Sawgrass Stories

Sky Sports Golf presenter David Livingstone blogs about his eventful first trip to Sawgrass for the Players Championship.

Last Updated: 13/05/14 4:06pm

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Not David Livingstone's favourite bar in Florida! Photo credit: Travis Schwarz

Not David Livingstone's favourite bar in Florida! Photo credit: Travis Schwarz

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The Players Championship was the first American golf tournament I attended and since I'd never been to Florida, Jacksonville was my first point of contact with this beguiling southern peninsula.

I landed late and climbed into an airport taxi driven by a guy who looked like Willie Nelson.

His looks may have been country and western but he spoke the language of an urban cowboy.

Passing a rundown area just off the freeway, he caught me staring out the window at the mess of low-rise chaos.

"Drugsville," he said, "shootin's there all the time."

This was no great shock to someone brought up in Glasgow but my comfort level dropped a notch when he sought to reassure me by telling me that he had a gun in the glove compartment.

I began to wonder why I'd ever left our cosy London studio where the golf came to us from a satellite, unaccompanied by local difficulties.

Willie dropped me at my hotel where I assumed my generous tip prevented me from being shot.

Early next morning, daylight revealed that I could step out of my room straight onto miles of deserted Atlantic beach. Very quickly, Willie and Drugsville became a distant memory and suddenly I was glad I was looking back towards the studio from 3,000 miles away.

Colourful history

These North East Florida shores are not the kind of pretty little beaches you find in coves and bays looking out to a channel or even a gulf where you might see some colourful pleasure cruisers or spluttering fishing boats.

These are long, straight stretches of natural sand separating land from a vast ocean. The vessels on the horizon here are massive cruise liners or sky-scraping container ships, all going to and from the huge Jacksonville port, just north of Ponte Vedra.

Beaches that stretch for miles. Photo credit: Travis Schwarz

In the other direction, you could virtually walk all the way South along the beach to St Augustine, one of the most fascinating towns in the United States.

It's certainly one of the oldest, but more than that, having been founded by the Spanish in the 16th Century and having been a major landing port for African slaves, it has a special place in American history.

In the 1960s, at the height of Civil Rights unrest, Martin Luther King was asked to intervene in bitter and bloody local conflict.

These days, St Augustine is a peaceful small town that feels like a little piece of Spain in the United States.

Lap of luxury

Back up the coastline in the mid-1990s, I had been billeted at the quite splendid Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, which did everything to make you feel at home - assuming you already lived in the lap of luxury.

Then, 20 years ago as a relative innocent abroad, I had never heard of valet parking or turndown services but they were the norm at The Inn and Club. Also, there was an item that appeared on your bill called 'resort fee', at that time $25 per day.

I asked about this at the front desk and they told me it covered 'resort services and gratuities'. When I said I had no need of whatever these services were and that I liked to tip personally the manager of the day simply said: "No problem, sir, we'll remove the charge."

Sawgrass: An idyllic setting. Photo credit: Travis Schwarz

Buoyed by this small victory I set out on my Players Championship adventure. After watching Florida golf courses on television, I was about to see the most famous of them all first hand.

I loved the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass on that first day and I've loved it ever since.

Of course, it doesn't have the history of Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills or Oakmont nor the cachet of Augusta or Pine Valley but I regard it as a modern masterpiece.

I suspect the purists view it with a wary eye, visualising the odd windmill and clown's mouth placed here and there to emphasise the craziness of this man-made golfing playground, epitomised by the dastardly par-3 17th.

However, I'd recommend that you play it yourself and make up your own mind. Next time you're lucky enough to be in Orlando, consider a road trip to play the course you've watched so many times on television.

The first time I played there, a colleague and I teamed up against a couple of Americans in our own little Ryder Cup match.

We came to the 17th all square. With two balls out of four in the water and one American just on the green about 20 yards from the hole, the pressure was on yours truly.

I hit my tee shot to 10 feet but then I committed the cardinal matchplay sin. I assumed I was going to win the hole and perhaps, eventually, the match.

Of course, I did neither. The American holed the most ridiculous quadruple-breaking, up-and-down 60-footer and I missed mine.

Unique appeal

There and then I had personally experienced the thrill of the Tournaments Players Club at Sawgrass and the unique appeal of the Players Championship.

I give the event its official title because the PGA Tour has spent a fortune over the years re-branding it as such.

However, many golf fans around the world and certainly Ponte Vedra locals still refer to it as "the TPC", a sentimental reference to its old name of Tournament Players Championship.

And as you'd expect "TPC Week" in Ponte Vedra and Jacksonville is party time. Every shop, gas station, bar or restaurant has a "TPC" deal.

Here, you'll find all the usual franchises and brand outlets you'd expect in the Sunshine State but there are surprises in this northern outpost of eastern Florida.

My early experiences included a visit to a ramshackle restaurant called Lulu's perched on the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway, just West of Sawgrass.

I have no idea if it still exists but it was a personal highlight then. On the deck outside, they had a tee from which you could hit balls to a basket tied to a tree on the opposite side of the river.

From memory, it was about 130 yards and after a few drinks an ancient 7-iron seemed to be the club.

A few miles up the coast at Neptune Beach, the place to go was Pete's Bar. This is definitely still in business and it's a celebrated 'dive bar' which features prominently in the John Grisham novel 'The Brethren'.

It may enjoy cult status but it's not my kind of place. One Sunday night, there was a bit of tension regarding order of play on the pool tables and I wasn't feeling too much love towards the out-of-towners.

Evidently though, it's extremely popular and who am I to put you off paying a visit?

Talking of John Grisham, my last anecdote in this posting is of my own courtroom drama in Ponte Vedra.

The law: Livingstone will hope for a quieter visit this time. Photo credit: Travis Schwarz

It concerns a speeding offence I committed on J. Turner Butler Boulevard, my last leg of a trip from Orlando.

The officer told me coldly that I was doing 67 in a 60 zone and ordered me to hand over my driving licence.

My licence was in a bag buried under luggage in the back so I asked him for a minute to get myself organised.

Evidently, I took more than a minute because when I finally found my licence he was already back in his car ticketing me for speeding and for having no driving licence.

With that he'd quickly elevated my crime from misdemeanor to something more serious, requiring a court appearance.

I showed him my licence but he brushed it aside because I didn't have an international driving licence to go with it. This was questionable because the role of international driving licences was always disputed in Florida.

The more I tried to reason with him the more entrenched he became and eventually I had to accept the situation.

The next day, work took a second place to finding a lawyer. Not some nice family lawyer who helps you buy a house or write a will. No, I needed a criminal defence hotshot who could fast track me to freedom.

With the help of some of our local technical crew we found just such a man, a mover and a shaker at Duval County Courthouse who transported me into my own Grisham thriller.

A hearing date had already been set for several weeks hence when, of course, I would already have returned to the UK.

My man in the shiny suit told me he was talking to the prosecutor and the judge and everything would be okay.

Whether he was, in fact, involved in high-powered legal wrangling I'll never really know. All I do know is he charged me $2000, I paid a $400 fine, and the matter was completely closed about two months later.

A happy ending to a troubling experience but another few stitches in life's rich tapestry.

Be warned, then, if you take a trip to the TPC to remember two things. Obey the law and beware Willie Nelson lookalikes!

Catch The Players Championship starting on Thursday, 6pm, Sky Sports 4 HD

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