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The Good Life

A Golf Home on the Road

The TPC Network of Golf Courses Provides Sanctuary for Itinerant Duffers on its System of Clubs Spread Throughout the Country and Across The Globe
| By Jeff Williams | From Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

Jim Dixon was nearly 2,500 miles from his home golf club in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., sitting comfortably in the back of a limousine as it arrived at a course on the outskirts of Las Vegas. As the driver popped the trunk, a young man hopped briskly to remove Dixon's golf bag as Dixon, full of anticipation, jumped from the back seat. "So you're Mr. Dixon," said the young man in a familiar manner. "Welcome to Summerlin."

Right there and then Dixon knew he had made the right choice of clubs, and it didn't have anything do with oversize heads and composite shafts. By virtue of his membership in the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Dixon became a de facto member of the Tournament Players Club Network, a group of championship golf complexes across the United States that are owned and/or operated by the PGA Tour. For the avid, nomadic player like Dixon, Summerlin--and all the clubs in the TPC Network--are homes away from home. "When you're 1,500 miles from home and you get called by name, that's pretty impressive," says Dixon, of Potomac, Maryland. "I think the TPC Network is a cut above every place else. There is a consistency about everything that makes everything so easy, and the courses are always in great shape."

In addition to its 18 (and counting) golf complexes, the TPC Network has seven licensed courses: three in the United States and four in the Far East. If you watch golf on television, then you are familiar with virtually every course, because the PGA Tour and the Senior PGA Tour conduct tournaments on them, from the Players Championship at the TPC at Sawgrass to the Las Vegas Invitational at the TPC at Summerlin. "One of the biggest kicks of all is watching tournaments being played on courses I have played or can play," says Dixon. "I love tough golf courses, and the TPC has a bunch of them."

And to think that this very successful venture by the PGA Tour, originally the vision of former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, arose from a swamp south of Jacksonville, Florida. That's where golf course architect Pete Dye created the TPC at Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship, in Ponte Vedra Beach, near the PGA Tour headquarters. Dye also created an ocean's worth of controversy by constructing a difficult course, marked by small, undulating greens. They didn't come any smaller, nor more controversial, than his island green for the par-3 17th hole. That hole has since become the unofficial symbol of the TPC Network.

"They ruined a perfectly good swamp," said PGA Tour player J. C. Snead when the TPC at Sawgrass opened in 1980. Since then, that swamp has become the nexus of the PGA Tour's properties division, which has expanded across the United States with a series of private, semiprivate and high-end daily-fee courses. Average initiation fees for individuals are about $35,000, with average annual dues at around $5,000. Members at one TPC club get a 50 percent discount on greens fees at other TPCs along with advance booking of tee times that can be arranged by the home club. Initiation fees for corporate memberships average about $50,000 and allow a corporation to transfer a membership from one person to another. They can also send unaccompanied guests to the clubs on the corporate tab. Because the private clubs within the network are owned by the PGA Tour rather than by the membership, members don't hold an equity stake. While that means that members don't share in any profit or capital gains on the club property, it also means there are no end-of-the-year assessments to pay for any capital improvements or overall club losses.

"I like belonging to a club that isn't run by the members," says Dr. Stan Smith, a member of the TPC at Southwind, near Memphis. "I used to belong to an equity club and it seemed there was a lot of fighting going on about this and that. Everything is run very professionally at Southwind. It seems like there are always improvements going on, and we don't get assessed for them, which is a pretty good deal in my estimation."

Pete Davison, the chief operating officer of the TPC Network, has been there since the beginning: he was the first director of golf at the TPC at Sawgrass. He was there when one generation of PGA Tour players found Sawgrass unacceptable. He was there through a series of refinements to the course that pleased the following generation of PGA Tour players. And he's been there through the network's expansion, when courses were built in the deserts of the Southwest, the pine hills of the Southeast and the toney suburbs of major cities. "It was interesting to see how the players' opinions of Sawgrass changed over the years," says Davison. "We let them have input on the changes, primarily in the difficulty of the greens. I also think this target-golf thing [a design philosophy that emphasizes hazards] was very much new back in the early 1980s and it took time for players to become adapted to it to the point where they accepted [it]. I think now if you ask any of our players, they will tell you they really enjoy playing at Sawgrass. That goes for the general public, as well."

While the TPC Network clubs are both PGA Tour tournament venues and home courses to many PGA Tour members, they are built with the general public in mind since it's the public that pays the dues and the greens fees and keeps the whole operation profitable. "Our goal has always been to deliver a very high-quality product that is consistent between the facilities," says Davison. "When you go from one TPC to another, you know you are at a TPC every time. You receive red-carpet treatment, and that certainly goes for people who aren't members, too."

Many of the TPC courses have been designed by the elite of contemporary golf architecture. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Fazio, Arthur Hills, Greg Norman and the irrepressible Pete Dye have sculpted courses for the network. Dye put himself on the map with the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass, which remains the flagship and the mecca for all the TPCs. (He also designed the Valley Course at Sawgrass, which is slightly more forgiving.) From the members' tees the Stadium layout plays at slightly more than 6,100 yards, short by today's standards. Yet that's a fair distance when you consider the penal nature of the course. Off-line shots often find an abundance of water, marshland, clumps of sawgrass and waste bunkers.

