Ever since I can remember I have loved the game of golf. On top of that love I have formed a deep and seeded affection for Tiger Woods. I remember this like it was yesterday. I was in Cincinnati, Ohio at a Hallmark ornaments convention with my mother and late grandmother. We were finished with the convention for the day and headed out for dinner at Chili’s. (Don’t ask me how I remember all of these details, but I do.) We walk in, sit down, and order some drinks. Just then, in the far corner, I saw the television playing some random golf tournament.
I was not a fan of golf at the time, as baseball had consumed my life. Not having been watching the golf tournament for a few minutes, I saw a long and winding putt fall into the hole. The camera panned to a tall, slim black man giving some sort of a fist pump, as he was excited that he had made the putt. He was wearing khaki shorts and a straw hat. The man that made that putt was Tiger Woods and he was playing the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
That day I went from being a baseball fanatic to being addicted to the game of golf. I began playing, hitting balls every chance I got, and eventually ended up playing in college for Marian University. Every time I think about Tiger Woods, I am taken back to that day where I saw him drain that putt. Later, in 1999 when Tiger Woods began what has proven to be one of the most successful video games of all time, they have featured the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course as one of the courses.
Recently I was given the opportunity to travel with my company down to Amelia Island, Florida for a golf conference. The conference, the annual Golf Inc. Magazine Conference, was business as usual and a long, educational few days of seminars and meetings. We were there as an exhibitor and also as a thought leader in the golf industry for the services and solutions that we offer. Where this conference was being held landed us only a thirty-minute drive from TPC Sawgrass.
We arrived on in Jacksonville on a Sunday afternoon and thought about heading over to the course. But we got in late and thought we might travel that way on Monday morning before we set up for the show. But come Monday morning, by the time we had finished setting up it was too late to go. But I wasn’t giving up hope of seeing one of the most famous golf courses in the world. So what did I do? I simply picked up the phone and called the golf course to see if we could schedule a tour of the facility for that Wednesday.
You see, the meetings were over in the early afternoon on Wednesday and we wanted to make sure to see the golf course. And we didn’t leave until Thursday morning so we had all the time in the world on Wednesday to see that golf course. I wanted to make sure I made every minute of this trip, and seeing Sawgrass would be a somewhat dream come true. Especially including the history that Tiger has there.
When I first called the golf course the Director of First Impressions picked up the phone. I explained to her that I was a blogger from Indiana and that I wanted to come see the facility. By happenstance, my company’s CEO is also a budding photographer, and he wanted to shoot some photos. She seemed interested and I was transferred to the general manager of the golf course for further clearance. I spoke with Mr. Bill Hughes and he stated that we were more than welcome to come in and see the facility. He invited us in on Wednesday at 4:00 PM to see the clubhouse, the driving range, and a few holes out on the golf course.
The rest of the week went by with us making conversation surrounding TPC Sawgrass. I, as well as the others guys in our party, were excited to see the facility. It was a long wait getting from Monday afternoon until Wednesday evening.
Come Wednesday, when the meetings had all ended, we were headed to the golf course. An hour or so later we entered Ponte Vedra Beach and found the entrance to what is known as Sawgrass. It had a guarded gate and we needed further clearance to even get in the front gate. However, my name was on a roster from the golf course and we were allowed access.
See, in Sawgrass there is more than just the TPC Stadium Course. This is also where the PGA headquarters located. Also, I would later learn, it is where five or so PGA Tour players make their home. Vijay Singh, for example, lives right behind the driving range while Jim Fuyrk also lives on one of the holes on the golf course. Being as they have year round playing conditions, it makes sense for these guys to reside on here. There were actually a handful of PGA players there when we were at the golf course. Of course, we never did get to see them, but it was the mysterious factor that made it even more exciting.
When we finally found the golf course, we traveled through a long and winding main entrance to the parking lot. We got out, stretched our legs, and make our way to the clubhouse. The first thing you notice is the sheer size of the facility. It was almost like looking at a mansion or something standing right in front of us. We snapped a few images and walked in to get started on our tour. That is when our tour guide, Mike, greeted us. (I do not recall Mike’s last name.)
