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TPC springs surprises

In essence, it was a $60 million facelift.

Immediately after the 2006 Players Championship, construction vehicles descended upon the TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and basically peeled back the sod on 18 holes of a wonderful golf course.

Just over a year later, the "new" course has a slightly different look, a new slot in the PGA Tour schedule and a different feel for the players.

"Almost everything has changed," said the event's executive director, Brian Goin, a Penn Hills native. "Very few things -- inside or outside of the ropes -- will remain the same. There's a lot of excitement around here about what's going to happen next week."

What's happened already is strong evidence of what new technology -- and $60 million -- can do to improve the condition and playability of a golf course.

When the tournament was played in March -- as it had been since its inception -- conditions were often soft, not only because of the time of year, but because of how the base below the course had changed. All 18 fairways were stripped of 6 inches of organic material that had built up since the course was constructed in 1982. That buildup resulted in a sponge effect, so the course rarely dried enough to play as architect Pete Dye intended.

New drain tile was installed in each fairway, and enough sand to cover 16 football fields was added to replace the organic matter.

New drainage was installed throughout the course, plus a SubAir System for every green, including the putting and chipping greens in the practice area. That system will pull moisture down through the grass, allowing the surfaces to be very playable very quickly after one of those fast-moving Florida thunderstorms.

All of the greens were redone with a Bermuda grass called Miniverdi. Pot bunkers were added here and there, and six holes were lengthened a combined 122 yards, giving officials the opportunity to stretch the course to 7,215 yards.

With temperatures this week expected to hover near 90 degrees, dry and fast conditions should be in play all week.

"Everyone is psyched about that, but at the same time we're all very much aware that the setup is going to have to be watched carefully," Goin said. "On a hole like 17 (the island-green par 3), because it's exposed, we don't want to let the green get away from us. It could become a circus, and that's not something we want."

Another new aspect this year will be the unwanted introduction of smoke into the proceedings. Wildfires in southern Georgia have produced heavy smoke that has made visibility tricky at times over the past couple of weeks.

Just how bad it gets will depend on those fickle Florida winds. Goin and his staff have addressed the problem, making sure eye drops and oxygen are plentiful around the course, so that spectators, players and officials can be attended to if necessary.

The elite field for the tournament, which is viewed as the fifth major, is in for some surprises. Whether those will be pleasant ones won't be known until next weekend.

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