St. Augustine, Florida, is one of the top golf vacation destinations. It’s home to the World Golf Hall of Fame. It’s warm and sunny year round. And most of all, it’s full of superior courses. But one course outranks all others on golf excursion bucket lists. Everyone wants to play the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.
And anyone can. Though the course plays host to one of the biggest tournaments every year on the PGA Tour, The Players’ Championship. TPC Sawgrass is open to the public. You can reserve your round up to 14 days in advance.
If you’re an average player, it’s easier to get onto the Stadium Course than to record anything close there to your regular score. If you’ll be playing this course for the first time, you’ll welcome these insider thoughts from Rick Heard, an award-winning PGA teaching pro, youth instruction specialist and author who lives in Florida.
Stadium Course or Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass?
What happens if the Stadium Course is booked up during your vacation? Don’t be discouraged. There’s a second course at Sawgrass. Don’t hesitate to play the Dye’s Valley Course. In fact, depending on your temperament, you might prefer it. Here’s why:
The Valley Course (6,847 from the gold tees, 6,079 from the whites) is fair.
The Stadium Course (7,215, 6,103) isn’t.
If you’re the kind of player who’s able to laugh off the recurring notion that course designer Pete Dye personally hates you, then you’ll be fine on the Stadium Course.
“Your average player who goes to the Stadium Course is going to score way, way higher that they ever score—and love every second of it,” Rick says. “And they’ll have war stories to tell, because it doesn’t play like a normal course. A simple mistake can be gigantic.”
This is true largely anywhere on this beautiful course, built out of cypress-rich wetlands, but it’s especially true of the greens. Shots that would be considered good on other courses often trickle down weird undulations and end up as challenging two-putts. Shots that would be considered decent elsewhere roll off altogether and become steep chips or sand shots. Bigger mistakes are hopelessly irredeemable.
World-famous No. 17 is a microcosm of the course. As most golfers know, it’s a short par 3 onto an island green. If you miss the green, then—splash!—you pay. “Every hole is just like that, where you have to hit the green,” Rick says. “You just don’t always get the added pressure from looking at it and seeing water all around it.”
The Valley Course is a friendlier alternative. Just like the Stadium, it’s a gorgeous Pete Dye design that annually hosts a big pro tournament (the Web.com Tour Championship in October). But it rewards good shots more fairly and forgives way more bad ones. If you’re an average player, want to bulk up your course resumé, and don’t mind getting your brains beat in, have fun playing the Stadium Course. If you don’t deal well with failure, try the Valley. Technically, you’ve still “played Sawgrass.”
Am I Allowed Extra Tee Shots at the Island Green?
Before we commence with Rick’s hole-by-hole take of the Stadium Course, let’s first answer the biggest question every first-timer has about the round.
Short answer: Yes.
Face it. Your fascination with playing Sawgrass is an outgrowth of your fascination with the famed Island Green at No. 17. You aren’t alone. The 17th is one of the most recognizable holes on any course in the United States.
Though referred to as occupying an island, this green, famously bordered by railroad ties, is really a peninsula accessed from behind via a skinny land bridge. It’s generously sized and protected by only a tiny bunker front-center at the edge of railroad ties. It’s 137 feet from the pros’ tees and 115 from yours—a wedge for them, a 9-iron for you. Think you got it? Go for it. Every year, Sawgrass staffers fish 120,000 to 140,000 balls from the water. Even on windless days it’s the hardest easy hole in golf, promising on each tee shot to bring out a player’s best or worst.
Weekend golfers who still cringe thinking about Sergio Garcia’s misfortune in the 2013 Players want to test their own nerves. It’s a special moment in the lifetime of every hacker. And that’s why, the first time you play No. 17, it’s OK to hit a few extra balls at the target. Just be courteous toward players waiting behind you.
“Everybody brings a bag of balls to this hole,” Rick Heard elaborates. “It’s probably going to depend on how busy they are, but it’s pretty much understood that everybody’s going to hit three or four balls. Etiquette is, I would say, to be respectful of everyone else, plan on hitting two shots and moving on. It’s hard to get someone to observe etiquette when they just watched the group in front of them hit 15 shots, but go ahead and get it out of your system.”
Rick Heard’s Hole-by-Hole Tips at TPC Sawgrass
Hole No. 1 — Par 4, 360 yards
Main thing to know: “The macho thing is to say, ‘I’m going to play it from all the way back.’ If you do that on this hole, you don’t have a prayer of hitting the fairway.”
