This is Players Championship week, during which a short, 137-yard par 3 will be the golf world’s center of attention
This is Players Championship week, during which a short, 137-yard par 3 will be the golf world’s center of attention. For its size, the island 17th green at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., packs an outsized punch late in the round. Players either hit the green or the water; there’s no layup or bailout.
Based on its distance, the hole should be easy, but the surrounding water plays mind games. In 37 editions of the Players at TPC Sawgrass, the hole has played slightly above par, at 3.11 strokes, ranking as the ninth-toughest on the course. Pete Dye and his late wife, Alice, get the credit for the design of this devilish hole, and the Dye name is almost synonymous with the island green.
However, for all its attention, the 17th is not the first island green; that distinction goes to the short 330-yard par 4 at Baltusrol Golf Club, believed to have been designed in 1903 by head pro George Low Sr., in Springfield, N.J. A.W. Tillinghast’s two new courses at Baltusrol, the Upper and Lower, were built in 1918 without the island green.
COURTESY OF JOHN FISCHER
A mid-20th-century postcard shows the island green on the 9th hole at Ponte Vedra Inn & Club's Ocean Course, a 1932 Herbert Strong design in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
The Dye island green was not even the first island green in Ponte Vedra Beach. That distinction goes to the ninth hole on the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, which dates to 1932 and was designed by Herbert Strong, a leading architect of his day, a half-century before the Stadium Course. Strong’s island green is still in existence, and it probably served as the inspiration for TPC Sawgrass’ 17th.
The Dyes are known for building challenging courses that test the best golfers. Strong is less well known today, although he created similarly testing courses.
Strong often was referred to as an “Englishman,” or the “British golf course architect,” which gave him a certain status as an expert from a golfing country. Strong was born in 1880, started golf as a caddie at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, England, and became a professional before coming to the United States in 1905. Strong took a position as the professional at The Apawamis Club in Rye, N.Y., and soon was designing courses.
By the time he started work on the Ocean Course, Strong had designed Engineers Country Club in Roslyn, N.Y., which hosted the 1919 PGA Championship and the 1920 U.S. Amateur, and Inwood (N.Y.) Country Club, which was the site of the 1921 PGA and the 1923 U.S. Open. He also was a regular contestant in the U.S. Open from 1905 to 1916, with a top finish of ninth in 1913.
Strong was one of the founding members of the PGA of America in 1916, and served as its first secretary-treasurer. His bona fides as a player, course architect and administrator brought Strong many design commissions. He was deemed one of the best of his era, although some thought his courses were “tricked up” or too difficult to play.
In the days before heavy earth-moving equipment, Strong might have delighted in the relatively flat land for his Ocean Course, but his concept of an ocean course was along the likes of Royal St. George’s, a true links, with mounds, contours, swales and lots of bunkers.
To create these features, Strong used 100 mules to pull equipment in shaping his course. in the process, lakes formed when he hit the water table, one of which was near the clubhouse. In the middle of the lake stood a large mound. Whether it was intentionally left for an island green is not clear, but it became the site of the ninth green.
As opposed to the Dyes’ island green, Strong designed a green which sits on a larger island, with plenty of bailout area. However, his green is surrounded by six bunkers. Another bunker short of the green intrudes on a possible bailout location. Strong’s green itself is about the same size of the Dye green but is kidney-shaped and set at a 45-degree angle from the tee. It is also a plateau green, a Strong trademark, with three levels, each successively higher from front to back. At 150 yards from the back tees, it plays slightly longer than the Dye green and can be a difficult par.
In 1947, Robert Trent Jones was brought in to make the Ocean Course easier for resort guests, possibly the only time he was not hired to make a course more difficult. In 1998, Bobby Weed was retained to restore much of Strong’s original design. In all its iterations, however, the Ocean Course island green remained substantially the same.
When the Dyes planned the Stadium Course, did they design the 17th with Strong’s nearby island green in mind? The answer is a bit muddled.
As the Stadium Course was being constructed, sand was dredged to build fairways, and the best sand was found near the site where the 17th was to be located. On the initial plans, it was a short par 3 bordered on one side by a lake, but as sand was removed, three-quarters of the land around the green site was gone and a large lake created.
In his book, “Bury Me in a Pot Bunker,” Pete Dye explained what happened next: “In 1946, Alice and I had played architect Herbert Strong’s Ponte Vedra Club, located just minutes from the TPC course, which featured a massive green set out in the water. Surrounding the green were large sand bunkers and lots of grass berm, providing multiple bail-out positions for players…. The idea of an island green flashed in my mind, and I called Alice over to discuss it with her. Perhaps it was the memory of Strong’s island green, but I knew we had happened onto something special. Alice’s enthusiasm matched mine….”
Alice, who died Feb. 1, held a somewhat different version of the events. She said she didn’t think of Strong’s island green at the time, and the Dyes’ island green was her idea when she saw the lake three-quarters around the site for the green, and Pete agreed with her suggestion.
The Dyes and Strong shared similar ideas about course architecture and designed holes so it would be necessary to place the drive to have a good angle to the hole. Their courses are demanding to play. The pros thought the Stadium Course was too hard to play when it first opened in 1980, and in 1938 Golf Magazine named Strong’s Ocean Course one of the six hardest in the country, with National Golf Links of America, Garden City (N.Y.) Golf Club, Pine Valley, Oakmont and Pebble Beach. The PGA must have agreed on the difficulty and the challenge of the Ocean Course in selecting it for the 1939 Ryder Cup. However, the matches were canceled due to the outbreak of World War II that September, so the Ocean Course never got a chance to test the top professionals in a tournament context.
The island greens by Strong and the Dyes share other similarities. Both are “true island” greens set in a lake; varying breezes off the ocean can affect club selection; they have been criticized as “gimmicky”; both appear at crucial points on the course – the Ocean Course island green at the ninth, which figures in a Nassau match, and the Stadium Course island green as the penultimate hole, which can make or break a score; they are resort courses; and both can be played by the golfing public.
In the lexicon of course architecture, certain holes are regarded as “classic,” holes that hold a pervasive influence on course design due to the principles they embodied, have endured the test of time and have been adapted in subsequent designs by other course architects. For example, a “redan” or “reverse redan” hole is based on the principles of the 15th at North Berwick in Scotland, and a “punch bowl” green is similarly based on the third hole at Royal Cinque Ports in England. Although there were several island greens after Baltusrol and before the Ocean Course, notably at Galen Hall, Cobbs Creek, Pine Valley and East Lake, today’s “island greens” are based on Strong’s island green. In fact, if a modern island green offers no bailout area, it is known as a “Dye green.” An island green doesn’t have to be on a par 3; it can just as easily be a par 4 or par 5, as long as the green is surrounded by water.
After the Dyes’ island green appeared, many developers demanded island greens for their courses. Some of the resulting island greens are all green like the Dye green, and others follow the Strong model: a green on an island.
And where did Strong get the idea for his island green? The dour architect never said, but he was a contestant in the 1915 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, finishing T-26. So, he played the first known island green, and perhaps it came to mind as he dredged dirt to mold his fairways. But then we’d have to ask where George Low got the idea for the Baltusrol island green.
John Fischer, a retired attorney in Cincinnati, is a golf historian who is a past president of the Golf Collectors Society and a longtime member of the USGA’s Museum and Library Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org