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All set for Sawgrass

Thursday 23, Jan 2020


In March 2020, four superintendents – three from Australia and one from New Zealand – will be winging their way to TPC Sawgrass in Florida to be part of course preparations for golf’s unofficial ‘fifth Major’ – The Players Championship.  

The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Florida has witnessed many memorable moments since it was purpose-built to host The Players Championship in 1982. The world’s best annually descend on the Stadium Course for what is dubbed golf’s ‘fifth Major’ to compete for the highest prize purse of any professional golf tournament, a whopping US$12.5 million. 

Designed by renowned golf course architect Pete Dye and owned by the PGA Tour itself, TPC Sawgrass has proven to be a happy hunting ground for a Australians over the years. Greg Norman went wire-to-wire to win in 1994 and Steve Elkington did likewise three years later, adding to the title he won in 1991. (Elkington is one of five players to win the event twice and the only international player to do so). In 2016 Jason Day would emulate his countrymen in setting a 36-hole record of 15-under before cruising to victory, while Adam Scott also saluted in 2004.

While TPC Sawgrass has seen many sublime moments, it’s the course’s iconic 132-yard par three 17th hole that continually captivates golfing audiences each year. The famous island green, with no bailout area, makes for riveting viewing and across the tournament’s four days tens of thousands of spectators flock to witness the good – eight hole-in-ones have been recorded over the years, the last in 2016 – and the bad.

It has been the stage for many a seasoned pro to come unstuck, with Bob Tway holding the ignominious record of having the most shots on the hole – 12 – during the third round in 2005. Such is its tricky nature, especially when the wind is up, tournament officials even keep stats on the number of balls that end up in the water. 2017 was a particularly bad year, with 69 balls going the way of the wet stuff across four rounds, 29 alone in round two. 

But that was nothing compared to the first round of the 1984 tournament in what would be, statistically, the worst single day in the hole’s history. With gusts of up to 70 kilometres per hour turning club selection a lottery, a total of 64 balls found the water in that round alone. The stroke average for the hole on that day was 3.853, the highest it has ever been in any single round since the event moved to the Stadium Course. 

After 12 years of being held in a May timeslot, the 2019 Players (won by Rory McIlroy) shifted back to its traditional March date. For the course management team, headed up by director of golf course operations Jeff Plotts, that meant preparing and presenting a golf course with oversown turf surfaces. At the start of each November, the Stadium Course is closed for wall-to-wall oversowing. The TifEagle greens are oversown with Poa trivialis and velvet bentgrass, while the Celebration couchgrass tees, fairways and roughs are oversown with a ryegrass/fine fescue mix.

For the tournament itself, Plotts, together with assistant director of golf course operations Lucas Andrews and Stadium Course superintendent Kyle Elliott, orchestrate a veritable army of crew and course volunteers to ensure the venue is in pristine condition. Operating an enviable fleet of John Deere equipment, conditioning standards are, as expected, among the best on the PGA Tour. 

Fab four

Earlier this year, the Australian Sports Australian Sports Turf Managers Association (ASTMA), together with Silver Partner John Deere, launched The Players Championship Volunteer Program.  The program affords three ASTMA members and one NZGCSA member the opportunity to be part of the course crew at the 2020 tournament and gain an incredible insight into major event preparation. 

Applications opened in March and the ASTMA was inundated with more than 80 members registering their interest. After filling in the initial application, those who were selected for the next stage were asked to submit a five-minute video introducing themselves and briefly addressing a number of pre-determined topics. 

The purpose of the video was for the selection panel to gain an understanding of the applicant as an individual, their career aims and ambitions and the positive impact the opportunity to take part in the TPC Volunteer Program would have for them and their course. Those who progressed through that phase were then asked to attend a final face-to-face interview. 

After a rigorous selection process, in November the ASTMA and John Deere were delighted to announce that the four successful applicants for the inaugural trip were;

  • Tony Gordon (The National GC, Vic)
  • Luke Helm (Meadowbrook GC, Qld)
  • Tim Hoskinson (Cairns GC, Qld)
  • George Flynn (Pukekohe GC, NZ)

The quartet will arrive in the US the weekend before the tournament and will spend 11 days at TPC Sawgrass. In addition to helping with course preparations, they will also get the unique opportunity to play the famous 17th hole in a nearest-the-pin competition on the Monday after the final round. All four will regularly post about their experiences on social media and will also present at seminars and conferences throughout the year. 

Following their announcement, Australian Turfgrass Management caught up with the successful candidates to find out a little more about their backgrounds and what they hope to get out of their trip to TPC Sawgrass.

Click here to read more about the four successful applicants

This was orginially published in Volume 21.6 (Nov-Dec 2019) of the Australian Turfgrass Management Journal. To subscribe to the journal click here.