TPC achieving status as golf's new major tournament

It will take awhile, perhaps five years, perhaps 10, but the Tournament Players Championship is on its way to becoming one of golf's major events.

Today's majors are the Masters, US and British Opens and PGA championships. Eventually there will be five - or one of those four will have to move over to make way for the TPC. Tour commissioner Deane Beman's brainchild already boasts the strongest field of any event, since all the leading tour players are obliged to compete in their own showcase.

This year the TPC moved across the road from Sawgrass, where it was contested the past eight years, to the new Tournament Players Club course designed by the redoubtable architect Pete Dye. There the pros found one of the most spectacular and exacting tests of the game ever devised, hacked by Dye out of jungle-like swamp with almost diabolical cunning. The combination of a great field and a great course makes the TPC the toughest tournament of all to win.

Fittingly enough, Jerry Pate, the tour's most colorful performer and a former US Open champion, birdied the intimidating but beautiful final two holes Sunday to emerge as a popular champion.

Pate, who made a different sort of history by diving into a lake near the 18 th green after he won at Memphis last year, celebrated here by pushing both Beman and Dye into the water near the last green, then jumping in himself. Fortunately the alligators and snakes that were there first had better things to do than bother the three.

Said Pate, ''The guy I had to beat here this week was Pete Dye. The course was the opponent. I warned him I'd throw him in if I won.''

In fact, when Pate played the course with Beman a couple of weeks earlier, the commissioner half seriously helped Jerry pick a spot where he could toss Dye in if the occasion arose. What Beman didn't realize, though, was that Pate would decide to include him in the watery romp too.

The 17th and 18th holes that Pate birdied are destined to become two of the best-known in the sport, and typify Dye's bold approach to course design.

The 17th is a 132-yard par three with a green surrounded by water. It took a fearsome toll all week in double bogeys and worse, and was a clear crowd favorite. On a course laid out with spectator convenience uppermost in mind, grassy mounds offer many prime vantage points.

''By the time I got to 17,'' Dye said of his architectural intentions, ''I had about run out of ideas. This was different. Sure there's no place to bail out, but these are pros hitting a short iron to a good-sized green. Nobody ever said golf was a fair game.''

The 18th is a long par four with water up the left side, trees and then heaving grass bunkers (one of many Scottish touches borrowed by Dye) on the right. Swirling winds can make it a treacherous challenge, and on Saturday Pate hit his approach into the water to suffer an unseemly six.

On Sunday he made no such mistake. Facing a 174-yard approach shot, he gripped down on a 5-iron and drew his optic orange ball almost into the hole. His tap-in birdie putt left him with a winning score of 280, eight under par.

''It's just a good thing the wind didn't blow badly or we might never have finished, because the last two holes could be unplayable,'' said Pate.

Students of golf will remember that he hit a similarly dramatic 5-iron to within three feet of the final hole in winning the 1976 US Open in Atlanta. That club is in a display case at Pate's home club in Alabama, and this one will soon join it.

The victory in the $500,000 TPC was worth $90,000 to Pate, who believes he is ''just coming into his best years on the tour.'' His silky swing tempo and deft putting touch have long made many commentators wonder why he doesn't win twice as much as he does, but he is still young (28), and the confidence he gained here could propel him to the prominence often predicted for him.

Tied for second, two strokes behind Pate, were two longshots, Scott Simpson and Brad Bryant. Pate's brother-in-law, Bruce Lietzke, had shared the lead with three holes to play, but bogeyed the par-5 16th when his long second shot hit the water (there is water on all 18 holes). He wound up fourth at five under.

Asked what he planned to do with his winnings, Pate wisecracked; ''I'll give them to Pete Dye so he can change the greens.'' The small, wildly undulating greens were the subject of much discussion, but Pate and nearly everyone else agrees that, with time and further refinement, the course will attain monumental stature. So will the tournament.

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