Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Ponte Verde FL: TPC Sawgrass, The PGA, Agronomy and The Sawgrass Marriott Resort and Spa

     Welcome to Ponte Vedra Florida, the next community south of Jacksonville Beach on A1A.  This is home to The Players Club - better known as TPC Sawgrass, one of the most popular golf venues in the world.

     Occupying 415 acres lying about a half mile from the Atlantic Ocean, this club was the brain-child of Dean Beman, former chairman of the PGA.  It seems that the professional golf players themselves had started an event called The Players Championship back in 1974, and Beman envisioned a dedicated host site of the annual championship that would be a true test of golf.  He also envisioned a site that would be a "stadium course," a golf course designed with the spectators in mind.  He wanted it to be owned by the PGA players themselves, and wanted it to be open to the average person.

     Further, he wanted a course that didn't favor any particular player.  He found some property owners in Ponte Vedra that believed in his concept so strongly that they sold him the 415 acres for $1.  He then enlisted golf course architect Pete Dye to design and build the course.  You remember Pete Dye - he was the architect in the World Golf Hall of Fame who put the pair of muddy boots in his memorial locker.

     Pete designed a course where no two holes face the same direction.  He created short holes and long holes, holes that curve left and right, and the result is a course where no particular player has an advantage because of his style of play.  Pete also designed the course so that you would have at least one very difficult shot on each hole.  If you play it safe onto the fairway, you are going to have to approach the green over bunkers and other hazards.  But if you make a more difficult shot into a tight area of the fairway you are rewarded with a clear shot into the green. 

     Sometimes there are even hazards within the hazards.

     The inaugural tournament was in 1982, and the players gave it mixed reviews.  The first year many of the top players didn't even make the cut - it was that tough.  However, it has since come to bee seen as a consistent test of the players game, one that through the years forces them to play at the top of their skills if they are going to compete.

     A new 77,000 square foot clubhouse was built in 2007, fitting in nicely with the Spanish architecture of nearby St. Augustine Fl.

     At the same time the clubhouse was being built, the golf course and the nearby Marriott both underwent major renovation as well.  Pete Dye came back and oversaw many improvements better drainage capabilities and revamped greens.

     The clubhouse is the permanent home of The President's Cup, the award.  This tournament is played biannually in odd numbered years, and features the best United States players against the best golfers from the rest of the world excluding Europe.  The Ryder cup, held in even numbered years, features the best US players against the best European players.

     All through the clubhouse are large oil paintings depicting pivotal moments in the club's history.  This one featuring one of Tiger Woods' wins is at least 12 feet long.

     The picturesque nature of the location had made it a popular venue for weddings and conferences.

      The course was built in what was a swamp land, and while that created a lot of head-aches during construction, in the final product it allowed many meandering waterways and lagoons.

     Since 1996, TPC Sawgrass has been a certified member of the Audubon Society.  As we saw at Daniel Island, this certification requires that the golf course maintain a number of standards in their care of the land to keep the property wild-life friendly.

     Here, an Anhinga peers out of the brush.    

     Cormorants abound - actively fishing the many waterways.

     I wasn't quite quick enough with the camera to get a shot of this eagle and heron sitting side by side.

     There are actually two golf courses here - the main called The Stadium Course and the second referred to as Dye's Valley Course.  This course is home to the Web.com tour championship.  This tour is for those that are trying to get onto the PGA - a place where winners are assured a chance to try their hand at the PGA.

     And, on top of these two major tour events each year, another 35,000 plus round of golf are played here.  That all adds up to a very busy place.  Here is the practice tee last Friday morning - all those golf carts are players waiting to tee off.

     So, two world class golf courses to maintain during all that use has to take some real effort.  This is where TPC Sawgrass' Agronomy Department comes into play.

