. (He was a seven-handicap, but had shot 95.) I started out quadruple-bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey—a string of trouble that began when I decided to hit a big tee shot in front of Holly, a nice woman from the Tour office who was sitting at a table by the first tee. This triple disaster was doubly annoying, because the evening before I had parred all three holes in a quick nine-hole practice round with a fellow competitor and a photographer from Golf Digest.

Fourteenth hole, Valley Course.

Fourteenth hole, Valley Course.

One thing that makes me nervous on a golf course is wondering when disaster is going to strike. Once disaster has actually struck, I feel a sense of relief: now I know. Finding myself eight over par after three holes, I gave up hope, settled down, and began to make pars. I eased up on my swing, and my shots became longer and straighter. I no longer cared so much about my putts, and they began to drop. I even made a couple of birdies. Part of the credit belongs to my playing partners. John (whose golf shirt had a picture of an oil derrick on it) and Glen made flattering noises every time Gerry or I hit a ball more than 150 yards. Under their benevolent, calming gaze on one hole, I unwound a mighty two-wood—my fraidy-cat driver at that time—and hit what turned out to be the longest drive of the day. My prize was an attaché case with a PGA Tour emblem on it. I was thrilled to receive it—the long-drive winner in a previous tournament had been the mother of the Tour player Robert Gamez—although I later threw it away.

A Golfer’s Bucket List: No. 4 (T.P.C. Edition)

TPC at Sawgrass, February 9, 2009.

TPC at Sawgrass, February 9, 2009.

Play the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass. Hacking your way around a memorable course that you can watch the pros play on TV is both exciting and instructive, and the Stadium Course is the most engaging regular tour venue that mere civilians can play for a somewhat reasonable price. Bay Hill, Cog Hill, Doral, Harbour Town, and Torrey Pines are also possibilities. So is Pebble Beach, although eighteen holes there, including the obligatory add-ons, may cost more than the annual dues at your home club, and your round will seem to last for several days, and the greens will disappoint you, and the people in the group in front of yours will turn out to have taken up golf the day before yesterday. The Stadium Course is fun to play, and when you later watch The Players Championship—the fifth major!—on TV you will recognize more than just the last two holes. Playing a tour course will help you appreciate how the pros make their living, and the next time Tiger or Rory or Rickie dumps one in the water on seventeen you can tell your buddies, “Hey, I’ve done that.”

Seventeenth green, TPC at Sawgrass.

Seventeenth green, TPC at Sawgrass.

Playing Golf Indoors at Maggie McFly’s

Carl Matz wagon 1891.BMP

The blizzard that was supposed to pummel New England this weekend was a bust, at least as far as my town is concerned. We had a soft drizzle on Sunday morning, but that was as close as we came to getting buried under two feet of snow. The storm was still in the forecast when my friends and I made our weekend plans, though, so I ended up spending the day paying bills, doing the crossword, and obsessively touching up some old photographs that I borrowed from my mother last week, in Kansas City. The guy in the photograph above is my grandfather, in 1891, at the age of three. He never played golf, but he did join a country club, eventually. That’s the only connection I can think of. I like the picture, though.

This doesn't look like a golf course, but it is one. I don't know who that car belongs to. Some guy with head covers on his irons, probably.

This doesn’t look like a golf course, but it is one. I don’t know who that fancy car belongs to. Some guy with head covers on his irons, probably.

Two weeks ago, Hacker (real name) reserved one of the three simulators at Maggie McFly’s, a restaurant and bar not far from where we live. We first played there three winters ago, when snow covered the ground for months and we couldn’t find anyplace to play on grass. Since then, the simulators have become so popular that the only tee time we could get was for Wednesday afternoon.

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Simulator technology has improved tremendously since the first time I played indoors, in the early 1990s. As always, you hit shots toward a picture on a screen, and a computer takes over once the ball is in the air. What has changed is the sophistication of the imagery and the accuracy with which the sensors pick up your ball’s velocity, trajectory, and spin. The machine we played was manufactured by a company called aboutGolf and is endorsed by the PGA Tour. It’s what you see on the Golf Channel.

That's Rick.

That’s Rick, getting ready to hit a lob over a bunker. It’s a shot he’s good at because–unfairly, some would say–he practices.

In the past, we’ve played Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, and the Old Course at St. Andrews, among other courses you may have heard of. This time we played the TPC at Sawgrass. Here’s what the famous 17th hole looks like when you’re standing on the fringe at the back of the green, looking toward the tee. I had a birdie putt, which I just missed:

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Simulator putting takes some getting used to: to read the breaks, you have to analyze the movements of dozens of virtual marbles rolling around on a projected grid that looks like a college-textbook illustration of the curvature of space-time. Once you get used to it, though, you begin to wish your home course had virtual marbles, too. Here’s Hacker—who was my partner—reading one of the many critical putts he drained:

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The simulators at Maggie McFly’s are great, because they’re in wood-paneled rooms that look like something you’d find in a fancy clubhouse. A waiter brought us beers and cheeseburgers, and there were four guys in the room next to ours who looked almost exactly like us, and if we had been able to figure out how to turn on the TV we would have been able to watch the football game. And about an hour into our round a woman with a cane walked in and sat down on our couch: our first gallery ever!

