For eight years, the controversial and exciting Tournament Players Club here--advertised by the TPA Tour as the hardest golf course on earth, "The Ego Buster"--has been in planning or under construction.
Finally, under warm, balmy, windless skies, this brainchild of Commissioner Deane Beman and creation of Pete Dye held its inaugural tournament round today.
And the pros in this elite, $500,000 Tournament Players Championship ate the swampy beast for breakfast, lunch and supper.
As surprised fans basked on huge "stadium golf" mounds and sat in grassy amphitheater bleachers, 56 players shot par or better, including 17 audacious fellows who reached the 60s. Even the meekest pros had a chance today.
Larry Nelson, George Burns and Lyn Lott shared the lead at 67. Not one had a bogey on his card. In fact, the threesome of Lott, Vance Heafner and Woody Blackburn--hardly immortals--had a better ball of 63.
The bizarre gang at 68--Pat Lindsey, Skeeter Heath, Haefner, Scott Simpson and Ed Sneed--was, like many of the day's humble and grateful par-busters, shocked at its exalted position.
"Today was nerve wracking," said Lindsey, who got new irons two days ago. "People started watching me. I'm used to just playing in front of my wife."
"Until two weeks ago, I was just pathetic. It was an act of God when I made the cut. I was hittin' it places that even the greenskeeper didn't know were there," said Heath, who went home to Williamsburg, Va., for remedial lessons. "My golf future didn't look too bright. It was in a dark tunnel."
Oddly, it was mostly famous golfers who felt as though they were in a tunnel this day. For instance, Lee Trevino shot the highest score of his professional career, an 82, then said, "I'm feelin' just fine, not a thing wrong with me. I wish I could say I was hunched over with (his chronic back) pain. But I'm not."
More big names shot themselves out of realistic contention today than shot themselves into it--Ray Floyd (78), David Graham (77), Andy Bean (77), Ben Crenshaw (75). Also over par and failing to capitalize on this rare chance to catch the TPC course with its winds down were Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Severiano Ballesteros and Tom Weiskopf at 73 and Johnny Miller at 74.
Those looking for potential winners lurking in the weeds might do well to search out Bruce Lietzke and Jim Simons among nine players at 69, or Tom Watsom, Hale Irwin and Jerry Pate at 70, or Tom Kite and Craig Stadler at 71.
Ironically, this day--and especially its reasonably low scores--was exactly what Beman and Dye had wished for their creation. A golf course that will not yield low scores under ideal conditions to superb golfers who are playing their best is not a great course, but, rather, an arbitrary joke. So, after just one round, Dye has unequivocal proof that his course--full of glorious picture-post-card tropical holes and mind-twisting optical illusions from the tee--is fair.
Even on this sweat-tempered day, a total of 22 balls went into the water on the instantly infamous 132-yard 17th hole--the par 3 that has a tee, a small green and nothing else except water. And, oh, yes, poor Ron Streck took a 9 on the 18th hole.
As hoped, this first Players' Club day brought wildly divergent player reaction. In the locker room, a makeshift rate-the-greens scoreboard had far more checks in the "poor" column than in those marked "excellent, good, and fair" put together. Fuzzy Zoeller captured the mood of those in revolt here against the wildly undulating greens: "The greens are goofy golf. The only thing that's missin' are the windmills and the animals. I went past a miniature golf course last night and figured I ought to stop and practice."
Chi Chi Rodriguez, however, who graded all 18 greens "excellent," said, "This is the greatest golf course in the world, but you have to be Superman to play it."
Perhaps more thoughtfully, Simons said, "It's a great course because it adds a dimension to the game even the majors don't have. That dimension is finesse, imagination and touch around the greens. With us, the short game is all built in (from practice). Really, there's not much thought involved. But, on these greens, my computer's all jammed. It blows your mind. You can hit a pretty decent chip up a slope and have it roll right back to your feet."
Added Dave Stockton, also correctly, "Every hole is built to require the remarkable, but makeable shot. It's a course designed to show the public just how good the tour pro really is . . . So what if you're being asked to hit a (150-yard) seven-iron shot and land it in an area the size of a car top? We're capable of that. Just take a sense-of-humor pill and go play."