By Mary Kirk
As the world’s greatest golfers once again descend upon Ponte Vedra Beach for their annual Players Championship, we prepare to experience sensational golf along with traffic and congestion practically in our back yard. Love it or hate it, there was a time when that hype and hoopla really was in our own neighborhood.
Flash back to a somewhat grainy image of the late Jim McKay in the once familiar yellow- gold jacket of ABC Sports announcing, “Here we are by the beautiful sea at the Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass Country Club.” It’s 1977 and the camera pans over the stretch of A1A along the ocean south of Sawgrass, then back to McKay in front of the old Sawgrass Golf Club – not the TPC Clubhouse, but the one on this side of A1A. If you’re a golfer or golf fan, you probably know that the TPC (now The Players) was originally played at our own Sawgrass Country Club from 1977 – 1981.
When Deane Beman became Commissioner of the PGA Tour in 1974, a tournament specifically for the players was already in the works. The first Tournament Players Championship, as it was called then, took place in Atlanta in 1974, then at Colonial Country Club in ’75 and at Inverrary in ’76. But Beman envisioned a permanent home for the golfers’ own tournament. In the book Golf’s Driving Force by Adam Schupak, Beman is quoted, “We needed to have a partnership with a community that would commit itself as much to the championship as we would commit to the community.”
He settled on Sawgrass Country Club and Ponte Vedra for two reasons: the volunteer commitment and organization he saw at the Greater Jacksonville Open, a tournament played at several Jacksonville Country Clubs each year in March, and the view of the Atlantic Ocean on number 4 East at Sawgrass Country Club. The combination of a committed golf community – Jacksonville - and a beautiful and challenging golf course – Sawgrass Country Club – was irresistible.
In the early 70s, the country was suffering from a major economic downturn which severely affected the viability of Sawgrass. Developer Jimmy Stockton Jr. had just given the deed to Atlantic Bank to avoid foreclosure. Beman was so committed to Sawgrass that he tried to purchase the entire community including the golf club, the tennis facility, swimming pool, administration building and 28 beachfront units. In addition, Beman negotiated a deal with the organizers of the Greater Jacksonville Open to give up that tournament in exchange for a permanent Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass Country Club. Beman’s purchase of Sawgrass CC fell through, but the tournament’s move here in 1977 was0 a first step toward making our community its permanent home.
The 1977 Tournament was hyped as “the first major of the year.” The top 144 money winners qualified to play and unless they were physically unable, they were all here. The purse was the largest in golf just as it is today. The winner took home the biggest prize - $60,000!! (The winner in 2013 received $1.7 million.) A few adjustments to the course were made in an attempt to give it a “links” atmosphere with sandy mounds covered with coquina and sawgrass, and the whole thing was overseeded with rye.
According to Ron Whitten writing in Golf Digest in 2009, a month before the tournament, 2,000 birds – coots – invaded and began eating the ryegrass. Workers tried spooking them with firecrackers and herding them into cages. Nothing worked until alligators awoke from hibernation, and that was the end of the coots.
When March arrived, the gusty winds came with it, at times 30 and 40 miles per hour. Jack Nicklaus hit a house. Tom Watson’s bell bottom pants were blowing in the wind. Our reptile neighbors were still on hand. Jim McKay warned that if you hit a ball in the water, it would be best not to go in and get it. The tournament was played on the current east and west courses – the south was not built yet - and televised from #11 through #18 (West #2 - #9). There were few houses to be seen and the Lake Julia condos were non-existent. The tournament was played as McKay said, “from bunker to bunker. “ It was an afternoon by the Atlantic Ocean and the pros were “spending it as many people do…..in the sand.” Tournament winner Mark Hayes (at one over par) was dubbed, “Lawrence of Sawgrass.”
Despite the wild weather and numerous complaints from golfers with bruised egos, the tournament was hailed as a success and was played here for 4 more years until the current TPC course was ready. In the last year, 1981, Sawgrass resident Bob Sarvis drove out from Baymeadows where he lived at the time. He parked his car near the current May Management building and walked over to #11 (#2 West). You could see A1A from the course, he recalls. The shrubs and trees were hardly grown. Everything was smaller in size and scope. The course was brown and dusty from the wind and the weather was “kinda crappy” every day. Thunderstorms on Sunday pushed the final round to Monday, and Raymond Floyd won in a sudden death playoff.
Quinton Gray, the Head Teaching Pro at Sawgrass, first played here in 1987 when Sawgrass CC was a stop on the Senior Tour. He thinks the course was a little more difficult in the TPC years – there are fewer bunkers now and the course is not as long as it was for the tournament, but it would take very few adjustments to make it ready for a major championship to be played here today. Fortunately, that won’t be happening at Sawgrass CC this May. Players’ history will be made on the TPC course across the street, but we know we’re a part of that history too. We were present at the creation - Sawgrass Country Club is where it all began.