TPC of Michigan: An Urban Jewel

By Jack Berry, Contributor

DEARBORN, Mich. - We weren't ready to confuse the Tournament Players Club of Michigan with the Augusta National Golf Club. The entrance to the TPC is Nicklaus Drive, not Magnolia Lane. And despite the thousands of plantings on the property since it was converted from a veritable wasteland to a well-populated in-town golf club, the TPC isn't a sea of azaleas, dogwoods and live oaks.

Nor were we ready to confuse the Ford Senior Players Championship with The Masters Tournament; the winner of the Senior Players does not receive a green jacket or get to order the dinner for the following year's Champions Dinner. There isn't a Champions Dinner nor is there a special lockerroom for past champions.

And then there's this difference: no one got upset when Gil Morgan shot 21-under-par 267 to win the 1998 Ford Senior Players. That's one shot under par better than Tiger Woods scored when he trashed the Masters scoring records in 1997. Instead of making TPC Michigan harder, it's been softened a touch more.

When Woods ravaged the record book at Augusta you knew there was going to be a payback down the line and we saw it this year when the Augusta National grew, gasp!, ROUGH.

Not only that, the club planted a veritable forest of 30-35 foot high pine trees between the 15th and 17th holes, lowered the jet-assist mounds on the right side of the par 5 15th that had turned it into a drive and 8-iron hole for Tiger, and backed up the second tee to make it a real par 5 and then moved back and to the side the tee on the 17th to bring the big Eisenhower pine tree into play.

The combination of new rough, length and trees resulted in a winning score this year of 280 by Jose Maria Olazabal, eight under par.

And what has TPC Michigan's and the Senior Tour's response been to Morgan's 69-64-68-66, the record for the eight-year run of the Senior Players at TPC Michigan, the lowest by four shots in that time?

Well, they made it easier to reach the par 5 third hole in two shots by extending the fairway near the approach to the green of the 547 yard hole.

And it already was the third easiest hole on the course.

On the straightaway 542-yard par 5 seventh, the second easiest hole last year, one of two left side fairway bunkers was removed and the other was reshaped slightly and moved a little farther left. The rough line on the right was brought in 5-7 yards but it still is a generous 32-35 yard wide landing area.

And then there was work on the Green Monster, the 429-yard par 4 14th that has been the toughest hole since the course opened and of which one past champion said, "the only way to improve it is with a box of dynamite."

There still is the massive wetland all along the left side that threatens drives and second shots but the green was renovated and enlarged 900 square feet last fall and the right edge was raised so that shots now will roll back into the green instead of trickling off into a swale. the back of the green is nine inches higher now than the front, again making it accept shots better, and a small "splash" bunker was added on the right side.

No hole has been tinkered with more than the 14th. Right from the design stage it was a problem. There was little acreage to work with in the first place and 18 holes had to be shoehorned in. The large wetland pinched the property and designer Jack Nicklaus and then PGA Tour Commissioner

Deane Beman debated what to do with the hole, make it a par 3, which would reduce the course's par to 71, or somehow squeeze a fairway and green around the wetland (face it, it looks like a swamp and would be a scary place on a dark Halloween night).

Compounding it was a large hackaberry tree at the head of the landing area. Fortuitously, after a couple of years, that big tree was struck by lightning, or so they say, and fell into the swamp/wetland.

That took a bit of sting out of the hole but the players complained the green was too narrow and it rejected shots instead of accepting them. So the green was widened on the right and a tightly-mown chip-or-putt area was added.

"It's a good par 4 for us," two-time champion Dave Stockton said," but for the average person or a woman, it's an impossible hole. There's no fairway to go around the lake."

The 14th made the Senior Tour's Top 50 Toughest Holes list right from the first year it was played, in 1991, but it's been slipping. It was the sixth most difficult in 1991 but it was 30th in 1997 and 45th last year, a veritable pussycat. In fact, TPC Michigan was only the 22nd most difficult of the Senior Tour's 38 stops last year. You might expect a higher degree of difficulty for one of the Senior Tour's three major championships, one that carries a $2 million pot for the 78-man field. Only one other tournament carries that much money, the season-ending Senior Tour Championship.

Two things have happened at TPC Michigan and in the Ford Seniors. First, the players are familiar with the Nicklaus creation. Shoot, even the Michigan Open field has managed to somewhat solve The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort, the toughest Nicklaus track in the state, because it plays it every year.

Second, the yearly tweakings at TPC Michigan have been carried out not to make it more difficult but to make it more playable.

"When I looked at my scores from last year, I couldn't believe I shot that low," Morgan said. "It still is a scary course because of all the water and wetlands. You've got to be careful with club selection because you can run right through the fairways and into trouble."

Morgan obviously pulled the right clubs because there are wetlands or ponds on 13 of the 18 holes. Seven of the greens are bordered or fronted by water. As far as member play is concerned, all that water is the pro shop's delight -- healthy golf ball sales.

J.C. Snead, who lost the 1992 championship to Stockton when he yanked his tee shot into the wetland on the left side of the 18th hole, came back to beat designer Nicklaus with a birdie in a playoff on the 18th in 1995, said "I never have been a big fan of Nicklaus courses but it must suit my game because I've played well there."

So have the Senior Tour's biggest names. Stockton, Raymond Floyd and Jim Colbert have won at TPC Michigan and Morgan and Hale Irwin, the tour's dominant players the last two years, finished 1-2 at the Dearborn club last July.

TPC Michigan and the Ford Senior Players have become major winners. Ford Vice President Wayne Doran, the main man behind the development of the course and the head of Ford Motor Land Development Co., has turned a 205-acre wasteland into an urban environmental and housing jewel.

Ford's influence filled the TPC's membership rolls faster than any TPC in the 23-club chain and, initially a corporate club, it now is a family community with houses on every piece of available land. At a time when people were driving out for golf and housing, Ford provided a first-class in-town course and housing and they hit the market on the nose.

That property isn't what it used to be. And that's all for the better.

Jack Berry, Contributor

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