Talking shop at The Players

With the so-called "fifth Major" promoting endless debate (see the current edition of GM) the TPC’s general manager, Bill Hughes, opens up on the tournament’s big changes.

What was your philosophy behind changing the set-up at Sawgrass?

This was the first TPC venue owned and built. It was the facility that invented stadium architecture, when back in the old days, if you look at Shell?s Wonderful World of Golf a lot of the courses were flat, people had those periscopes and there wasn?t really a fan experience. You know you got to a basketball game and you have a beautiful seat and view, no matter where you are sitting but not golf. The Tour saw this and built a golf course where people could be accommodated ? some 50-60,000 people can be accommodated on one hole here. We started that whole ball rolling and Pete Dye, who is a fantastic architect, brought his style of risk-reward golf to this modern course architecture. Now, as one of the most challenging courses in the US our brief was to take a fantastic golf course, a world-recognised icon, and prepare it for the next 25 years. We have come an awful long way ? television ratings, corporate support and title sponsorship have transformed the event in the past 36 years and now the course will be in line with all this.

What else did you consider before embarking on such a project?

You could do real quick math and see that the winning scores here over the event?s history have been very different from the wet years to the dry years ? with the winning scores hovering around par in those dry years. In addition, if you look back at significant competitions, for example the Open and the US Open, they try to test the players with firm, fast golf courses. And with the technology of the last 10?15 years we suddenly had the opportunity to go in and change the infrastructure of the course, so we could create a hard and fast course, to get the right conditions for the greatest players in the world.

What are these changes and how were they implemented?

Wow I mean it would be easier to say what hasn?t changed in the past year! But interestingly we really haven?t changed this course from what it looked like and felt like under your feet ? we just added a few yards on a few of the holes but certainly technology negates that!

However, we have employed the latest technology from the world of drainage and irrigation to help us. We have removed the entire organic layer from every green and every fairway; a total of 28,000tonnes of topsoil was taken off the golf course and replaced with sand ? 18in from most areas. We have installed sub-airways under each of greens, which literally act as vacuum cleaners that can remove some fairly large quantities of water from the green in a short period of time. It all combines so now, even in wet years we will be able to create the conditions we want.

What do you think this means to the standing of the TPC?

I think it is a sign of a great tournament to have a winning score in the low under-pars or even par. I think it was also one of our goals was to create a fair golf course and I think this track has always been fair and I can say that because if I look back at the past champions you can see that in the 36 years it has never favoured a certain type of player ? some of the longest hitters, some of shortest ? it favours every area of your game, you need to drive it straight, you need to be able to shape it, you must hit a lot of greens in regulation and your short game has to be top quality.

It seems a very modern thing this ? is it a response to the advancement of technology?

It?s real simple really ? if you look at the PGA Tour these guys are so good, they are so fit, technology has helped them out and they are so capable and skilled that it has been proved that if you allow the greens to be receptive and let them shoot right at the pin then they can literally shoot anything. The only challenge you can put on these guys is through the width of fairways, the height of the rough and their ability to control a ball on hard, bouncy greens. Only a perfectly hit shot will stop on these greens now. We don?t want the dartboard philosophy of golf ? you know, hit it as far as you can and then just hit it on the green and stop it dead ? that is where you get your record scores. Part of challenging the best players in the world is to make them hit creative shots, you know, hitting a 4-iron 160 yards ? variety is what challenges the great players.

What does it mean for the year-round quality of the course?

We can control the conditions exactly as we like. There are 2,100 sprinklers around the course that are all individually controlled. So during dry times of the year we used to suffer from the irrigation system pouring out water that would run off the high areas into the low areas, making them green and leaving the high areas brown. Now we can manage every single area of the course ? it is literally state of the art stuff. The great thing about all our changes is that when we are open to the public for the other 51 weeks of the year, you can get the course to play more easily and make it more enjoyable. But when you want to you can get it exactly as you want it. It?s the best of both worlds.

