Woods looks to history

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The Independent Online

Tiger Woods has heard the stories and can only be thankful he is defending his Players Championship title over what is now a 20-year-old Stadium course at the TPC at Sawgrass. The Players first moved across the A1A highway from the exposed Sawgrass Country Club to its new permanent, purpose-built home in 1982. Two years before the site had been nothing more than a swamp.

The winner that week was Jerry Pate, wearing a pink shirt and using an orange ball, who promptly threw the designer, Pete Dye, and the man behind the scheme, then US Tour commissioner Deane Beman, into the lake by the 18th before jumping in himself.

"I had it all planned," Pate, the 1976 US Open champion, said. "I knew by Friday I was playing so well and I was going to win. I decided I was going to throw Pete into the lake and the commissioner had to go too."

Beman, a pro himself before taking over the reins of the PGA Tour, was convinced the way forward for his flagship event was to own the venue and the model expanded into a network of Tournament Players Courses. But at the time it was a controversial move with the players wondering about why the Tour was getting into course ownership.

After the Tour paid $1 (70p) for the site, all the construction was financed with loans. It took a year to build a canal around the site in order to drain it. Dye's design called for water on 13 of the holes, while the sand for the fairways had to be dug out of the lakes, which is why the short 17th ended up with its famous island green.

But in the early years, before the notoriety of the course meant it started to pay for itself, the conditioning did not match the severity of the design. Ironically, it was the players' policy board which did not want to raise the budget. Jack Nicklaus complained about having to stop a "six-iron on the hood of a Volkswagen", while Beman admits it was "on the other side of fair".

"There were a lot of rumblings in the locker-room," Pate recalled. "Everyone's nerves were tested that week. It was the most diabolical course ever created and it was definitely set up to test the best players in the world, not to entertain them. No one could play it. All the big names missed the cut but I just had a week when I hit every shot perfect. The 17th hole was the most ridiculous hole in golf, everyone said, but I birdied it three of the four days."

Contrast that with Woods' comments now. "They have done a heck of a job getting it to where it is now. It is a lot more fair than it was and it's become a lot more fun to play, from what I've heard about how it used to be."

What remains true is that no one has ever successfully defended at the Players, something Woods would like to change this week. After all, with all his three-peats, including at Bay Hill last week, when he starts winning at a particular venue he invariably continues.

"However you are playing, if you have been successful at a course before, you know you have done it in the past," Woods said. "All you need to do is relax and go play. But here, there is so much trouble out there, if you are not hitting the ball precisely, you are not going to be in contention on Sunday. This course puts such a premium on ball-striking."

Nowhere more so than at the 137-yard 17th, which is "no big deal" according to Woods on a Tuesday or Wednesday. "But when you get in the tournament, you need to be committed to your shot. You can't hit a poor shot and get away with it."

Sandy Lyle, in 1987, remains the only European winner at the Players, although Colin Montgomerie was runner-up to Fred Couples in 1996. How the Scot's image in the States might have changed had not Couples bounced off the railings on the edge of the 16th green, made eagle and then produced a birdie at the 17th.

Having arrived in time only for one practice round here, Montgomerie revealed he has altered his schedule yet again to take in both next week's Houston Open, in the city where he was at college, and the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta the week prior to the Masters. "I need to play," Monty said. "I only completed 72 holes for the first time last week in Qatar and I need to play my way out of this bad spell."

While welcoming the increased security at this tournament, Montgomerie did not want to have visibly armed officers following his group. "I just want to concentrate on what is happening inside the ropes," he said. In total, 16 Europeans will tee off in search of the $1,080,000 (£750,000) first prize.