Sawgrass better than ever after upgrade

By Brian Keogh

It was 128 yards of sheer terror. Strangling a nine-iron with a vice-like grip that would have made Hulk Hogan proud, I let fly and said a silent prayer.

My caddie, a former Las Vegas casino worker called Mark, ordered the wind to do its work and as the ball sailed over the lake on the famous 17th at TPC Sawgrass, I could see the success or failure of my entire trip to this golfing paradise silhouetted against an azure sky.

Falling towards the far left-hand edge of the island green, I could picture the splashdown in my mind’s eye. Miraculously, it never came. I hadn’t hit the green in regulation but finished about two inches from the railway sleepers that face the most storied hole in modern golf.

Two hardworked putts later I had made the most enjoyable par of my life and if the Irishmen behind the Redquartz Boundary (RQG) investment group who have bought the Marriott Sawgrass Resort & Spa have their way, you too will soon live this unforgettable golfing experience.

When you tell people you have played the TPC Stadium Course at Sawgrass, they don’t want to know how you did on the par-five 16th or the crescent shaped finishing hole. It’s all about what happened on 17 and while there is far more to Sawgrass than the par-three that was created on whim after a suggestion by course architect Pete Dye’s wife Alice, it really is the only show in town.

"Originally, the water was just supposed to come into play on the right side," Dye once explained. "But we just kept digging. And then one day Alice came out and said, 'Why don't you just go ahead and make it an island?' So we did."

The 138-yard back right tee has never been used in tournament competition as it was built as an overflow tee to protect the Championship tee for a month before the Players Championship.

Only one player has made a holes-in-one for par here at The Players - Fred Couples dumping his first in the water in 1999 before flying a nine-iron into the hole for a par - while the only Steve Elkington and Fred Funk have made bogey on the hole and gone on to lift the Waterford Crystal trophy awarded to the winner.

Around 150,000 balls end up in the water on the 17th during the course of the 40,000 rounds that are played on the course every year and that won’t change as the PGA Tour, who own the course, and Irish investment group RQB have no intention of turning the fabled Stadium Course into divot hell.

Every golf nut worth his salt should make the pilgrimage to Sawgrass before they die and even if they card a 66 on the 17th, they will never forget their visit to one of the Holy Grails of modern golf.

That 66 was posted 22 years ago by Angelo Spagnolo, a 31-year-old grocery store manager from Fayette City in Pennsylvania, during the "America's Worst Avid Golfer" contest.

Spagnolo hit 27 balls in the water from the tee box and the drop zone before rules officials finally directed him to putt around the hazard and down the narrow path that leads to the green. Former PGA TOUR Commissioner Deane Beman dubbed the path "Angelo's Alley" after Spagnolo shot 257 to "win" the title in the Golf Digest-sponsored event.

It was a very Irish moment for a venue that is now greener than ever following the buy out of the resort hotel by Redquartz Boundary on 3 July last year.

Since the last putt dropped in the Players Championship last year, all has changed at TPC Sawgrass. Yet all is the same

In April 2006 every tee, fairway and green on the 1982 creation was ripped up and taken away by truck. An incredible 27,000 tons of top soil was removed and replaced by enough sand to fill seven miles of dump trucks parked bumper to bumper.

"Thousand and thousands of PGA Tour players have played golf rounds here," explains Bill Hughes, the General Manager of TPC Sawgrass. "It’s an iconic course so a lot of thought went in to what we did here.

"First it was mapped with a GPS system, on a grid of five foot centres, then in came the trucks. But when you put it back, you have got to put it back to some sort of plan and this golf course was replaced within an eighth of an inch. You cannot tell the difference, believe me.

"I've got a member here named Truitt Ooten, 80 something years old. He has been a member here since the start and has played more than 4,000 rounds of golf here. He could not tell the difference between when all the work was finished. Within reason, every hump and every hollow is exactly where it was."

The PGA Tour has spent over $10 million renovating the Stadium Course and another $1 million on the adjacent Valley Course, another Peter Dye design that Hughes regards as "the most underrated course in the world."

With the Players Championship moving from its traditional March date to May, the Tour took advantage of the renovation to install a modern drainage system that will encourage firm and fast conditions.

Anything hit off line will now roll into redefined run-off areas or behind one of the 200 newly planted oak, pine of palm trees.

Sub-Air systems, the same as those at Augusta National, have been installed under every green to suck out moisture in the event of a deluge or inject air as necessary. But the biggest change is the grass itself. New Mini-Verde bermuda grass, which came from a south Georgia sod farm, has been used to re-sod the greens while native grasses were added on the periphery of most holes.

But while it measures 7,215 yards from the tips, the Stadium Course is not a hard slog by modern standards. From Greg Norman to Fred Funk, it rewards long and short hitter alike. Strategy and shot-making take precedence over length.

