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Pros sing blues about greens

Until square grooves came along, perhaps the most talked about topic in golf was not the clubs the pros played with but the clubs where they played.

Tournament Players Clubs are nationwide now, but the concept began with the TPC at Sawgrass, near Jacksonville, where the PGA Tour's Players Championship is contested annually and critiques _ mostly bad _ are shouted about the course's design.

Despite the protests, the idea grew into a network of 22 courses in 12 states. "Stadium courses" were built with spectators in mind _ signature mounds offer a pleasant perspective for fans, a rotten landing place for golfers _ and with the hope of staging PGA and Senior PGA Tour events.

One of the recent additions to the network is the TPC of Tampa Bay at Cheval, site of this week's $450,000 GTE Suncoast Classic. Many of the senior pros played it for the first time Tuesday, and the reaction was mixed.

"I don't think this will be too many people's favorite golf course," said Dave Stockton, captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team that defeated Europe last fall and now a full-time member of the senior tour. "I like the physical layout. I like the beauty of the golf course "

But . . . "This one has me puzzled," Stockton said. "It has the most severe greens of any TPC I've seen yet. TPCs have mounds so people can see. But they didn't need to put mounds in the middle of the greens."

The tournament moved from Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club, where it was played the past four years. The two courses couldn't be much more different.

Tampa Palms has holes built amid a forest, with few parallel fairways, and hazards on nearly every hole. It made for wonderful golf but poor spectator visibility.

The TPC of Tampa Bay is open, with plenty of room for spectators. The 6,638-yard course is above the average length of senior tour courses (6,550 yards) and plays longer because it has only three par-5s and is par-71. Some of the par-4 holes, depending on the tees, will be difficult to reach in regulation with anything less than a long iron or maybe a fairway wood.

"I think it's a great golf course," said Tampa's Jim Dent, who has played it several times and feels the length will be to his advantage. (He led the senior tour in driving distance last year.) "It's a big difference from Tampa Palms. The 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th are four great finishing holes, and if the wind comes up, the scores will go up with it."

The greens are large and undulating, like billiards tables with hills, and some are positioned next to hazards or marsh.

"It's not my favorite type of architecture," said Bruce Devlin, who has designed more than 100 courses. "It's not my cup of tea. It reminds me of most TPC courses. I'm not in favor of greens that have 5- and 6-foot elevation changes. I'm opposed to that."

The course was designed by Bobby Weed, and Chi Chi Rodriguez was a player consultant. It opened a little more than a year ago.

"A lot of TPCs take chipping out of the game," Gibby Gilbert said. "If you miss a green, you can't get up and down (because the slopes are too severe). You're better off being in a bunker if you miss a green.

"You'll get a lot of mixed emotions about the course. Really, you need to ask the people who play it every day. It's a little bit too tough for everyday traffic. The 15th hole (a 425-yard par-4) is one of the toughest par-4s I've ever seen. It's a great hole.

"A good golfer can play well here. I'm sure it'll be a great week and someone will score well. But if the wind blows, it'll be impossible. Sometimes they build them a little too difficult."

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