Have the grasses changed? The course looks a little different to how it appeared at this time last year

The selection of the grass on the course has changed ? the greens have got MiniVerde Ultradwarf Bermuda blades. This is a grass that is native to the area, very heat and drought resistant and it is extremely tightly knitted together and will therefore play to the type of conditions we are after. The course will not be over seeded, as in the past, so unlike other courses it will not stay green throughout the winter. We used to over seed with Rye Grass to keep it green. In March you had to, because Bermuda grass goes dormant on the first frost, so with that coming in January then the grass used to go yellow and if the tournament was in March then we couldn?t have that, the television cameras need a green course ? it simply couldn?t be. At the same time with Rye grass you have to water it and keep it very wet ? not in line with our stated intention of a hard, fast bouncy course.

How important was the moving of the tournament to May in the schedule?

Moving to May was also a big move for us, March is kind of a wet season in Florida ? so we are moving into a time of year that is more in your favour, the golf course now has an infrastructure of drainage, not only on the tees and the greens but on the fairways, that transforms the conditions. When the tournament was in March, it finished and the course was perfect but when the warmth came then the course really wasn?t in great shape, for around a whole month. And then when you had to plant the over seed in October, when it started to cool down, it wasn?t in great shape either. But now, with the tournament in May we are not going to over seed it. Instead it will go a little off-colour in the winter but the playing conditions won?t change ? the greens will be perfect. So the best time to play this course, in tournament conditions if you like, will be January, February and then after the tournament. The course will play well everyday of the year and it will be green and hearty for eight months of the year and for three months of the year it will still play the same but it will just go a little off-colour. It is a natural state for the course to be in. The greens can be purple but they don?t affect the way it rolls ? but when you have 20-30s temperatures it does make sense that the course should change state slightly with the seasons.

The new clubhouse is said to be bigger than the White House, tell us about it?

The clubhouse is our new baby, it?s unrivalled and it?s where I get really excited! It?s 77,000sqft it cost $30 million ? 11,000sqft of banqueting facilities upstairs and 11,000sqft of terracing lawn outside. The hill the old clubhouse sat on has been lowered and as such we now have a balcony area on the new one that allows people to see the entire 18th hole and the 17th on the horizon.

A lot of people are saying that this entire renovation is aimed at making the TPC a fifth Major ? what is your view?

You know that is a really good question; it?s the most central question that keeps popping up. People are talking about it. Let me say this PGA Tour cannot call this event a Major; no one can really call this event a Major. A Major championship label is not one that you can make claim to. It?s a title that one is bestowed upon because of time, tradition and history. It?s the industry that really embraces it. So for the PGA Tour to stand up and say ?Oh this is all about becoming a Fifth Major? couldn?t be further from the truth. This is all about us becoming a five-star product and a location that befits the head of the PGA Tour ? they deserved a tournament and a course that merited it. For us it?s about positioning this course back as it was envisioned and as it once was when it first 26 years ago. It?s a re-birth if you will.

But it is something that the PGA would welcome?

Well, I mean if you look at history; the British Open was a great tournament but was it always a Major? Augusta National was a tournament before it became a Major, I mean I don?t know how these things go. Majors are all about the field, the course, the purse and the tradition and we certainly have the field, we have one of the largest purses in golf, one of the most challenging and historic golf courses. All the factors are in place but it is not something that the Tour needs to discuss, it is something that will evolve over time and with history. It?s more about a respect of the past and the great players that have come before than it is me standing here and saying we are a fifth Major!

So for the moment the PGA Tour is happy having it as simply their showpiece event?

Believe me in all the 1,000s of hours of meeting we have had over the TPC the word Major has not been uttered once, it?s just not an agenda point. The TPC is definitely our most important tournament ? after all we don?t own any of the four Majors. This is a tournament that we own and its is run for our players and we want to make it the very best. What it is being called in the future is for the future. Whatever the players want to talk about is ok, if you go to the very top players in the world and ask them what are the tournaments they most want to play in and do well in then this is certainly on the top of their shortlist.

What do you see happening in 10 years time?

I think after this year the players, the media the fans are going to see a product that is of the very highest level in professional golf. I don?t think that it is going to be done any differently in 10 years, we are just going to keep providing the best competition for the best players in the year. I don?t know what 10 years is going to do for the aura of the tournament and its place in the calendar. But let?s face it, it was already looked at as one of the premier golf tournaments in the world but this takes it to another level. But as for the ?M? word no one here is going to apply that, no one is going to push a light switch and say ok now it?s a Major. With all the respect we have for the history and tradition of golf, we are just going to let it be.

Interview by Luke Norman

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