When you contrive a disaster, it's not as pleasing.
PGA Tour commissioner, 1990
Breakfast is hardly the time to write off an epoch. Neither is it the best hour for confession. But when Deane Beman declared that the Era of Obstacle Golf had ended, he did it over juice and toast in a hotel coffee shop in Chicago. A fastidious man, Beman managed to eat a little crow without spotting his tie.
"I don't want to be too harsh, I don't want to minimize my respect for the architects' talents," he said, fork poised over his plate. "But I believe today that golf-course architecture is overdone. And, unfortunately, we helped push architecture toward the extreme with the original Tournament Players Club [TPC]. Which I regret."
By "we," Beman meant himself and the PGA Tour's Tournament Policy Board, which oversees the Tour's rapidly growing network of Tournament Players Clubs. Since the original stadium course, TPC at Sawgrass, opened in Ponte Vedra, Fla., in 1980, the Tour has built, bought or licensed 12 TPCs and has six more in development. The guiding concept behind this turf-grass land rush has been "stadium golf," a Beman-inspired concept that evokes either admiration or loathing, depending on whether one approaches the idea with a tournament ticket or a golf club in hand.
July 15, 1990
"The greatest players in the world can play our golf courses," Beman said, "but they don't enjoy playing them. The influence of Saw-grass, the heroic philosophy, has led to disaster holes at every turn. You either make a birdie, or you make a 6 or a 7. We think we have a responsibility to change that trend. From this day forward, our philosophy—when we have complete control—will be to build traditional golf courses."
That sound you hear, the crumbling noise, is the Berlin Wall falling, George Bush saying, "Don't read my lips," and the Loch Ness monster caught sunning on the beach at Waikiki. Beman is the man who once called the TPC at Sawgrass "the Yankee Stadium of golf." He's the guy who said, "The public wants to see a player fight through adversity."
The other sound you hear, the wild cheering, is from the touring pros. The players have long complained that stadium courses are unappealing to the eye, gimmicky and poor tests of golf. Any TPC glossary includes the noun moonscape, the adjectives stark, severe and artificial, and the pejorative compounds cookie-cutter holes and island greens.
Tom Watson once said he would like to take a bulldozer to the greens at Saw-grass. Greg Norman thought dynamite would improve the 9th hole of the TPC at Avenel in Bethesda, Md. Scott Hoch, asked if he thought a certain TPC course suited his game, answered, "I don't know what it suits, other than a goat."
Since many players earned their Tour cards on stadium courses (the Tour's annual qualifying school has been held on TPCs four times since 1982), you might expect the pros to show some fondness for the layouts. But no.
"We're choosing guys for the Tour from these courses," says Paul Azinger, a reluctant veteran of three Q-schools. "A lot of good players aren't making it because the luck factor is involved too much. Guys you would expect to make it, don't."
As a rule, the guardians of stadium golf have ridiculed the players' gripes.
"God couldn't build a golf course that all those guys would like," says Ben Brundred, the general chairman of the Kemper Open, which has been held the last four years at Avenel.
"You'd think they were playing a junkyard the way they holler," says PGA Tour official Mark Russell. "I ask a guy, 'Why don't you like the course?' He says, 'I made a 10 there.' Is that the course's fault? Sounds to me like he hit a couple of bad shots."
Beman, the author of many eloquent defenses of stadium golf over the years, now sides with the critics...sort of.
"Obstacle golf and stadium golf are not synonymous," he says. "There is complete compatibility between stadium golf and traditional courses. It's just a question of taking some of the sharpness out of the design, introducing subtleness."
If Beman sounds like the dentist in the old joke—"Your teeth are fine, but your gums will have to come out"—it's because he knows stadium golf is not going to go away. It's too successful.
To understand the paradox, one must know the history. The TPC concept dates to an idea Beman had in the early '60s, which he now calls "completely unsuccessful." At the time, he was an insurance broker and the country's top amateur golfer. He suggested that the United States Golf Association (USGA) build a series of courses around the country. The new courses would serve two functions: as sites for the U.S. Open and as "laboratories" for the USGA's Green Section research.
That idea went nowhere, but Beman filed the thought. He also made note of another U.S. Open phenomenon of the '50s: cardboard periscopes, sold by the hundreds to fans who couldn't see the action on traditional Open courses.