     There are four basic crews that make this place run - the Stadium Maintenance Crew,Valley Maintenance Crew, Landscape Crew and the Equipment Crew.  Meet Clay Breazeale, Superintendent of the Stadium Crew.
Clay Breazeale

     There is a saying that if you want something done, you should ask a busy person.  Clay typifies that statement - a lot gets done in this place.  Clay runs a crew of 31 men and women who keep the Stadium Course going.  The whole year targets one event - The Players Championship which is held on Mother's Day weekend in May of each year.  Clay's staff swells to over 100 for that time period as volunteers from golf courses around the world arrive here to help with the tournament.    

     Clay, the father of two young children is in his 9th year here.  He has a bachelors degree from the University of Florida's College of Agriculture.

     "We strive for consistency in playing conditions" says Clay.  "Consistency hole to hole, consistency from morning conditions to afternoon conditions and consistency from day to day.  Over they years you find what works and then stick with it.  But it can be very humbling - this work.  In the end Mother Nature has the final say."

     Clay talks further about keeping the crew going.  "You have to let your people know they are relevant and treat them with respect.  You have to have a unified goal and vision, and let them know that they are a critical part of that."

     Right now the course is laying in new irrigation water lines.

     Although the course is certified to use water out of the Florida Aquifer, they are going to this expense to bring in water from local sewage treatment facilities that would otherwise be dumped into the intra-coastal waterway.  Combined with rainfall runoff, this will provide all of the course's water needs so that they no longer need to pull from the underground reserves.

     Another thing Clay does is mentor others in the business.  Meet Garrett Tetley, one of four interns who are currently working with the grounds crew.

     Garrett, from Tinton Falls New Jersey, has a bachelors degree in Leisure Services Management.  He is currently taking further education in Golf Course Management.  He passed up an opportunity to do his residency with Pinehurst Resorts in North Carolina to come here.  

     Whereas most premier golf courses prepare for a major event once every decade or so, this course prepares for two a year - every year.  For someone to be exposed to not only all of the aspects of course management but also to be able to experience what it takes to put on a big tournament is invaluable experience.

     Just one small for instance.  This time of year the grasses are starting to break their dormancy from the winter.  So right now they "top dress," or spread a thin layer of find black sand on the grass.  This helps the ground retain its heat and helps the golf balls roll better.

     Another whole aspect of the operation is the Landscape department.  Meet Bryan Gallagher, Assistant Landscape Superintendent.

     Landscape is responsible for all the flowers, bushes, exotic grasses and trees on both courses as well as along the main entryway to the complex.  

     Again, everything is geared toward the golf course being at its optimum the week before Mother's Day.  Right now they are hard pruning thousands of rose bushes, trimming back the large clumps of Crown Grass and doing what is called "Pollarding" to prune the Crepe Myrtles.  "Pollarding" is a technique where you trim back the tree to the same point each year, creating "knuckles" that store energy for new growth each year.

     There are hundreds of smaller beds where decorative bushes and plants grow, and hundreds more spots where annuals are planted.  The annuals are all in the traditional colors of the tournament - blue, yellow and white.  Here is the winner's circle - another unique bed that holds plaques commemorating each year's tournament champion.

     On top of all the permanent bed, thousands of larger potted trees and bushes are brought in to mask temporary structures that are set up for the tournament.  40 semi loads of pine straw also come in during the weeks just prior to the tournament.  

     During the tournament, any flowers that get trampled by the crowds get quickly replaced.  And on Saturday night, just before Mother's Day, thousands of pink flowers are planted on the islands - in what they call their "Pink Out," in and around the tee boxes on the 17th and 18th holes.

     All this work takes some serious equipment.  There are hundreds of machines about this place.

     Some of these machines cost upwards of fifty thousand dollars apiece.

    Caring for all of this crucial equipment falls into Mark Sanford's arena, pictured below in the center.  To Mark's right is assistant Bryan Turner, who has been here eight years, and to his left is Austin Lewis who has been here six months.

     Mark himself goes back almost to the start of this place - he has been here 32 years.  And as anyone who has worked around machinery can tell you, when you use equipment things go wrong.  And when you use all kinds of equipment - from small 2 cycle engine blowers to big diesel tractors, there are a lot of different moving parts and a lot you need to know.