"The renovation was not driven by length," says Hughes, who is a PGA Masters Professional. "As a major championship calibre golf course, you have to challenge the best players in the world with firm, fast conditions and that is what we have tried to guarantee here.

"After 26 years, we had an organic layer build up here that was over six inches deep and the course was not drainable when it rained. March is something of a rainy month so we looked at the weather patterns during the tournament for the last 26 years and whether we had a wet year or a dry year. In a dry year, six under par was winning The Players Championship. In a wet year it was 14 or 18 under.

"So to really become the golf tournament that this deserves to be, with the biggest professional purse in golf, strongest field in all of golf, it deserved a major championship calibre conditioned golf course which is firm and fast. That way you challenge the best players in the world.

"It is not the long ball hitters that have the advantage. It is not the short ball hitters. It is the guy who controls his golf ball. It will reward you if you hit it a mile, yet it won't kill you if you don't."

The course layout has been tweaked slightly with tee boxes on the par-4 first, par-3 eighth, par-5 11th, par-4 14th, par-5 16th and par-4 18th holes extended by 15 to 25 yards each.

Three new fairway bunkers have been added to the right of the landing area on the par-4 seventh hole. The green on the short par-4 12th was raised and reconfigured to allow for additional hole placements while other greens had slopes softened to allow for more hole locations.

"The big change we'll see is the condition of the golf course," says Dye, who turns 81 in December. "The golf professionals will notice a new tree or chipping area and things like that. But the ardent golfer will notice simply that the grass is better.

"The condition is something that makes a tremendous impact on his thoughts. He won't notice that the bunkers are higher or lower. He'll see 17 and 18 and the new clubhouse. But the first thing he'll remember is how well conditioned the course is. That will bring him back again. This work has made this happen."

Apart from the new $35 milion "Mediterranean Revival" style clubhouse, Hughes explains that the biggest change in the course is the grass itself.

"Before the changes, this course was overseeded with rye because bermuda is dormant in March," he explains. "So it was not as firm and fast and those slopes on those greens were appropriate."

The introduction of Mini-Verde - an ultra-dwarf grass that doesn't have as much grain as older standard types of Bermuda and can tolerate an extremely low cut - means that slopes on several greens were softened.

The new 77,000-square foot clubhouse will cater for twice as many people as the original building and house historical artifacts about the PGA Tour and The Players Championship.

Fronted by an 11,000 square-foot lawn, it offers incredible views of the ninth and 18th holes as well as a first fairway. In essence, it is a throwback to the early days of development in Florida, when Henry Flagler, a 19th century American tycoon, real estate promoter and railroad developer, opened up the state to holiday makers from the east coast with his Florida East Coast Railway.

Now RQB plans to turn Sawgrass into a golf resort to rival Pebble Beach and Pinehurst and attract golfers and families from as far afield as Ireland and Europe to their refurbished Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa.

"It is hard to believe what the PGA Tour has been able to do in such a short period of time," says RQB America’s CEO David O’Halloran, a Dubliner. "They are quite a machine when they put their minds to doing stuff."

An Irish property investment firm backed by developer Paddy Kelly and accountant Paul Pardy, RQB has secured planning permission to develop 230 apartments on a 34 acre site it acquired as part of a $200 million buyout of the Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa in July last year.

Investors who buy one of the 230 condominiums will be offered a membership package at the exclusive resort, where a round of golf costs $350 for anyone walking in off the street.

But rates are a lot more attractive for holiday makers who decide to stay at the refurbished Marriott hotel, which controls 85 percent of the tee times on the Stadium and Valley courses at the Ponte Vedra complex near Jacksonville in north Florida.

But why did RQB target Sawgrass in the first place? And what plans do they have for a trophy property that is world famous in golfing circles?

"We had looked over here for some time for attractive real estate for Irish investors, O’Halloran explains. "So RQB, which is Paddy Kelly, myself, Niall McFadden and Paul Pardy, looked at trying to buy attractive property investments.

"We looked at various different markets - retail, some office - but we found that it was overbought, overvalued, very similar to the market in Dublin. So it didn’t make sense, long term, for the kind of stuff we are doing.

"We felt that buying a dry investment, an office building, might be interesting but we wanted something that might have a little bit of an edge to it. We wanted something that was interesting to look at, interesting for clients."

RQB’s vision is to establish the Ponte Vedra Beach area as one of the premier golf, spa, beach and convention destinations in the world.

"The dynamic partnership between RQB, Sawgrass Marriott and TPC Sawgrass is setting up the Sawgrass destination to secure a position as the Pebble Beach of the East," said Debi Bishop, general manager of Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa.