In the mid-'60s, Beman took a brief fling at golf course design, in partnership with the late Ed Ault, a prolific designer of courses in Maryland and Virginia. None of the courses they planned together were built, but the two men played around with features designed solely to benefit the golf spectator.
"That's where the term 'stadium golf came from," says Beman. "Ed wanted to put several golf holes in a virtual stadium. He even had roadways—people movers, almost—to move galleries around. He and I didn't see eye to eye on that. I thought it was too much of a departure."
In 1967, at age 29, Beman wandered off to play professional golf for six years. (He won four PGA tournaments.) He emerged in the '70s as commissioner of the Tour, a post he has held for 17 years.
Beman and his staff plotted a strategy for the Tour's growth based upon television exposure and corporate sponsorship of tournaments. But they saw a problem: The courses on which many Tour events were staged were too small. Corporate hospitality required two or more acres for tents. Sponsors paid top dollar for distant spectator parking sites. Television called for production pads, crane positions and routing for miles of cables. Tournament administration needed headquarters space and dispatching areas for a thousand-plus marshals and volunteers. Concessions required a staging area and numerous on-course sales sites.
The average course of 120 to 160 acres barely had room for the spear carriers, much less daily galleries of 30,000 or more. Small galleries, Beman knew, meant smaller purses. So did rising "use fees," the Tour's euphemism for rent. (Sponsors currently pay as much as $250,000 for a course—unless it's a TPC, which is rent-free.)
Beman's response was to resurrect his old "laboratory course" idea. In 1978, the Tournament Policy Board authorized the construction of a golf course next to the Tour's headquarters, in Ponte Vedra Beach. The new course, in addition to hosting the Tour's own Players Championship, would be a testing ground for various concepts, which have since been packaged as stadium golf: spectator mounds, amphitheater greens, spectator amenities.
The architect of choice? Pete Dye.
"I hired Pete because of Harbour Town," Beman says. "The consensus of the players was that Harbour Town [on Hilton Head Island, S.C.] was the best new course and Pete Dye was the A-number-one best architect."
Working with the flat, featureless swampland of northeastern Florida, Dye cut down trees, dug up tons of sand, filled the holes with water and piled the debris alongside the fairways for spectator mounds. That was fine, but for greens he put in coffee tables. For greenside bunkers, he installed underground missile silos.
"Frankly, when Pete got in there, he didn't build a Harbour Town," says Beman. "I spent half my time toning down what he was imagining. I don't know what was in Pete's mind. The product we opened with was very severe, particularly the greens. But it was toned down a lot from what it would have been if I hadn't been alarmed."
Dye chuckles at this account. "I assure you," he says, "when we built the greens at Sawgrass, Deane and everybody looked at them and approved them. I didn't go out and build 18 greens and they caught me. And when I built the island green, nobody disapproved. Maybe I should have said, 'This is very severe,' but I thought we were all in accord. Anyway, there wasn't a green at the TPC as severe as the 17th green at Medinah. And we were thinking about Bermuda grass at that time, which would have been slower. It was built when there was still a nebulous hope that courses wouldn't go toward faster and faster greens."
If Beman was alarmed, the touring pros were traumatized. Ben Crenshaw called it Star Wars golf and said the course was designed by Darth Vader. J.C. Snead called Dye's design "90 percent horse manure and 10 percent luck." John Mahaffey said, "What I'm still trying to find out is whether you win a free game if you make a putt on the last hole."
The greens at Sawgrass have since been softened—all of them—but elements of Dye's demonic design have crept into subsequent TPC courses: heroic water carries, steeply banked greens, severe putting surfaces. Where once a deft chip would suffice, architects now ask players to fly the ball high from tight lies onto shelflike greens. "There was no such thing as a 60-degree wedge on Tour till these courses came along," says Azinger. "Golf was not meant to be played on different tiers like that."
The unanticipated result of Dye's work at Sawgrass was that it started a trend toward superdifficult golf courses. Beman faults all the architects for that, not just Dye. "They kept trying to outdo each other. The extreme became the norm as they tried to one-up each other. That's the battle we've been fighting all along."
If any one hole engages the two sides of the controversy, it is Dye's 17th at the TPC at Sawgrass—the notorious island-green par-3. This is the hole where Robert Gamez shot an 11. This is the water hole amateurs replenish with tears.
But is the 17th any less fair than the par-3 16th at Cypress Point, which calls for a heroic carry of 205 yards from one cliff edge to another, often in gale-force winds?
