The big news in professional golf last week wasn't so much Fred Couples' surprising victory in the Tournament Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla., but the fact that the pros sent Count Dracula out for a face-lift and a new wardrobe, and he came back looking like Shirley Temple handing out lollipops. You've got to keep an eye on these crybaby golf pros. They would bulldoze the Alps if they thought it would flatter their games.
For two years the pros had been howling louder than a North Florida wind about the horrors of the design of the Players Club layout, their own course at their own headquarters and the site of their own championship, which has certainly become the "fifth major." The marvelously scenic and testing course, dreamed up by master architect Pete Dye with commissioner Deane Beman whispering into his ear, had immediately taken its place among the great layouts in the world. There was only one terrible problem with it, as far as our pros were concerned: It was too hard. Unfair, they said.
The fact that Jerry Pate had fired an eight-under-par 280 to win the first TPC on the course in 1982 and that Hal Sutton had shot a five-under 283 last year, wasn't good enough proof that the place could be "had" if you played brilliant golf. And the pros weren't willing to give the place a chance to mature or themselves a chance to learn how to play it. So last year a committee of PGA Tour players was appointed to "recommend" changes to Dye and Beman. The committee—Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Jim Colbert, Ed Sneed and Hale Irwin—was to take into account "feedback" from the other tour players. The committee made its report, and Dye made some changes.
Those alterations might not have been obvious to the casual golf fan, 100,000 of whom traipsed around the grounds last week, but 16 of the holes were "touched up" in one way or another. Eleven greens lost some serious contours. The putting surfaces were also overseeded with rye grass and slowed down. Much of the rough and the expansive waste areas were cleared out, almost entirely eliminating lost balls. The only balls lost last week were the ones that got wet. The slower and flatter greens not only equalized things for everybody, but they also made getting "up and down" much easier. And when the weather calmed for the last three rounds, the Players Club lost a good bit of its personality.
Sure, there was still a lot of water and sand out there, but you had to play pretty badly to get in it, as is the case anywhere else. That little horror, the 17th, the 132-yard, par-3 island hole, held up its end, though, and claimed almost enough golf balls to dam up the Intracoastal Waterway, 64 on Thursday alone. But by and large, the real fun was on the scoreboard.
Couples is a likable, grinning, strong-hitting 24-year-old who played golf for the University of Houston. When he was in college he met his rambunctious wife, Deborah, whose white cowboy hat has earned her the tour nickname of Tex. She is now a tennis instructor in Palm Springs, Calif., where the Couples couple lives.
Couples started strolling toward his 11-under 277 and the championship on Friday when he shot a course-record 64 despite bogeys on the 1st and 18th holes. A 64 with two bogeys? On what was supposed to be a monster? Who was kidding whom? Before the tournament was over, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins, Craig Stadler and David Edwards each shot 66, tying the previous course record.
In all, there were 89 subpar rounds over the four days, as compared with 66 a year ago. The tip-off came on the first day when the wind did blow—fiercely and unrelentingly, with gusts up to 40 mph—and 13 golfers broke par, led by Jim Thorpe, who shot 68. On the old layout, even par would have been a remarkable score.
The funny thing about it was, Couples, who was pulverizing the course, kept turning his nose up at it. In the previous two TPCs there, he had missed the cut after rounds of 79-80 and 81-84.
After his Friday 64, he said, "I still think it's too hard. My wife stayed in California because we both knew I'd miss the cut again. Now she's flying in. It'll never play any easier than right now."