Dangers and common misplays: “It starts out with extremely narrow strip of fairway on the left bordering a water hazard on the right. If you slice the ball, you’re pretty much doomed. And beyond the water, there’s a bunker, and then the fairway. Like most greens on this course, this green is basically two greens in one—there’s a front right part and a back left part. And if you’re on the wrong part, you have challenge to just two-putt. When we played, the hole was way back left, only 10 feet from a 5-foot drop-off into a chipping area all around. So then you find yourself down looking straight up at the green trying to hit a shot that stops before it rolls off the other side. The misplay is letting your ball go off one side into the swale.”
Recommendation: “The remedy for most people would be to putt. Don’t try to chip from down there. It isn’t an easy putt, but the consequences of a bad putt are a lot better than the consequences of a bad chip.”
Hole No. 2 — Par 5, 469 yards
Main thing to know: “Pete Dye is the master of illusion. He creates in your mind this sort of threat and difficulty factor. This tee shot looks more difficult than it is.”
Dangers and common misplays: “It’s a pretty good length par 5. You hit out of a chute. You’re back in the forest. The fairway looks about an inch wide outside this tunnel of trees. But it’s not that tight. You can learn a lot about a golf hole by looking at it backwards from the green to the tee. In this case, you’d see wide fairway going back into a narrow spot. But when you’re in that narrow spot looking out, it doesn’t look very friendly. So again you have pressure to hit it straight. And of course there’s water short of the green, lots of humps and mounds everywhere.”
Recommendation: “On the second shot, a waste bunker on the right catches a lot of balls. People may not be comfortable hitting a lengthy shot out hard-packed sand. I’d play the ball out of the bunker as if it were on grass. Try to catch the ball first, maybe play it a little further back in your stance to help do that. You might have 130, 140 yards. Maybe use one more club. It’s a really long green, so it’s important to get your distance correct or you’ll have about a 100-foot putt from front to back.”
Hole No. 3 — Par 3, 134 yards
Main thing to know: “This plays as a mid-iron for most people.”
Dangers and common misplays: “Another green that drops off everywhere. Going left is real trouble because it drops into a bunker next to water. Over this green is real trouble. And right is no picnic, either. One of the ‘nice’ features of this course—that’s tongue-in-cheek—is the St. Augustine grass around a lot of the greens and just off the fairways. If you’ve tried to hit out of that stuff, you understand. It’s almost impossible—especially chipping. If you’re off by 10 yards on this hole, you’re in Bermuda grass. A little farther, you’re in St. Augustine grass, and it’s trouble.”
Recommendation: “Try to stay below the hole. You’re better off a little short. The front of the green’s always generally better than the back, but especially this hole.”
Hole No. 4 — Par 4, 324 yards
Main thing to know: “It’s not thought of as an island green, but it really is even though it’s a peninsula. It’s treacherous tee to green.”
Dangers and common misplays: “You’ll want to hit less than a driver and stay left on the fairway, but not too far left, or you’ll have to walk to look around a hill that blocks your view of the green. And it’s pretty important to see where you’re hitting because the green sticks out in the water. Front, left and long are all water. Right is a waste bunker the length of the fairway. And the green is two-tiered—it’s high on the right and slopes dramatically left down to the water. If the hole is on the left side of the green, it could be just 10 feet from the railroad ties, which means that if you play to the right, you could be putting downhill and, if you’re not careful, into the water.”
Recommendation: “Golfers come up short on the approach hitting over water. Maybe take an extra club and make sure you hit it solid to get it on that green.”
Hole No. 5 — Par 4, 422 yards
Main thing to know: “It’s a pretty straightforward hole. Not a lot of hidden things. But there is water to the right off the tee and to the left off the second shot.”
Dangers and common misplays: “Golfers try to shorten this hole by going on the right side. Like a lot of holes that curve, it looks good to try to guide up a little more, but when you get to your ball you see why it isn’t such a good idea. Strategically placed palm trees come into play and block your second shot to the green, and you can’t land it short and roll it onto the green because these mounds are in the way.”
Recommendation: “The left side is clear. Play left off the tee. You’ll probably have a long second shot to the green—but you’ll be able to land it short and roll it on.”
Hole No. 6 — Par 4, 333 yards
Main thing to know: “The green is framed by a stand of palm trees, so you have to be in the right place on the fairway to have a fair shot to get to the green.”
