"You want controversy, okay, let's have controversy . . . A lot of guys would like to put a bomb under that thing." --Jack Nicklaus on the eve of the TPC
"These greens are like used car lots . . . It's a chore to play here." --Tom Watson
As far as Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson are concerned, there's nothing wrong with the Tournament Players Club that 18 tons of dynamite and a bulldozer couldn't cure in a hurry.
Just blow those miserable greens back into the swamps with the alligators and water moccasins, then start running that 'dozer back and forth from tee to green. Have a heckuva golf course.
If Nicklaus, Watson and many of the rest of the 129 pros entered in this $700,000 adventure in survivalist golf had their wish, a "No Trespassing" sign would be hung at the entrance of the players club and this year's TPC would be canceled on account of it's impossible.
Nicklaus is rooting for torrential rain. "Thunderstorms (on Thursday)? Oh, terrific. That's great. That's what we need. About eight days of it. Though I doubt if much of the rain could stick on these greens . . .
"I have no idea how I'm playing," Nicklaus added, the lines of exasperation creasing his forehead. "I thought my game was in good shape until I got here. Now, I don't know. You can't tell out there . . . You need some room to play golf and there isn't any here."
Even granting that complaints are a constant of the pro golf tour, the TPC still qualifies as a special sort of hell. Thanks to two months of rain, the course is, though no one's fault, in poor shape with lumpy greens and high love grass around the fringes.
Last year, with smooth greens and sunny, calm skies for the club's inauguration, a dozen pros broke par. Jerry Pate shot eight-under 280 and jumped with his victory into the lake beside the 18th green. Now, with Jacksonville's typical raw March weather on the way, the new TPC may make the old horror stories about Sawgrass obsolete. As John Mahaffey said today, "Some players may jump into the lake this year, too. To get warm."
How tough is it? It's so tough that defending champion Pate showed up Tuesday, shot 81 in the pro-am, then withdrew from the tournament saying he had a severe pain in the neck. Pate said it had been bothering him since last July.
It's so tough that, after his practice round today, Ray Floyd left the course in such a hurry he neglected to show up at a ceremony where he was scheduled to receive a check for $150,000 for winning the Seiko Grand Prix. When you're too mad to pick up a $150,000 check, that's a tough golf course.
The only happy professional golfers this week are the ones who aren't here. Everybody else is in danger of leaving Jacksonville with a compound fracture of the backswing. Though they won't say it, many's the pro who, if he doesn't get off to a hot (or lucky) start, will gladly miss the cut just to escape this 6,857-yard chamber of swing flaws. Get out of town before the place messes you up for months. A special sportsmanship award should be given to any pro who birdies the 36th hole to make the cut by a stroke. The most popular expressions here this week will be DQ, WD and OB: disqualified, withdrew and out of bounds.
Plenty of people think that all this disgust and hullabaloo is exactly what PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman wants. Build the meanest golf course in creation, make the pros suffer in public for a few years, accumulate some lore, then, on the QT, subtly redesign the joint so that it's built for golf, not headlines.
For the moment, Nicklaus thinks he knows for whom this Pete Dye course was constructed: the press and golfing public, both of whom delight in watching a pro tell his caddie to look for reptiles as he addresses his shot.
Never have Nicklaus and Watson been half so critical of any course on which an important tournament was played. "No. 16 is the most difficult hole I've ever seen to chip to," said Watson, who describes the current state of his game as pretty awful. "You need perfect speed and line to chip close to the hole. I like that on some holes, but not on every hole. Last year, they said they'd send out questionnaires to the players for suggestions to improve the course, but they never did . . . I guess they forgot."
Asked if the conditions weren't the same--that is, fair--for everyone, Watson replied, "Yes, and you can play a football game in a blizzard."
Nicklaus, normally the soul of moderation, went far beyond Watson. "I never was much good at playing four-iron shots to the hoods of cars. That's about the size of the targets you're aiming at on these greens," he said. "I like to play intelligently, figure out the smart place to miss. Here, there's no place to miss. You just aim it at the flag, then chase it and hit it again."
In other words, you play Lanny Wadkins-style golf: all guts, little brains.
"I don't know what they intended to do here. I haven't figured that out," said Nicklaus. "Either they've greatly overestimated the talents of pro golfers, or I'm getting a whole lot worse . . . I can't, on a consistent basis, play the shots that are required on this course. You never feel comfortable. You try to do so many things that you never repeat a swing. You're always trying to do something you can't do . . . It was 29 holes until I made a birdie. I didn't know there were any out there.
"There'll be a few good scores this week and somebody'll win, but an awful lot of guys are going to wonder how they shot what they shot--both the good (scores) and the bad," continued Nicklaus.
"They've redesigned these greens twice, so obviously they're not happy with them. But they've just put on Band-Aids. They need to bite the bullet and rethink the basics of what they're doing."
Of the fine-grained sand in the traps, Nicklaus said, "Impossible." Of the infamous island 17th green, "It's something else."
"I love the basic concept of this course," said Nicklaus. "Shell-wise (in outline and design), it's one heck of a good golf course."
In other words, it looks great from an airplane. If only you could play it from up there.
"Eventually, this is going to turn out to be a fine, fine golf course," said Nicklaus. "I just wish it was sooner, not later."
What would the Golden Bear do to bring about that transformation?
"Don't look at me," said Nicklaus, rocking back and laughing. "I didn't build this golf course."