While the 17th gets all the publicity, there are many strong, challenging holes at Sawgrass. The par-5 16th, though it generally plays less than 500 yards, is a difficult hole even for the pros. With water on the right side of the fairway and green, and overhanging live oaks threatening shots played from the left side of the fairway, the 16th is a perfect example of how a hole doesn't have to be long to be tough. The par-4 fourth hole, though only 360 yards long, is another shortie that can be a tall order if you can't avoid the water or play to the correct side of the two-level green.

Jim Dixon has a tip for those looking for preferred tee times at Sawgrass, which is packed almost year round. The nearby Marriott resort gets good tee times for its guests. "The thing to do is book a tee time, any tee time you can get," says Dixon. "If you stay at the Marriott, then you can get one of their times. If you don't, you wait until late afternoon and if the Marriott hasn't booked all its times for the following day, it turns them back in to the golf shop. So you call around four o'clock or so and maybe you can pick up the morning time you wanted instead of the afternoon time you got."

The TPC of Michigan, just outside of Detroit, is geared toward corporate membership. This lavish Jack Nicklaus-designed course, with an opulent clubhouse to match, is home to the Ford Senior Players Championship, one of the majors of the Senior PGA Tour. "Jack really did a beautiful job on this course," says Davison.

The TPC at Sugarloaf is a Greg Norman course that is only two years old, but it has garnered raves from both its membership and from PGA Tour players. Located in the Atlanta suburbs, the PGA Tour's BellSouth Classic is played here. The course wends it way through a forest of Georgia pine and can contend with the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, for the best course in the state. "Almost every hole sits by itself; you can't see one hole from another," says Dixon. "You get a feel of absolute privacy, like it's your own course."

Don't go to the TPC of Scottsdale for privacy. Go there for a good time, especially if you're one of the 100,000-plus fans in the gallery for the weekend rounds of the PGA Tour's Phoenix Open. The TPC of Scottsdale is a 36-hole daily-fee course owned by the city of Scottsdale and operated under a lease agreement with the TPC Network. The two courses, the Stadium and the Desert, were designed by the former partnership of Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish. Because they sit on the flat desert floor, the courses don't have the drama and flair of courses built in the foothills of the surrounding mountains, but Weiskopf and Morrish did a fine job of bulldozing the parched earth into a rich golf experience that offers plenty of contour in the fairways and greens. A mound by the 12th tee of the Stadium course affords a view of 11 holes.

Last summer the TPC at Jasna Polana opened on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. The course was built on an estate founded by the scions of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. The mansion at the center of the property now serves as the clubhouse, and what a clubhouse it is. "I don't think we could have ever afforded, from a business standpoint, a clubhouse like this," said Davison. "To re-create it today it might cost $100 million. It's really a tremendous facility, which is geared toward corporate membership. We have three houses on the property that are being converted to overnight lodging. This is our first venture into that area. We'll have 29 rooms. It's perfect for a small corporate retreat. We're reaching out to the corporate community, primarily in New York City." For a $75,000 initiation fee and $9,000 annual dues, you, too, can have a corporate membership at Jasna Polana.

Outside of Las Vegas there are two TPCs--the private club at Summerlin and the daily-fee course, the Canyons. Summerlin is a pleasant, desert-floor course with lots of green grass, carpet after carpet of expansive fairway. The Canyons is a true desert course. The course takes its name from the deep arroyos that cut through the property. There are several forced carries over these arroyos, and players must play away from them when they flank a fairway. In the hot desert wind, the Canyons can be a real test, not just of golf, but of the depth of your ball bag. If it's blowing, bring plenty of balls. The Canyons co-hosts the Las Vegas Senior Classic with Summerlin.

While hosting a tournament means that members have to give up their course for a week, Smith sees that as a plus, rather than as a drawback. "For one thing, holding a tournament there gives the club a certain prominence, which is nice," the physician says. "For another, it means that the Tour will want it to be in good shape and will take care of all the little things that go into having a first-rate course. That doesn't always happen at a private club."

Several more TPCs are coming on line in the next two years, and the Tour is constantly looking to expand the network. Just opened is the TPC of Myrtle Beach, a high-end, daily-fee course designed by Tom Fazio. It will host the Ingersoll-Rand Senior Tour Championship this year. Another course to look forward to is the TPC of Virginia Beach, a collaboration of Pete Dye and two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange. If ecology is a concern, 13 of the 18 courses are certified by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.

Whether it's the sumptuous swamp of Sawgrass or the dazzling desert of Scottsdale or the fragrant forests of Sugarloaf, the goal of the TPC is a consistently high level of quality, service and golf, something that Jim Dixon says he has never failed to experience at a TPC course. "They get good young pros who know how to run and stock the pro shop," says Dixon. "The food-and-beverage operation is just fine everywhere. You know, it goes right to the bag-and-cart guys. The bag guys seem to be there before you can pop the trunk. And you never see a dirty golf cart. It's always Mr. Dixon this and Mr. Dixon that, wherever I go. I don't really need a high level of that myself, as long as I can get a Diet Coke with a piece of lemon after my round. But it's nice to see such attention to detail."

Jeff Williams writes about golf for Newsday.


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