Dangers and common misplays: “It’s a short par 4 with a pretty wide driving area. There’s no water in play, but lots of palms. If you’re on the right side, you could be in perfect position and have palm trees between you and the green. But too far left, and you’ll be blocked out, too.”
Recommendation: “Try to be left-center. You’ll have a short iron to the green.”
Hole No. 7 — Par 4, 382 yards
Main thing to know: “There’s water left, but you need to be down the left side of the fairway to have a good angle at the hole.”
Dangers and common misplays: “Going down the right side of the fairway to avoid the water on the left seems fine, but giving you a very hard approach shot because the right front of the green has a big bunker that’s hard to avoid.”
Recommendation: “You need to sort of challenge that left side, so you can land your second shot short and let in roll on from the left side of the fairway.”
Hole No. 8 — Par 3, 168 yards
Main thing to know: “It’s into the prevailing wind, which you don’t feel because there are so many trees.”
Dangers and common misplays: “It’s a long par 3, slightly uphill with a long, narrow green and big bunkers and mounds on the right. You’re down in sort of an amphitheater protected by all the trees, but when you ball gets out above the trees, it’s buffeted by the wind. The misplay would be under-clubbing and hitting it short.”
Recommendation: “Hit with an extra club.”
Hole No. 9 — Par 5, 522 yards
Main thing to know: “The farther left you go, the farther you can hit it, but the farther you hit it down the left side, the worse your angle is for your approach shot.”
Dangers and common misplays: “Water bisects the fairway diagonally. It’s close on the right, and on the left you can hit it as far as you want to hit. To get the best angle toward the green if you want to reach it in two, you’d want to be down the right side of the fairway. But then you can’t hit it very far, which leaves you a longer shot. The misplay on the second shot would be hitting too far left, where you’ll be blocked out by a big stand of trees and can’t get your third shot to the green.”
Recommendation: “When you’re on the tee, think about your favorite approach shot distance—some people like 100 yards—and figure out what driving distance you need to reach that point. Then hit down the right side on your second shot, avoiding the big oak tree right on the edge of the fairway 100 yards from the green.”
Hole No. 10 — Par 4, 351 yards
Main thing to know: “This hole really favors a straight or a draw tee shot. If you’re in the waste bunker on the left side, you’ll have—I won’t say impossible, but a very difficult shot to the green.”
Dangers and common misplays: No. 10 is very tight driving hole with a long waste bunker down the left side, a lot of trees on the left, and a deep forest on the right. If you slice the ball, you’ll have a real hard time playing this hole. You can’t aim far enough left to correct your slice. You’ll either catch the trees or come down in the waste bunker. And if you do push it, you’ll end up in the right woods.”
Recommendation: “The ideal shot would be left-center, challenging that left side. If you get far enough, you have a clear shot to the green.”
Hole No. 11 — Par 5, 469 yards
Main thing to know: “The play is straight off the tee and decide: Are you going to take the risk and go over the left-side water on your second shot, or are you going to take the safer approach, hit to the right, and then go over the water?”
Dangers and common misplays: “Two or three pretty good-sized oak trees in the middle of the fairway give you a good target from the tee because you probably can’t reach them, but they present an interesting obstacle depending on how you play your second shot. The hole and a second landing area are across water from the fairway. You can stay to the right on your second shot if you want, down the fairway, trying to hit past the trees, and then come over the water to the green on your third shot. Or you can go over the water on your second shot and then come into the green straight down the length of the left side. It’s a tough, small green—almost completely surrounded by bunkers and water—so it’s a harder approach from the right. The green is long and narrow, and you’re coming at the narrow angle, so distance control is extremely important. It’s an extremely difficult wedge or short iron—over the water, over the bunkers—to hold the green.”
Recommendation: “Go across the water on the second shot. It’s a harder second shot but leaves a better angle for your third shot.”
Hole No. 12 — Par 4, 313 yards
Main thing to know: “This short par 4 is a birdie hole. Pete Dye gave us this one—in preparation for the next six.”
Dangers and common misplays: “You want to stay to the right on the fairway because there’s big mounds on the left. If you go left, you think you’re in perfect shape until you get out there and can’t see the green. The green itself is pretty straightforward and not that hard if you hit your drive down the right side.”
Recommendation: “You don’t need a driver but it’s OK to hit one. If you go to the right, you can see the green easily and it’s a short wedge.
Hole No. 13 — Par 3, 141 yards
Main thing to know: “You can putt into the water on this hole very easily.”