Mike walked us over to the Director of First Impressions and she gave him clearance to begin the tour. We started with the clubhouse since that is where we met Mike. First he discussed the huge paintings that were all over the walls. These paintings were huge, all from the same artist, and were all donated to the clubhouse as well as to the TPC Sawgrass. They are of repeat winners of the Player’s Championship and one of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson from Tiger’s only Player’s Championship victory.
The Player’s is what most call the fifth major of the season and holds the deepest field of the year. Only a handful of people have won this event twice. That list includes Steve Elkington, Fred Couples, Jack Nicklaus, Hal Sutton, and Fred Couples. Like I said, there is also a huge painting of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson from when Tiger won his only, to date, Player’s in 2001. During that event you might remember the announcer saying, in regards to the putt he made in 17, that it was, “Better than most.”
We then made our way to the President’s Room. Here you will find a table, some chairs, and the President’s Cup. The cup sits there when the United States owns it, and last year the US won it back from Europe. It was neat to see, not as big as I thought, and was sitting among a room filled with history. Mike had said this room was filled with memories and each year the greats of the game meet here for conversation and recollection each year before the Player’s.
Then we made our way to the player’s locker room. We were told that it was private, that we were not allowed to go in there, but since it was slow and we were huge golf fans, Mike walked us back. Granted, he could have been able to take us back there the entire time, but never the less it was awesome to see. In this room there were lockers for all of the greats of the game. I found myself standing in a room that I could hope to be nothing less than a fly on the wall. I stood only inches from Tiger Woods’s locker. Yes, I touched the handle on that locker to be that one more step closer to the living the life that Tiger leads.
Then we walked down past the 19th Hole, the in house restaurant where they serve food and drinks to the general public. Here Mike said players gather after their rounds for a drink, some food, and a priceless conversation. It was neat to see a room where you know guys like Tom Watson and Fred Couples have talked about their rounds.
Then we saw the line of clubs that were all down one wall of the 19th Hole. Mike said that each year the winner is asked to donate a club to the course. The club that is donated is said to be the club that the player felt helped him win the event. In this row of sticks you see drivers, three woods, irons, wedges and even putters lined up side by side. Tiger left his 56-degree Scotty Cameron sand wedge. It was when he was still with Titleist and is actually the exact same wedge that I play. I touched the grip just to be safe. (Players are also asked to sign the club somewhere for keepsake.)
Now it was time to see the Hall of Champions. This is an underground tunnel from the clubhouse to the first there allowing players to escape the craze of fans and autographs. Also down here was the caddy area where all of the club’s caddies hang out and spend their free time between rounds. It was neat to walk down this hallway as on either side you could also see high-resolution professional photos from all of the winners of the Player’s. The club at the TPC Sawgrass puts a ton of attention into their winners and treats them with the up most respect.
Then we walked back upstairs and got the chance to see what the original Player’s Championship trophy looked like. The old trophy is huge! However, the new trophy, which I would later see on display in the pro shop, is much smaller and is made of solid crystal. A major improvement from the old black beast they used to give away.
Also in the clubhouse, right across the way from the crystal trophy is the FedEx Cup. Tiger has won this two of the three FedEx Cup events. It is nice, the folks at Tiffany and Co. created it. It weights thirty-five pounds and it is nice to think that Tiger has won, held, and kissed this trophy now twice. Note that Tiger was out with an injury the second year of the event and did not participate in any o the tournaments. (The FedEx Cup is a season long playoffs for the players and was introduced three years ago as a way to draw more eyes to the game of golf.)
Now it was time to see the golf course. We headed outside, snapped a few more pictures of the clubhouse, and then jumped on a six-man golf cart. Mike pulled away and took us to the roundabout just before the driving range. Here there is a large oval monument showcasing all of the previous winners and the flag of their respective country of origin. Also there are high flying flags of the previous winners country. There is so much history here at the TPC as well as so much homage to the players who win here.
