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Lynch: Three years after his death, Pete Dye is still twisting the thumbscrews at TPC Sawgrass

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The aphorism about not speaking ill of the dead is believed to have originated with Chilon of Sparta, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. It’s a noble sentiment, admittedly, but then Chilon never had to play a Pete Dye golf course. It’s been three years since the celebrated architect died at age 94, but his name has surely been muttered in vain by quite a few competitors this week at TPC Sawgrass, where the Stadium Course ranks among the most taxing of his designs in a career that spanned half a century.

As many a USGA official can testify, elite professional golfers are often unable to distinguish between being tested and being humiliated. The higher the number on the scorecard, the greater the odds a player will hold a dim view of both golf course and architect. T’was always thus with the Stadium Course. The first Players Championship held here was in 1982 when J.C. Snead famously sniped that Dye had ruined a perfectly good swamp. (His verdict probably didn’t soften in eight subsequent appearances, during which he broke 70 only once and even carded an 85).

Dye earned the moniker of the ‘Marquis De Sod’ for what Tour players saw as his gleeful embrace of sadism.

Four decades after it opened, the Stadium Course is golf’s equivalent of a medieval rack, across which the world’s best players are stretched until their breaking point is identified. By Sunday evening, 143 competitors will have snapped as cleanly as the club Shane Lowry angrily pulverized in Thursday’s first round. Perhaps even all 144, since some years not even the winner emerges unscathed. Aaron Wise must have wanted to snap all 14 of his after rinsing three balls at the 18th hole on his way to a 10.

Friday brought more misery. Lucas Herbert followed his opening 82 with 85. Through 36 holes, his scorecard showed 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, leaving the Australian only an ace and a Wise shy of batting for the most improbable cycle in elite golf. And Herbert didn’t even have the worst day.

More: Pete Dye’s top 10 courses according to Golfweek’s Best rankings

Justin Lower eyes his shot from the rough on hole 5 during the first round of The Players golf tournament on Thursday, March 9, 2023, at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union)

Max McGreevy signed for 89 after a day in which he had more 7s than 3s. To borrow a quip from the late Peter Alliss, his card resembled the dialing code for Tierra del Fuego. It will be cold comfort to McGreevy that Herbert still clipped him by nine strokes for high finisher.

A course that shows no mercy also showed no favoritism, as players who arrived in form were sent packing early. While world No. 1 Jon Rahm was felled by a stomach bug, others had to sign for their woes. Like Chris Kirk, fresh off victory two weeks ago at the Honda Classic. And Kurt Kitayama, winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational five days ago. He will have the weekend off to celebrate his victory. The two men who finished tied second behind Kitayama — Rory McIlroy and Harris English — were also rendered roadkill.

The Stadium Course is one of only two PGA Tour venues (Pebble Beach being the other) where the course is not merely the stage upon which great actors work, but itself a character in the drama. Fans remember the triumphs and disasters, particularly on the closing holes, a challenge more terrifying than being caught short in a long line for the portalet on Saturday at the WM Phoenix Open. Like Hal Sutton’s right club on that day in 2000, or Tiger’s better than most putt. Looming as large are the misfortunes. Len Mattiace was one shot off the lead when he got to the 17th hole 25 years ago and made 8, a painful moment for a popular figure in the locker room. Ten years ago, Sergio Garcia came to the 17th tee tied for the lead with Woods and made a quadruple bogey, prompting peers in the locker room to wonder if Schadenfreude is capitalized.

The Stadium Course at Sawgrass provides something seldom seen now in elite golf, at least outside of a U.S. Open: the turning of the thumbscrews. Most weeks on the PGA Tour we see a battery of birdies propel someone to victory. We likely will this week too — it’s inevitable in a stacked field that at least one guy will get hot. But for those of us who enjoy seeing the world’s top golfers get mugged — to experience the kind of frustration the rest of us endure with every outing — this is as good as it gets.

The greatest day in golf during 2022 was Saturday at Sawgrass, when high winds battered the course and the psyches of the best. The flip side is that brutality can be a buzz kill, claiming the very stars upon whom an event relies for eyeballs. That’s not ideal for a Tour touting its designated events, which to be fair have produced stellar leaderboards in recent weeks. Just not this week.

Through two rounds, TPC Sawgrass remains the most entertaining venue on Tour — fair enough to generously reward those in full flight, capricious enough to harshly punish those who aren’t. So while some of those slamming trunks in the Sawgrass parking lot might be taking Pete Dye’s name in vain, the rest of us have reason enough to whisper it as a blessing.

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