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In a class all by itself—for now
Dan Jenkins
March 28, 1977
The TPC is not a major championship and will not be for a good long while yet, but the world's best professionals were grand-slammed at savage Sawgrass
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March 28, 1977

In A Class All By Itself—for Now

The TPC is not a major championship and will not be for a good long while yet, but the world's best professionals were grand-slammed at savage Sawgrass

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If Sawgrass is a golf course instead of a torture chamber, you couldn't get very many touring pros to agree. If Sawgrass is not Vincent Price's front yard, then what is it? An alligator farm? A reptile exhibit? Such thoughts came frequently last week during the funniest four days—ever—in the long life of the PGA tour, when an event called the Tournament Players Championship had what in effect was its real inaugural. Another of those under-30 guys survived to be pronounced the winner. Mark Hayes. But the true victor of the tournament played near Jacksonville was the course, Sawgrass, because when last seen most of the best golfers in the world were still poking around in the dunes and marshes looking for their egos.

Maybe it was appropriate that Mark Hayes, who is one of the most invisible players on the tour, became the champion. You had to hide and sneak around Sawgrass to endure it. For three rounds and practically half of Sunday's final 18, Hayes wasn't even known to be in the tournament. An even more obscure young man named Mike McCullough had been leading since his opening-day 66, but he was surrounded by a rather fashionable cast, and it was expected that eventually McCullough would go the way of the coots fluttering up out of the landscape. And then Tom Watson or Hale Irwin or Jack Nicklaus would take the $60,000 first prize and the title of a tournament that yearns to be thought of as something at least as sacred to the game as Hell Bunker at St. Andrews or PGA Commissioner Deane Beman's leisure suits.

On Sunday when McCullough did, in fact, begin to stumble, and Watson went to the last nine holes with a two-stroke lead, all seemed right with the world. But then these weird things started to happen, as they had been happening all week. Watson, who had tap-danced so beautifully through the bunkers and other menaces of Sawgrass for so long, got his comeuppance. He bogeyed four out of five holes as he started off on the back nine with a series of bad shots and bad breaks, and the next thing anyone knew Hayes grabbed the lead with, as someone mentioned, a flurry of charging pars. Hayes, who at least knew how to win golf tournaments—he had won twice on the tour last year—finished with a relatively uneventful par 72 for a total of 289, one over par, and took the title with what appeared to be unflappable ease. If Bruce Devlin (low announcer, low architect, low Australian, low plumber) and Hale Irwin had only driven into the fairway and not the water on the last hole, the outcome could have been different. But both bogeyed what many considered a birdie hole.

No one can tell much about Mark Hayes. He certainly has a fine game, a solid swing, but he goes along in one of those brimmed hats, and some say the most interesting words he ever uttered were "thank you" when his high school bestowed a diploma on him. But Hayes didn't have to say much at Sawgrass. Conceivably, his words couldn't have been heard, anyhow, with all the yelling by the rest of the field. Right up to the last splash.

It was just as well that a guy won who played under the wind and away from the crowd, for he didn't distract from the important thing, which was what will become of the TPC. The championship has had a bruised and battered past. From the beginning it claimed "major" status, insinuating that it deserved to be thought of in the same class with the Masters, the U.S. and British Opens and the National PGA. A sort of Grand Slam Plus One. It didn't ask anyone, by the way. It just claimed it, primarily on the basis that the tournament was a big-money event to be played on tough courses with the best field you could assemble. This was all true. But major status will only come with age and refinements that will be made over the years, if at all. Only public taste and to some extent the attitude of the press will ultimately decide the proper place of the TPC. Possibly the world doesn't need a fifth major, and it will have to settle down on that plateau of annual competitions that are thought of as "significant." Better than a Doral or a Kemper, of course, but hardly a Masters. Somewhere in between.

There is another possibility, one the PGA finds utterly revolting. The TPC could one day replace the PGA Championship in the minds of those who concern themselves with what is major and what is not. The TPC has the format to do so because it is designed to keep out, shall we say, the riffraff.

There is only one way to get into the TPC and that is to be one of the current best golfers on the planet, one of the top 144 money winners during the previous year. Compared to the PGA, the kind of players this eliminates is fascinating. The TPC does not have such rough elements as the champions of the 39 PGA sections, the 25 low scorers and ties in the last PGA Club Professional Championship, all former PGA champions (alive or dead) and the resident professional. In brief, no club pros, no accidents, no legacies.

All this was noble and seemed creative on the planning board, but then came the time to hold the tournament. The long-range scheme was to roam about the land holding the TPC on only the best and most testing courses, the assumption being that every country club would be delighted to host it, as giddily happy as they would be to honor the U.S. Open or the PGA. The tournament started off in Atlanta in 1974 and was fortunate enough to get Jack Nicklaus for a winner. Jack said he won "just in case" the tournament became a major. There were two problems, however. It rained. And the event was scheduled far too late in the season—August—to generate much attention.

The second TPC went to Colonial in Fort Worth, and again it was played in August. Al Geiberger shot some spectacular golf on the banks of the Trinity River, but in terms of atmosphere the event seemed to be nothing more than a Colonial National Invitation that had forgotten its dates.

In 1976 the TPC found the time of year it wanted—ahead of the Masters—and got Inverrary in Fort Lauderdale to act as the host club. It even got Nicklaus for a winner again. But it also rained again. The final round had to be played on Monday, blowing a big TV audience. And by then everyone realized that if the TPC kept traveling around it was never going to be anything more than the Atlanta Classic, the Colonial or the Jackie Gleason by another name. And what would happen if, on top of this, Nicklaus stopped winning it?

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