     Just take the greens for instance.  When the pros play, the grass on the greens has to be cut very short in order to make them roll faster than normal - something called the "green speed."  To make the cuts this fine requires specialty blades - and during tournament time the greens are all being cut multiple times per day.  The John Deere ultra-thin blades are about sixty thousandths of an inch thick standard.  Mark and his crew grind them down another twenty thousandths of an inch to get the fineness of cut required to have the greens not only run that fast but do so evenly.

     This is a neat little rig I bet every farmer wishes he had.

     The shop has several of these.  They are little flat-bed carts with an on-board electrical generator, air compressor, tool box, fire extinguisher and other equipment for those times that things need work in the field.

     Here are some very handy - but problematic machines.

     All of the "rough" - the deeper grass that lines the holes has to be cut to a consistent 1 1/2 inches during the tournament.  Around the sand traps and other areas the contour of the land makes cutting it difficult.  These machines generate a layer of air they float on and do a nice job of manicuring this grass in the difficult areas.  However - when they generate that layer of air they are blasting sand and bits of gravel back up into themselves.  "By definition, they are in self-destruct mode from the instant you start them" says Mark.

     Every three years new equipment is leased from John Deere.  This happens to be the time that all of the old equipment needs to be cleaned and serviced to be turned back in and all of the newly arriving equipment needs to be fine tuned for use.  Here is old equipment getting ready to be sent back.

     And, with all of the heavy use on the cart paths, it stands to reason that over time they would develop cracks.  This is not just a cosmetic issue - when fifty thousand spectators arrive for the tournament it becomes a safety issue.  Right now crews are in the midst of breaking up all of the bad sections to tear them out and replace them.  This work is being performed by MacCurrach Golf Construction Company.

     They break up a section, pulverize the concrete they are taking out and replace it with new concrete.

     They are very efficient - each section they do is completed in a couple of days.

     Then there is the "stadium" itself.  Five months before the tournament starts crews from Shaffer Sports come in and start erecting the stands, the TV towers and the concession areas.  

     This is extensive work.  Many of the bleachers are built on ground that is far from level.

     Under each bleacher support, the ground is carefully cut out and a support base installed.  Then adjustable legs are put on place, atop which a matrix of connecting supports are built.  The whole structure is carefully leveled as they go.

     Stairways have to be built, and some of the structures run three stories high.  And after they are built electricity has to be run to many of them.  It is a solid five months of work and a whole article can be written just on this topic.

     Sixty days before the tournament the people who put up the signs arrive, and a month out the concessions folks start to arrive.  Volunteers start coming a week or so in advance - when it is all said and done the place is a zoo, but somehow everyone knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing and it comes off very well.

     On top of all this, TPC Sawgrass also serves as the world headquarters for the PGA Tour.  

     It is a pretty neat place to watch everything getting done - but it is all efficient enough that within a few days you catch on to the flow.

     Abutting this complex is the .Sawgrass Resort and Spa, a Marriott complex.

     This is a large hotel and convention center complex that works hand in hand with TPC Sawgrass.  It is a beautiful place, and is a bee-hive of activity in its own right.

     After four days here I leave feeling I have only shared a tiny percentage of all that is here.  But, that is the nature of these posts - I can only hope to give a sense of the flavor of the things we explore.  On another subject, I want to thank all of you that have been loyally following me this last 14 months.  Here is my Google profile, which I started with this blog the day we began.

     We passed a million views !!  That's amazing to me - this is only the setup trip.  Who knows how many we will have when we start the main trip five years from now.  If you Google any of the towns or sites we have been to, you will find these articles are on the first page of search results.  It is all rather amazing to me and I have no idea how it is happening, but I am just going to keep on keepin' on and see where it takes us.

     That brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd" photo, take a while back on a beach:

     And today's parting shot - a bumper sticker on a mini-van in the course parking lot.

EMAIL me if you need to or Buy Me a Coffee if you want to, but whatever you do, have an awesome Tuesday !!

David Emch


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