Yes, says Beman, because the hole at Cypress Point enjoys the authority of natural terrain. The hole at Sawgrass does not. It is the product of men with bulldozers. "When you contrive a disaster, it's not as pleasing," he says. Beman might have added that somebody provided the 16th at Cypress with a small fairway at the left front of the green for bailing out in conditions of extreme hardship. The 17th at the TPC at Sawgrass offers no such sanctuary.
The debate goes on, but it is hard to argue with the commercial success of the TPC network. The golf courses took in almost $43 million in 1989, $6.3 million of which was profit. The Tour owns six of the TPCs, leases another and hopes to assume ownership of two more in the near future. (The golf courses are usually built at no cost to the Tour by developers hoping to make money on the surrounding real estate.) Three TPCs—The Woodlands (near Houston), PGA West (La Quinta, Calif.) and Las Colinas (Irving, Texas)—are run by licensed operators.
More important, the stadium courses have fulfilled their promise as handlers of large galleries. The TPC in Scottsdale, Ariz., sold 109,000 tickets for the Saturday round alone of the 1990 Phoenix Open. That's about as many spectators as attend all four rounds of an average U.S. Open.
But more is not always better, and savvy golf fans are getting wise to the trade-offs inherent in stadium golf. Yes, more people can crowd around an amphitheater green, but the gallery ropes must be set much farther back to preserve the sight lines for the mound folk. On a stadium course, you'll never see a spectator with a periscope, but you'll see dozens with binoculars. Want to sit in the shade? At most TPC courses you can forget it. Trees block the views from the spectator mounds.
In fact, if this year's U.S. Open had been played on a stadium course instead of at old-fashioned Medinah, Hale Irwin could not have slapped palms with thrilled galleryites after sinking his long putt on the 72nd hole. He would have had to cut short his celebratory jog or risk falling into a moat.
The lack of intimacy is easily explained. Traditional courses have their greens on high ground to encourage drainage. Stadium courses have their greens on low ground to provide visibility. "That leads to drainage problems," says Irwin, who has his own golf-course design company. "You have to put a catch basin below the green to carry off rainwater. That's why you end up with a steeply banked green that usually repels golf shots."
And because spectators can't see much from the grassy ditch around the green, they have to watch from some far-off hill.
Another shortcoming: When tournament week ends at Medinah or St. Andrews, workmen come and tear down the grandstands; the terraced berms and ugly mounds are permanently there on stadium courses, hogging the view and looking abandoned.
Nowhere are these defects more obvious than at the TPC at Avenel in Potomac, Md. Designed by Ed Ault Associates with Beman himself as an uncredited consultant, Avenel has endured unrelenting criticism in its four-year life. Although tournament attendance has soared since the Kemper Open abandoned nearby Congressional, the Tour's marquee names have voted "no" with their feet. This year's field included only three of the top 20 money winners, despite the Kemper's $1 million purse and network television.
Other TPCs have fared better. Scottsdale's, designed by Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf, looks almost natural in its desert setting. Bob Cupp's StarPass in Tucson has that desert-terrarium look that Jack Nicklaus popularized at Desert Highlands in Scottsdale. Memphis's Southwind, designed by Ron Prichard, was well received in its first tournament last August.
Ironically, when asked to name his favorite TPC, Beman doesn't hesitate: "The first one. Sawgrass."
Most of the tournament players agree, even those who loathed the course in its original form. "I love that course," says Azinger. "It's now one of my favorite courses, when it's in shape."
Beman hopes that the Tour, by stressing "traditional values" from the start, can avoid extensive redesign work at future TPCs. The courses not yet completed will conform to the new design philosophy. The existing TPCs will be redone gradually, in consultation with former tournament winners, until a more subtle design is achieved and the language of the golfers becomes less blue. For example, on July 2, the day after Wayne Levi won the Canon Greater Hartford Open at TPC of Connecticut, the course was closed for major renovations, including redesign of the greens and spectator mounds, that are scheduled to be completed by next summer.
Necessarily, the new golf courses will take longer to be appreciated—which, Beman says, may not sit well with either the architects or the developers. "They want instant recognition, but impatience doesn't create great golf courses. It took Donald Ross 30 years to perfect Pinehurst Number 2. People think he went out there one day with a few mules and built this great course, but he lived there and kept working at it."
The new policy begins, Beman said at his breakfast in Chicago, "as of today."
O.K. Now, what's for lunch?