We drove past the driving range and I asked about where the PGA players actually hit balls. This, sadly, was on the opposite side the range and out of our direct sight. The tour players spend so much time here that they wanted a place for them to have no worries about where to hit balls and to work on their games. So, as we drove by I saw a few guys on the far side of the range and it made my mind run wild with which it could be. Mike did say that Tiger likes to just show up at the golf course unannounced. I will never know if Tiger was on the range that day, but it fun to imagine one of those players was he.
Then we saw a smaller secondary clubhouse, which was originally built as a place to hold the caddies in between rounds and as a snack bar in between nines. This small building was just past the 18th green and had a story all of it’s own. Mike said that the building is now used as the scorer’s tent where the official scores are tallied. After each round the players will go in, sign their scorecards, and then sign a few autographs where fans can gather outside. The second story, however, is a part of what you see on TV. NBC wanted a place to hold their interviews to the TPC build a sound proof booth on the second floor of this little building for this very reason.
Hole 18, from the green going the opposite direction, does not look like hard of a golf hole. Well, that changes when you make your way to the tee box. Standing on the tee, all you see is water. The entire left hand side is water and there are woods to the left. It is a very tough decision what club to hit, especially on Sunday.
Mike said that a ton of balls actually end up on the right hand side somewhere in the woods due to the guys not wanting to hit it in the water. The hole also plays over 450 yards and to me, that is pushing a par five. But for the players on the tour it is a typical par 4. (I guess when you hit the ball as far as these guys do; a hole of this length plays fairly short.)
We then moved on to the famed 17th hole. This is known as one of the single most famous hole in golf. This is also called the island green by most and serves as a way for the TPC to collect a range of golf balls on a daily basis. The TPC Stadium Course gets over 40,000 rounds a year and according to Mike, the average golfer will hit three balls into the water before getting one to stick on the green. Imagine that. Three balls, six strokes, and you are not even putting yet. The hole is only 137 yards too!
The course was designed by one of the most famous course designers of all time, Mr. Pete Dye. When he got to hole 17 he did not intend for it to be an island green. But, after his wife talked him into it, the hole ended up being short and intimidating finishing hole. Even guys on the tour hit balls into the water here. Mike said the main reason for this is that the wind blows in from the right to the left but you cannot feel it on the tee. He was right. You cannot feel anything on that tee box. But after a handful of photos we moved on to the 16th hole.
On 16, a long par five, you can see nothing but trees on either side. The trees on the left, on Tiger Woods EA Sports video games, I can hit over and have a wedge into the green. But with water on the right and trees left PGA players tend to hit a three wood just to make sure they have a shot into the green. Mike actually took us over to a spot in the trees on the left where Davis Love III had hit a three wood one year when he was two shots up heading into 16. This shot was about 180 yards from the green, in the trees, and behind the water for a shot to the pin. But, Davis hit a 6 iron, through the trees, over the water, and ended up about ten foot from the cup. He made the putt for eagle and would later win the event.
Mike then proceeded to drive us around the course on our way back to the clubhouse. He thanked us for coming in and even said it was nice that we came so late as his mother in law was in town. We all laughed and he wished us a good day at the clubhouse as we said our goodbyes.
After Mike had left, we all walked around snapping even more images of the clubhouse. A couple of the guys went on a shopping spree in the pro shop while I headed back to the Director of First Impressions to ask for Mr. Hughes to come downs so that I could meet him. He did, we shook hands, and formed a relationship that I hope lasts a lifetime. I am actually looking to go play the golf course sometime later this year and have scheduled an interview with the head professional.
Regardless of the time spent at the Golf Inc. Conference and the experience of meeting some of the industries top thought leaders, seeing TPC Sawgrass made the trip worthwhile. Walking on the same fairways and opening the same doors as guys like Tiger and Phil gives me a desire to play more golf. Golf is all about tradition and playing a game that holds a set of rules a mile long. Seeing golf and how it is treated at a level like this, the absolute top level of the sport, makes being and working in this industry that much more special. Thanks to Mike for the tour, to Bill for setting this all up, and to the PGA for building and establishing a course with such magnitude as this one. This was a trip that has created memories that will last a lifetime.