IMG_0178Her name is Linda, and she’s seventy-two years old. She said there was going to be karaoke at Maggie McFly’s that night, a favorite of hers, but that she would probably go home for a nap at some point, rather than hanging around for eight hours. Her husband, who died fifteen years ago, was an engineer. He worked on the Manhattan Project (though not on the bomb part) and on the Suez Canal, and he was a champion skeet shooter.

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She said she had played a little golf when she was younger but hadn’t swung a club since sometime in the nineteen-seventies. She was very interested in how the simulator worked, and when we tried to explain it we sounded the way I did when my son, at the age of three or four, asked me what makes the car go. At one point, the manager came in to tell her to beat it, but we had already bought her a drink so we told him to beat it. I happened to mention that the following day was going to be my birthday, and when we weren’t paying attention she ordered dessert for all four of us. I got to pick the one I wanted, and then a waitress put a candle in it and lit it.

IMG_0199Linda wanted to try the simulator, so as soon as Hacker and I had wiped out Rick and Gary we gave her Hacker’s three-wood and let her rip a few. She went right under the first one, but after that she nailed it, repeatedly:

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The only problem with simulator golf is that it’s the opposite of exercise, because between shots you don’t walk anywhere, or even climb in and out of a cart; you just plop down on the couch and steal a few more of Gary’s french fries.

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My brother, John, used to play in a winter simulator league at a health club in Brooklyn. He said that it was embarrassing to stand around drinking beer and eating Doritos while beautiful women in butt-floss leotards trotted back and forth between the racquetball courts and the Nautilus machines. He suggested that the club install a treadmill next to the golf simulators, so that you could pick up your bag and pretend to walk to your ball while you waited for your turn to hit. That way, at least, you’d break a sweat.

This may be a direct reference to an early customer--a cop!--who took a whiz in a potted plant and was banished for life.

This may be a direct reference to an early customer–a cop!–who took a whiz in a potted plant and was banished for life.

You Really Have to Play the TPC At Sawgrass

David O., John O., Tony, Gene, TPC at Sawgrass, February, 2009.

The thirteenth hole on Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass is a straightforward par 3 that measures 150 yards from the blue  tees. The hole is nowhere near as famous or as frightening as the island-green seventeenth, but if you draw the ball the green might as well be an island because  there’s water both in front and on the left.

Despite the dangers, I was briskly confident as I stepped up to the tee. The day before, during my practice round, I had chipped in from the fringe for a birdie, and I had birdied the following hole as well, and (because golf is an easy game) I had parred the hole after that. Now, waggling my 8-iron and visualizing a soaring draw, I glanced one last time at the flag, and half-shanked my ball into the trees on the right.

“I’d better hit a provisional,” I said, not feeling particularly concerned. I teed up another ball, and, with a swing grooved through long and patient repetition, half-shanked it into the same stand of trees.

“I see the second ball,” someone shouted. Five minutes of crawling through dense undergrowth failed to turn up the first. I crouched in a bush to survey my prospects.  To put my second ball on the green, I calculated, I would need to hit a crisp thirty-yard smother-hooked 4-iron through a window-sized gap in the branches, applying enough backspin to keep the ball from skidding off the green into low earth orbit. I declared the ball unplayable and returned to the tee. I took a deep breath and swung again. My third ball found the water on the left.

An eerie hush fell over my playing partners. I felt my consciousness rise slowly out of my body and gaze down, with ineffable pity, at my golf hat. I dropped a fourth ball, at the front of the teeing area, and, with my pitching wedge, yanked it safely onto the far left corner of the green, perhaps fifty feet from the pin. Three putts later, I had my ten.

From that point forward, my memories of my round are indistinct. I had been playing pretty well before my disaster, but I ended up with a 102, including double or triple bogeys on all the remaining holes except the celebrated seventeenth, on which I had a seven. (First ball into the water over the green; second ball into deep rough next to a piling at the rear of the green after bouncing hard and high off a piling at the front; chunky chip; three putts.) As I watched an official inscribe my score on the big board near the clubhouse, I wondered whether I ought not to give up golf altogether, for the good of the game.

All that happened twenty years ago. The tournament in which I was competing was not, quite obviously, the Players Championship, which is held at the Stadium Course each spring and is underway this week. It was an amateur event that no longer exists, alas—a bargain-priced multi-day event on what was then known as the Partners Tour.

But, even though the Partners Tour is defunct, you should find an excuse to play Sawgrass. Hacking your way around a memorable course that you can watch the pros play on TV is both exciting and instructive, and the Stadium Course is the most engaging regular tour venue that mere civilians can play for a somewhat reasonable price. Bay Hill, Cog Hill, Doral, Harbour Town, and Torrey Pines are also possibilities. So is Pebble Beach, although eighteen holes there, including obligatory add-ons, may cost more the annual dues at your home club, and your round will seem to last for several days, and the greens will disappoint you, and the people in the group in front of yours will turn out to have taken up golf the day before yesterday. The Stadium Course is fun to play, and when you later watch the Players Championship—the fifth major!—on TV (as I assume you are doing today, instead of working) you will recognize more than just the last two holes.  Playing a tour course will help you appreciate how the pros make their living, and the next time Rory or Tiger or Phil dumps one in the water on seventeen you can tell your buddies, “Hey, I’ve done that.”