The early years in the wilderness are the best. After the grizzlies have been driven into the mountains and the wolves no longer lurk just beyond the arc of the campfire's glow, the normal citizens start arriving, then the schoolmarms. Before long, you've got yourself a nice little town. Just like all the others.

But it's not the wilderness anymore and some folks say the devil with it.

Welcome to the Players Club, where golf once held its equivalent of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Not anymore. Civilization has come to the Tournament Players Championship, which starts here Thursday. The most radically ill-mannered tournament course ever built has been sent through finishing school. For better or worse, nobody knows yet.

When this joint was opened four years ago, nobody knew for sure how many alligators still had the run of the place or where they liked to sunbathe. When players strayed deep into the rough, caddies waded ankle deep into the swamp (wedge in hand) and kept a lookout for rattlesnakes and water moccasins. It was no joke, either. Architect Pete Dye personally killed 50 to 60 rattlers in building this jungle jail.

"A lot of guys would like to put a bomb under this thing," said Jack Nicklaus, and he was one of those guys. "I never was much good at playing four-iron shots to the hoods of cars."

"These greens are like used car lots," grumbled Tom Watson. "It's a chore to play here."

"Too much luck out there," moaned Craig Stadler.

"Not ready for play," growled Miller Barber, as in not fit for human habitation. "They'll need to completely tear up and rebuild about 11 greens, because they're too severely contoured to play."

Stalking off one green after three-putting, Lee Trevino uttered the now famous, "How do you read dirt?"

In the eyes of the world's greatest golfers, the course they had built with their own money to hold their own championship had just a few teensy-weensy flaws.

Let's see. The fairways were too narrow. The greens were too small and too severely undulating; in architect's argot, they "rejected shots" rather than "collecting" them. The greenside trouble spots were unplayable unless, in Nicklaus' words, "You know how to play standing on your head." The Bermuda grass greens were confusing to read. The sand was too fine. The weather was too cold and the wind blew too hard.

And the cheeseburgers in the grill were probably too well done.

Everybody in the world of golf -- except the golfers -- was enjoying a little piece of heaven. The most entertaining and marketable of all golf's qualities -- its glorious unfairness -- had been raised to its apogee. Or reduced to the absurd. Depending on whether you were watching this event or playing in it.

The Dyeing Ground, the place was called. "Car crash golf" was the phrase Commissioner Deane Beman coined. The 132-yard 17th -- on which an average golfer might lose 100 balls hitting to the tiny island green -- was the course's insignia hole. "I think of it," said John Mahaffey of that par 3, "as an easy par 5."

After all, the new TPC had a tradition to uphold -- the legend of the Witch of Sawgrass. That was the hideous course a mile from here of which player Joe Inman said, "If Sawgrass is a major test of golf, I'm the pope." Moments later, wind blew over a scoreboard, knocking him cold.

Yes, Sawgrass, that ode to condo blight and gale force winds that prompted David Graham to say, "The day we leave, they ought to bulldoze this golf course into the Atlantic Ocean and build some nice houses here." To which Johnny Miller added, "Don't worry. The wind'll just blow it into the ocean."

When the pros first saw Dye's Demon, they suddenly learned to think of Sawgrass as, well, almost comfy. "If the wind blows," said Ed Sneed, "will we finish?"

Over the past four years, however, progress has gradually come to the "new" Players Club. Each year, fewer and fewer deer and wild boar have been seen on the property. Also fewer and fewer "waste areas" and pot bunkers. Fourteen greens were enlarged. 'Dozers flattened down humps in fairways and the pinball swales and swoops on the greens were modulated.

The tournament's dates were moved back two weeks so the blustery days 'round the ides of March were exchanged for the balmy, breezy days near April Fool's. Big difference.

Finally, within the last year, the mysterious Bermuda greens, which totally baffle some players, were all torn out and replaced with conventional and predictable bent grass.

After a sabertooth tiger goes to the dentist, he's just a big pussycat.

Today, Watson, who once led the critical assault here, said he thought the Players Club had finally become "a fair golf course."

Oh, kiss of death.

Is that "fair" as in equitable? Or "fair" as in mediocre, ordinary, run-of-the-mill?

Nicklaus, once the cochairman of sedition here, said this afternoon, "Of course, they've modified the greens greatly. It's a big improvement. This is a nice golf course now."

Is that "nice" as in comely? Or "nice" as in inoffensive?

In the past three years here, the winning score has decreased from 283 to 277 to 274. What is this, the Hartford Open in a swamp?

The greats of golf, almost to a man, think that the Players Club is moving in the right direction -- that a good, but eccentric, course is becoming truly great.

As Nicklaus leaned against the locker room door this afternoon, discussing the evolution of this layout, who should walk past but Pete Dye.

"Pete, just talking about your course," said Nicklaus, golf's patron saint of the fair and nice. "Not as many car crashes now as there used to be."

"That's right," said the rumpled Dye, his expression mischievous, ambiguous. "The place has gone to hell."