Playing at TPC Sawgrass

Jeremy tells the tale of his battle with TPC Sawgrass and the infamous 17th hole

Jeremy White
March 24, 2019 - 1:41 pm

Photo: Jeremy White (@JeremyWGR)

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“I’m gonna par it.”

That’s what I told any person that asked about my plan for the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. I’d quickly follow up with “I think I can speak it into existence”… and besides, it’s only about a 130-yard shot. 130 yards, and an awful lot of water.

More on that in a bit…

My trip to play TPC Sawgrass came together in less than a week. Thanks to the beauty of acquired airline miles, and a father-in-law and godfather-in-law already heading to Jacksonville for the NCAA tournament, the wheels started turning late last week.  

YOLO, right?

 

The Anticipation:

The trip would be a quick one. In Thursday, golf Friday, out early Saturday. It was going to be a hell of a turnaround, but I’d spent the week getting ready. I cleaned my clubs. Yeah. Like when you clean the house when company is coming over. I felt that my clubs had to be immaculate for the round. I packed a week’s worth of polos, shorts, and pants, just so I could make sure I felt right come Friday morning.

Thursday night turned into a good time at Top Golf. My first experience with the driving range / bowling alley / dart hall / arcade / food paradise. We need one. I've since learned that they exist and thrive in colder climates, so yeah lets have one of those please.

Friday morning arrives and it’s hours until our 2:20 p.m. tee time. We’re planning on getting out to Sawgrass around 11:30 a.m. so we can have some lunch, hit the range, and see the facility.

By 9 a.m., I am practicing ordering the Lyft. I’d punch in the location, see how long it’d take… then close out. Then do it again, and again. You’ve got to be ready, right?

By 11 a.m., we make the order, load up the clubs, and hit the road for TPC Sawgrass. I feel like an astronaut.

I’m telling you that one of the biggest things I will remember from this trip is the drive there. In my head we’re the astronauts at Cape Canaveral being taken out to the shuttle pad. This is the drive where they tell you that “after this, your life won’t be the same” (I know it’s golf but I’m telling you I felt that on some level). The week, the travel, the arrangements are all for this round of golf and after all of that… you’re finally going on your way to the actual destination.

If “astronaut anticipation” isn’t a term, it should be. I bet you’ve felt it before.

 

The Clubhouse:

We’re early. Really early. That has been the plan all along, right? So we belly up to the bar to order some brunchy stuff and take it all in. The golf channel is on all of the flat screens.

I notice all the woodwork, and the bourbon selection. The history in this place is palpable. I know it’s not Augusta, but this is one of the few courses on the tour that most golf fans would know about. Whether you played it 10,000 times on Tiger Woods golf, or you watch The Players’ Championship every year, this course matters. This clubhouse is the museum to that.

Our bartender’s name is Austin and he’s an outgoing guy who is ready to talk about football. Remember, it’s Jaguars country out there. You know where this is going right? It always goes this way… 

“Who’s your quarterback these days?”

He knew… but is just making conversation and getting our thoughts on Josh Allen. We talk about the Bills, and the Jaguars. Doug Marrone’s name comes up. The usual conversation, right?

And then… 

“So I gotta ask. Any of you guys go through a table?”

 

The Course:

16th tee

16th tee

I made par on the first hole. Easy game.  

I didn’t make par again until 18. Not an easy game.

I didn’t play particularly well, but I’m going with the “it was my first round of the year” excuse. I’m shaking off the rust.  

We played the white tees at the suggestion of our forecaddie, Chris. The forecaddie walks the course while you ride. He walks ahead and helps track your shots. Chris is a high school football coach in the area, and had plenty of color to add to the day. Whether it’s a story about Derek Jeter coming through Sawgrass with a fake name on the reservation, or Jon Rahm’s argument with his caddie from last year’s tournament… the forecaddie helps to continually remind you that you’re playing a course where the best in the world come, every year.

He said the tips, and even the blues, would be too hard, and wouldn’t even be fun. Considering how I’ve hit the ball off the tee for the last two years, I was happy to take his advice. We all were. My father-in-law, Greg, and my godfather-in-law, "Dutch", smashed the ball. Here's the true injustice of the trip. I'm the young guy, right? I should be smoking these guys off the tee, but no, I have to live with the shame that is watching them routinely blister shots 260 down the middle while I'm trying to keep it in play with a 4- or 5-iron. I'm out here playing it safe, just for safe's sake! It ain't right!

Moving on. 

There’s water everywhere, but even more sand. The greens were lightning quick to open up. Throughout the day, we’d see the grounds crew out watering, effectively slowing them down. Early in the day, if you had a downhill putt, you breathe on it to try to sink a 12-footer.

Putts off the green into the water, a normal occurrence at Sawgrass. Given how tight some of the greens are to a drop into the drink, I asked “How many people fall in?” Chris replied, “About one a week.”

Makes sense. You can be lining up your putt, and forget that three feet behind you is a six-foot drop into the water. Gotta have your head on swivel out there, folks.

Some good shots… some baaaaad shots. It’s a hard course, but it’s a fun hard. There is fun hard, and stupid hard. Sawgrass is tons of fun. The kind of fun/hard that you’d want to play weekly. It’s not just the condition it’s in, or the exclusivity that you get with it… it’s the Pete Dye design. It’s just a tremendous course to play.

