A course formerly maligned as a swamp area best suited to alligators, is now being praised by the touring golf pros.
And why not? The Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, site of the Players Championship, was most accommodating Thursday.
Forty-nine players shot sub-par opening rounds on a warm, virtually windless day in the $1.35-million tournament.
Keith Clearwater led the pack with a 65, seven under par, saying that his round was “almost fun.” Some of the joy left him, though, when he bogeyed the last two holes.
After 16 holes, he was nine under par and seemingly on the verge of breaking the course record of 64 set by Fred Couples in 1984.
Bruce Lietzke, Steve Pate and David Frost followed Clearwater with 66s, and Ben Crenshaw was at 67.
Clearwater, 29, who grew up in Walnut Creek, Calif., and attended Brigham Young University, slipped to 127th on the money list last year after having won two tournaments and earning $320,007 in 1987.
“Last year, my wife had a child, and we built a home,” Clearwater said. “I got to thinking, with some success, that I was a family man and I was going to fly home every Sunday night after a tournament and fly back Wednesday to the next one.
“It doesn’t change my general feeling, but I learned that a casual attitude toward being excellent at something just won’t get it.”
So, Clearwater said he rededicated himself this year and, as a result, he holds a one-stroke lead over a prominent field.
Clearwater, playing in the afternoon and starting on the 10th tee, had five birdies on his front side with putts ranging from six to 18 feet.
Then he birdied four more holes, and the course record seemed likely to be his when he approached No. 8, a 215-yard par-three.
But his tee shot went into a bunker, and after blasting out, he two-putted. He found another bunker on the par-five, 582-yard No. 9 and wound up with another bogey.
Clearwater’s staggering finish of a fine round was in distinct contrast to Curtis Strange’s closing holes. Strange, last year’s leading money-winner, rallied after a triple bogey on the par-four, 438-yard 14th hole.
He was even par going into the last four holes but finished par, eagle, birdie, birdie for a 68, three strokes behind the leader.
Crenshaw said that at one time the course was “darn near unplayable.” However, since modifications have been made, he has a different opinion.
“You couldn’t plan a shot before,” he said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen to the ball. It was like shooting a marble and not knowing where it would end up.
“Now it’s like a big buffer came down out of the sky to smooth out the sharp edges and make it playable.”
Mark Calcavecchia, this year’s leading money-winner, might not agree. He had an opening round of 74, matching Greg Norman’s score.
Others, though, were more gratified, such as Lietzke.
“The flags weren’t moving,” he said. “Wind is the only thing that dictates scores. Courses don’t.”
Lietzke added: “There are 140 Lanny Wadkins’ out here,” referring to the bold golfer who is always shooting for the flag. “Nobody backs off. Nobody shies away from the pin, whether it’s Thursday or Sunday.
“There used to be a time when you could be a leader by one or two strokes and you could go out and kind of protect that lead on Sunday. That doesn’t happen anymore. The winners are still shooting 67 or 68 on Sundays, on hard golf courses.”
The Sawgrass layout obviously wasn’t a difficult test for many pros Thursday. Weather, of course, had something to do with it.
“The course is absolutely in superb condition,” said David Graham, who played in the morning and shot a 68. “I can’t imagine the course being in better condition.”
Lietzke, who had seven birdies and only one bogey in his round of 66, had one minor complaint. He is using a new putter and said he was charging past the hole on the fast greens.
Pate, the former UCLA star, found the greens to his liking.
“The greens are perfect, the best I’ve ever seen,” he said. “If you can’t make putts, you have no excuses.”
Pate had six birdies in his round. Moreover, he said it was the first round he could remember that he hadn’t missed the fairway with any of his shots.
Said Frost, who played with Pate: “Steve and I both had our putters working today. That’s going to be the stick this week because the greens are so good.”
The South African-born Frost had six birdies. He got one with a 30-foot chip shot on the par-four, 360-yard fourth hole and another with a 25-foot putt on the par-four, 454-yard fifth hole.
The odds are against first-round leaders maintaining their edge throughout a tournament. Lietzke, 37, says that’s because the tour is more competitive than it has been in previous years.
“There are more guys capable of winning now,” he said. “I’ve been out here 15 years, and going back to when I first started, about 30 guys were capable of winning a golf tournament. As for this week, 80, 90 or 100 are capable of winning.
“I don’t think the players are any better than in the Nicklaus, Hogan or Nelson eras. But they had to beat about a dozen players for their titles, and the players today have to beat 70 or 80.”