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TPC Courses are 20 years old

Jerry Pate had it right when he plunged into the pond off the 18th green to celebrate his victory 20 years ago at The Players Championship.

It was the ideal way to baptize the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass -- a bold, brash, new kind of course that changed the way the world watches golf, and the way the players play it, too.

``It doesn't feel like 20 years,'' Pate said Wednesday, asked to reflect on his magic moment in TPC at Sawgrass history.

In 1982, the one-time patch of swampland became the first course built by the PGA Tour to play host to its own tournament.

It was the first course to bring stadium mounds to the world of tournament golf, allowing spectators to ditch the periscopes, take a seat on an elevated knoll and catch action from two or three holes in one spot.

It was also the first course to give the world anything like No. 17 -- the island green -- 137 yards of terror, excitement and pressure that has spawned its own little subculture within the tournament.

``When you play that hole on Tuesday and Wednesday, it's a pretty easy hole -- a little flip 9-iron, no big deal,'' Tiger Woods said. But on Sunday with the tournament on the line? That's what helps make TPC at Sawgrass what it is.

The idea of the course belonged to then-commissioner Deane Beman, who spent one weekend at a tournament in Phoenix, walking outside the ropes with other fans. Standing about 5-foot-10, Beman had trouble seeing the action. He noticed how the periscope was the most popular item in the gallery.

``I'm looking through the back of everybody's head trying to figure out who is playing here,'' Beman said.

He vowed to change that, and he changed golf in the process.

He conceived of a unique course that he admitted was ``a little too severe'' at the start. But the Tour needed tough -- a course challenging enough to bring its biggest event closer to the stratosphere of The Masters, The U.S. Open, The British Open and the PGA Championship.

Beman turned the project over to course architect Pete Dye. It opened in 1980, and played host to its first Players Championship two years later.

The signature hole is No. 17 -- that tricky, waterborne par-3 that has engendered its own betting pools, T-shirts and now, an internet web site that tracks every shot over the murky black water.

``It's absolutely perfect,'' Ernie Els said. ``A great hole. It's only 145 or 148 yards to the middle of the green, but it's such a difficult hole.''

Yet it's hardly the toughest challenge at Sawgrass. The 7,093-yard course is filled with pot bunkers, waste areas, and little bumps and hollows that can catch even the best players off guard.

The rough is high. Hal Sutton once equated hacking a ball out of the 6-inch grass to trying to hit through wire.

The greens are small and undulating, and if weather turns windy, they dry out and become almost impossible to hold.

Jack Nicklaus, who won this event three times, but never on this course, once got so fed up with the conditions here, he said he was ``never really good at making 4-irons stop on the hoods of Volkswagens.''

Indeed, Beman was roundly lambasted for building a course so difficult, but he turned out to be a visionary.

Sawgrass was the first of 23 TPC courses that have saved the PGA Tour about $50 million in savings on rent for tournament courses, and generated millions more in revenue as resorts and private clubs.

``In that year, there were a lot of unqualified, strongly opinionated golfers,'' Pate said. ``Time tells a lot. History. It's easy to go back and look now. But there's no question it was a great idea.''

Who knows how well the TPC concept would have taken off had Pate not drawn attention to the course with his big splash? He took Beman and Dye into the water with him on the day he won the tournament in 1982.

Suddenly, the TPC at Sawgrass had a face, a name, a moment.

Over the years, it built a reputation as a challenge worthy of the top fields that come here each year to compete for the largest purse in golf.

``You're not going to scuffle around here and shoot a good score,'' Els said. ``You've got to play well to score well. As I've said before, this kind of golf course is a real little monster.''

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