Between the three partners, more than $56 million has been invested in enhancing the courses, the clubhouse and the guest rooms at the impressive Marriott hotel, where guests are the only golfers with exclusive privileges and access to the legendary Stadium of Valley courses without a TPC Sawgrass membership .

"Sawgrass will undoubtedly be paralleled with iconic golf destinations such as Pebble Beach and Pinehurst," says 42-year-old O’Halloran, who is an architect by training.

Already one of the top golf resorts in the world, RQB and its partners have big plans for the future and have already invested "north of $10 million" on enhancing the guest rooms, each of which features an enhanced desk space for business travellers, high-speed Internet access and plasma TVs.

The resort has 508 guest rooms, suites and villas, a 20,000 square-foot Spa, four swimming pools and access to 26 miles of Atlantic beach at the Cabana Beach Club.

"We are projecting $58 million in revenue for this year," says O’Halloran. "That’s up over 10 percent on last year, so you are looking at a very significant business in its own right.

"We felt that there was an international element lacking here with most of the clients coming from America and the east coast and then a disproportionate number from the south east.

"So we decided to repositioned the property and make it more attractive to higher value people in the east coast and tri-state areas.

"We have got to reinvest in the property. The rooms were a little bit tired so we have renovated the property to take it into the higher value market."

While groups account for 70 percent of the market, golfers represent less than 10 percent of the total and RQB is determined to reposition the four star property in the overseas market and attract golfers from as far afield as Ireland and the UK to come over and test their mettle on the some of the best golf courses in the word.

"The golf piece in the jigsaw was very intriguing to us because the PGA Tour is our next door neighbour," O’Halloran adds. "They have a marquee golf course and the biggest tournament in the world outside the four majors. And the change in date of the Players Championship from March to May guarantees that our seasonal business now runs from January to June with the residual interest of people seeing the tournament on TV.

"The hotel controls 85 percent of the tee times on the two courses but we probably only use 50 percent of that capacity.

"We now have the type of room quality that will attract more high value golfers and can start to use our maximum allowed number of rounds of golf. Let's say there are 40,000 rounds of golf on the Stadium Course and we are entitled to book 35,000. We probably only use 17,000 of those, so we are operating at 50 percent."

The experience at Sawgrass is decidedly first class with shuttles running regularly front the front door of the hotel to the golf courses, where attentive staff take your clubs, clean your shoes and send you on you way in a buggy with an experienced fore-caddie.

"The Tour has made a big commitment to the area with the new clubhouse and the improvements to the courses," O’Halloran adds. "We don't want them to outgrow the locality, so part of what we are trying to do is make sure the have got a very strong hotel anchor.

"When you come here you have great golf all year round on a course that holds the ‘Fifth Major’ every year.

"In simple terms, we will go nationally in the US market and we would be very interested in the Irish and English market.

"The problem is one of awareness, not just in Ireland, but in America. If you get a taxi round here, people in the community don't understand how the access works. The PGA Tour wants people to come and play golf and to play golf, you come and stay here.

"From a value perspective we are offering something that is very interesting. I think the recent Open Skies between the EU and US is very interesting too with Aer Lingus is talking about reopening the Orlando route.

"You can bring your family on a holiday that has a chunk of golf in it. But you can also visit St Augustine, the oldest city in America or head to Cape Canaveral and Orlando.

"We believe that you can have a well rounded trip here and while we are competing with other destinations like the Middle East, Malaysia, Portugal and South Africa.

"Yes, it is very competitive. But we would be very optimistic that when the news gets out, people will interested to hear that these Irish guys have this asset.

"In my mind, the PGA Tour is very keen to make this a golfing destination. We are trying to raise awareness through Carr Golf in Ireland and obviously the Marriott Group is a huge presence.

"Obviously it takes time and when people come out, they will see for themselves what we have to offer."

Cassidy Golf Holidays in Dublin are offering September and October packages starting from €1349 per person for five nights at the Marriott, one round on the Stadium Course and two rounds on the Valley with flights included.

But you can also head down the road to the World Golf Village, home of the World Golf Hall of Fame, and play the ‘King & Bear’ or ‘Slammer & Squire’ courses

The King & Bear, named for its co-designers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, is the first-and-only course design collaboration between two of golf's giant figures.

At 7,279 yards from the back stakes, it is challenging for even the lowest handicappers as it wends its way around lakes, loblolly pines and 200-year-old live oaks.

Hall of Fame members Sam ‘The Slammer’ Snead and Gene ‘The Squire’ Sarazen helped course architect Bobby Weed create the adjacent ‘Slammer & Squire’ track, which measures a less demanding 6,939 yards and boast views of the World Golf Hall of Fame from several points of a woodland setting.

Even if you do dump 27 balls in the water on the 17th at Sawgrass, there is plenty on offer to keep you coming back for more.