Dangers and common misplays: “This famous hole is a peninsula—front, left and long are water, surrounded by the railroad ties. The green has two tiers—high-side right. On the right there’s a bailout area, but it’s pretty small and there’s a bunker there above the hole, which means you’re chipping towards the water and your ball runs down two slopes. If the hole is on the high side, it’s hard to get your ball to stay up there—but you do want to play that way to stay away from the water.”
Recommendation: “Try playing left to right. Try not to play away from the water and leave yourself with a very difficult chip or long putt.”
Hole No. 14 — Par 4, 377 yards
Main thing to know: “Even though the fairway’s wide, the effective fairway is 10 yards wide—the usable fairway, for the right shot, is narrow down the right side. ”
Dangers and common misplays: “It’s a very long par 4 with water all the way down on the left, huge mounds full of St. Augustine grass on the right. If you stay on the right side to avoid the water, then you have a long shot to a green you can’t see. And if you hit a beautiful drive down the center or maybe the left, then you have trees blocking your view to the green. And then it’s a long shot around those trees to a green where you could land it short and roll it on, except that it’s protected on the sides by mounds and bunkers. The common mistake here is hitting too far to the right off the tee and you have no shot. You’re standing on the side of a really steep hill. I’m talking a steep mound where the ball might be a foot below your feet.”
Recommendation: “Don’t under-club on the approach. It’s usually into the prevailing wind and plays long to that green. And it’s a big green, front to back.”
Hole No. 15 — Par 4, 366 yards
Main thing to know: “It’s another one of those where you come out of a chute in the forest and the fairway looks narrower than it is.”
Dangers and common misplays: “You have a long shot to a green protected on the left by a lot of bunkers. The mistake is going to the right trying to shorten the hole—it’s very, very thick with trees. And if you do go too far right, and try to thread a needle back to the fairway instead of just chipping out, anything can happen.”
Recommendation: “Stay left off the tee. You have to clear water, but if you get your tee shot out far enough, you’re OK. And if you miss right, you need to just take your medicine, chip it back, and get it in position so you can try again on your next shot.”
Hole No. 16 — Par 5, 470 yards
Main thing to know: “It’s reachable in two for the pros but not for mortals.”
Dangers and common misplays: “You want to play to the right off the tee. There’s a thick woods on the left and no hope of advancing the ball. From there there’s water all the way down the right up to the green, and a bunker. And there’s a very unfriendly tree I’ve never liked very much because it’s in the fairway, short left of the green. The way you’d normally play this hole is tee shot to the right, then second shot to the left to stay away from the water, and then a wedge to the green. And when you do that, you’re in perfect position—directly behind this amazing giant oak tree in the fairway. The misplay here is going left off the tee. It’s a dogleg left, and it looks like you’d want to get your ball up a little farther—and then you’re just dead.”
Recommendation: “The only remedy here is to chip out, and be careful not to chip too far to the right because you can go in the water.”
Hole No. 17 — Par 3, 115 yards
Main thing to know: Most people can’t pull the trigger knowing they can’t miss the green. You hit perfect 9-irons all day, then you go to the 17th tee and chunk it in the water.
Dangers and common misplays: “You can never think of what you don’t want. If I say, ‘Don’t think of an elephant,’ I guarantee you just thought of an elephant. So if you think, Don’t go in the water, the last thought in your mind is ‘water.’ ”
Recommendation: “Supply yourself with a positive thought—Middle of the green.”
Hole No. 18 — Par 4, 387 yards
Main thing to know: “If you want to carry some of the lake, do so at your own risk.”
Dangers and common misplays: No. 18 is visually intimidating. The tee box looks like it’s going to fall into the lake because it’s bordered on the left side by railroad ties. There’s a thin ribbon of fairway that curves around the lake. The farther left you hit, the farther you have to carry to reach the fairway—up to a point where nobody can carry. The only sensible play is to hit your tee shot to the right, which makes your second shot much longer—and if you go too far, you’re in mounds with the St. Augustine grass again. You’re in mounds and thick rough, and there are trees that might come into play. The common mistake on the second shot is staying too far right because there’s this insane grouping of moguls and pot bunkers and grass pits. It’s not a very nice place to be—you’d probably have to waste a shot chipping out.“
Recommendation: The way to play this hole is to hit down the right side of the fairway and then stay a little bit right on your second shot, because it’s a very long approach shot and that lake goes all the way up to the green.”