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Sawgrass has aged well in past 20 years

They used to hate this place, at least in the early days. When the Players Championship first moved to the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course, the moaning was nearly deafening.

The concept of a "stadium course" was still a dream to former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman. There was nothing traditional about Pete Dye's creation, with its railroad ties and rock hard greens and the island 17th green.

Water came into play on 13 holes, and there were deep pot bunkers, large waste areas and hard greens. So hard, in fact, they caused Jack Nicklaus to say he was "never really good at making 4-irons stop on the hoods of Volkswagens."

Now you hardly hear a whimper about the TPC-Sawgrass. Twenty years have passed since Jerry Pate won the first Players here with an orange ball and then tossed Beman and Dye into the lake alongside the 18th green.

Time has softened feelings and the course. A network of TPCs has been built around the world. And the Players Championship is among the best tournaments, a $6-million event that attracts nearly every top player.

"I've heard stories of it," defending champion Tiger Woods said of the "old" TPC. "They have done a heck of a job in getting it to where it is now. It's much more fair and a lot more fun to play, from what the players told me of how it used to be."

The PGA Tour is commemorating the occasion and brought back Beman and Dye for the festivities. Pate, 48, is playing in the tournament that begins today.

"The golf course has changed tremendously," said Pate, who also designs courses. "It was much more difficult. The best term you could use is, it was still raw in some regards. It has to mature. Even the rough areas, you could walk 20 yards out in the rough and there was a chance you could get bit by a rattlesnake. Golf courses evolve, they become more user-friendly. It has become much more refined."

The reaction was not always kind, but Dye and Beman get the last laugh.

"Between windmills and Donkey-Kong and the hood of a Volkswagen," Beman said, referring to the criticism the course received. "I have since played _ we won't mention any names here _ but I have since played a number of golf courses (designed) by those people who made those quotes, and I've played a lot more severe greens on those courses than these were."

GREAT DATE: Chrysler's sponsorship of the Tampa Bay Classic beginning in 2003 hasn't become official, but that hasn't kept players from talking about it. News has spread about the tournament at Innisbrook and its date the week before the season-ending Tour Championship.

"I think it will be fantastic," said Billy Andrade, who paired with Kris Tschetter to win the 1991 JCPenney Classic at the course. "You have everybody going for something at that time of year. Guys trying to finish in the top 150, top 125, top 70, top 30. Guys going for the Masters, top 40. It's going to be a hell of a deal.

"Really good golf course. Hard. There's nothing but positive there. At that time of year the course will be in perfect shape. The week before the Tour Championship, wherever you are, you're going to get a good field. And the area deserves it."

GOLF LEGENDS PASS: In the past week two golfers who left their mark on the Tampa Bay area, Paul Runyan and Polly Riley, passed away.

Runyan won 29 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1934 St. Petersburg Open at Pasadena Golf Club. Runyon won $200 at the 36-hole event.

Riley, an amateur from Fort Worth, Texas, won the first official LPGA Tour event, the 1950 Tampa Open, at Palma Ceia. She won the tournament by five strokes.

MAJORS AND TV: The proposed Major Champions Tour has a television agreement _ sort of. Fox-TV has agreed in principle to televise seven events next year, provided at least two-thirds of the eligible players sign on by June. But the tour, which would have past major champions ages 37-55 compete on historic venues, has taken a hit. Greg Norman said it is too many events for him, although the two-time British Open champion has said he supports the venture.

Whether there are enough supporters remains to be seen. The bottom line is, players will be faced with giving up their PGA Tour membership, which means the tour remains a long shot.

Allen Doyle, the Senior PGA Tour's leading money winner last year, called the concept "greed with a capital G. It would absolutely blow my mind if their greed is that bad that they couldn't see that it would hurt both tours. They would be hurting the tour that made them who they are."

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.