I put my phone away most of the day… didn’t really check the UB score. I was definitely interested, but I wanted to totally immerse myself in the golf. Play the part, you know? I bought the yardage guide and put it in my back pocket. 

Half the fun of golf is getting into character. Well, for me it is. I wanted to play one hole at a time, and I did, knowing all along that the finish is one of the best in the world.

16, 17, and 18 loom large and you can find your mind drifting in thought. I remember seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, or the Golden Gate Bridge… there’s something incredible to making the transition from something you’ve seen on TV, to something you’ve stood next to, that’s powerful. I think all golf courses are this way. Watch a tournament on TV, and it’s fine. Walk, or play that course once or twice, and everything is different. You see the landscape better. Television can sometimes distort size or scope, whereas being there unlocks every angle. That’s what I figured I’d be getting going to that final stretch.

 

The 17th:

You walk from the 16th green over to the 17th tee in front of all the grandstands. If I was a pro player, it’d be after missing a makeable par putt on 16. Disappointing to not snag that momentum from the 16th green and run with it to 17!  

That transitional walk along the edge of that water line, is not just any walk. The 17th green enters your world as you walk up 16, and as you make that shift toward the 17th tee, the whole time you’re either staring at the massive grandstands (still up for now), or that island out there you’re about to try to land a ball on.

I couldn’t help but think about what it’d be like to be standing on the tee with all those people watching. It’s the farthest thing from being a gladiator, but still that’s must be what it’s like. You’re alone on that tee box with tens of thousands of eyes on you in that one moment.


17th tee

We played the blues on 17. Chris, our forecaddie, pointed out that normally this tee box is blocked off after the tournament. It's covered or tarped over, but that we should jump at the chance and hit from there. It's not really any longer, it's just the visual means... more water.

The distance can play with you a bit. 130 yards on the card that day, but our forecaddie told us it was about 140. The last thing you need when standing on this tee box, is the idea that you’re between clubs. If you ever get there, and it’s right on the number of a club you hit, freaking congratulations! I found myself wishing it were 180 because at least I know what club I’m hitting. Heck, 150 would feel better. 130, but playing 140 means I bring two clubs to the tee box, pretending I’ve got a big decision to make, knowing I don’t love either of the choices. I suppose this is where it being an island matters.

So how did it go? Ok, here it is… but I need to say a few things before showing you the video, in all its glory:

  1. Don’t yell at me about having the phone the right way, I didn’t take the video.
  2. I actually dead shanked one before this shot because the nerves were real. We don't talk about that warm-up shot.
  3. Do not attempt to give me a lesson, Tee 2 Green’s Jeff Mietus is already on the case.

Now go easy on me, you animals!

Now you can't see much but... it's splashdown… pin-high (If you say this it makes you sound like a better golfer and I’m absolutely gonna do that here). I just turned it over a bit too much right to left. That's two uses of the "talk about the shot like it was actually better than it ended!"

The story goes that the staff at TPC Sawgrass fishes some 120,000-140,000 balls out of that water every year, and I believe it. My group put at least four in the drink on 17. If you include the approaches into 16 (we got a couple wet) then that 140,000 seems quite reasonable.  

Even good shots end up wet. My father-in-law, in his own true Bills fan fashion, shotgunned a beer, made a shout-out to Bills Mafia, and hit the green. Lost it off the back.

My wife whiner line voiced "at least it wasn't wide right".  

Four golfers, none on the surface, and you head to the drop area off to the right. The fun thing about the drop area is that you’re still attempting to land a golf ball on an island, but it’s just closer. If you aren’t all that good with a wedge, really nothing has changed.  

You walk off the green feeling… a longing to hit until you land one. That’s the thing that will stick with me. I didn’t hit the green, and I know I certainly could… but just not this time.

After your group tries to put a couple on the green, a marshall will move you along so that you don’t sit there and hammer balls all day. It makes sense. Time would crawl to a stop if they let hackers like me keep going until I landed one. We were 0-4, and had two guys in the group hit sub-90 rounds.

I don’t even remember putting. I don’t remember being on the green really. It’s all just a build-up and climax to that 17th, and then you turn and through a walk through a tunnel in the grandstand for 18, and home.

Our caddy told us that spot in the tunnel is a favorite among the tour players. It’s quiet. It’s a hidden cove between 17 and 18. Under the stands, you’re away from the eyes of the spectators for just a moment. He said that plenty of players will linger before making their way out to finish the round. After that 17th, it’s easy to see why. 

 

The Reflection:


18th tee

The 18th is a masterpiece. It’s a perfect finishing hole to look back on the day, the round, and hell, maybe your entire golf life. Just like 17, the grandstands flank the water to the left of the fairway. The clubhouse sits off in the distance, touched by the fading sunlight of the day. Where 17 is a spotlight for the spectacle… 18 is like the red carpet walking you in. 

To walk that 18th with the stands packed finishing your round at such an incredibly challenging and fun course, is really something to behold.

What a day… what a round… 

Who knows what my golf life will bring going forward, but I’ve been able to scratch “TPC Sawgrass” off my bucket list.  

Unfortunately, I’ve added “another crack at that 17th”.

I mean… I did say I was gonna par it.

***

For those of you in the TLDR crowd…

I hit two in the drink on 17, and the course and experience was incredible. Oh, and the bartender asked us about Bills Mafia going through tables too.

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