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Nicklaus Toughens TPC Michigan
by Jack Berry

The $2.4 million Ford Senior Players Championship faces a dilemma: fans like to see birdies but many of the top players, usually the most recent guns from the "Kid Tour," those under 50 years old, want to see tough courses, want to be challenged.

Those young seniors are insulted by the drive and a short iron courses that have been the rule rather than the exception since the Senior PGA Tour began 21 years ago. And the folks in charge down at tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., don't like to see their major championship, the richest senior event, the Ford Senior Players, chopped, sliced and diced every summer.

Since the Senior Players moved to the Jack Nicklaus-designed Tournament Players Club of Michigan 10 years ago, the winning score has averaged 14.7 strokes under par. Gil Morgan was 21 under par in 1998 and Hale Irwin did the same thing in 1999. Raymond Floyd was 15 under last year.

So the word came up from Ponte Vedra--toughen that course!--and Nicklaus and his senior designer, ex-Michigander Jim Lipe, went to work again.

Under normal circumstances, for normal players, TPC Michigan is a very difficult course with water or wetlands or nearly every hole. But for the world's best senior citizen golfers, it's been a pussycat instead of a, well, a tiger. Or a golden bear. Thirty-three players finished under par last year and that just isn't supposed to be done in a major championship.

To rectify the disturbing situation, changes have been made on 11 holes. Eight fairways have been narrowed in the tee shot landing area, usually to a width of 35 yards.

There's a new fairway bunker on the left side of the short par 4 sixth hole, one of the most entertaining holes on the course. Fans sitting behind the green can see the tee shots and then the short iron or wedge over the water to the green.

The 542-yard par 5 seventh, a piece of cake hole if ever there was one, has a tighter fairway and the bunker 20 yards short of the green has been expanded toward the center of the fairway to make it more difficult to run a second shot up to the green.

The 506-yard 13th, another soft touch par 5, also will feature a tightened fairway and expanded bunker at the left front of the green, again to make it difficult to run a second hole onto the green for an eagle putt and cinch two putt birdie.

There are new bunkers on the 16th and 18th holes and the fairways have been narrowed on the 16th and 17th.

In addition to tighter fairways and more sand, there are two new maple trees on the left side of the devilish fifth hole and there are three new maples in the right rough on the ninth, tightening the drive landing zone. And they aren't saplings.

When TPC Michigan opened there were few trees on what used to be a wild piece of swampy property where a lot of nighttime dumping was practiced. There were some hardwoods at the east end of the course but what other trees were there were mostly dirty cottonwoods that turned the air into a cotton storm in the spring. The club embarked immediately on a massive tree and shrub planting program and they've come up with a silk purse from a sow's ear. The transformation from dumping ground to a golf community where some of Ford Motor's highest executives reside, has been amazing and a tribute to Wayne Doran, the head of Ford Motor Land Development Co., and former Ford chairman Red Poling, both ardent golfers.

But will all this planting, this tightening, this sanding and the incredibly luxuriant rough stem the tide of birdies and eagles? And should it?

Do fans who remember the seniors as they were in their heyday want to see them hacking and slashing and splashing? Or do they want to see Chi Chi Rodriguez and his pals do little dances after birdies?

John Jacobs told Bill Fields of Golf World that the Senior Tour isn't about hard bellies and tough courses, it's about fun and birdies and playing to the galleries, being companionable in the pro-ams that are the Senior Tour's lifeline.

Jacobs, who had a nasty final round 78 last year at TPC Michigan and finished at 287, one shot under par, said toughening the courses will make the players spend more time working on their games, turn them into grim-faced old boys focused strictly on their games and that isn't what the Senior Tour was built on.

What'll it be? Grin or grim?

Speaking of grim, that could be the way golf fans will feel this summer as extensive work is scheduled on the Southfield Freeway bordering TPC Michigan. Check your route before you go.

Ford Senior Players Championship

WHEN: July 12-15, 2001
WHERE: Tournament Players Club of Michigan; Rotunda Drive, between Greenfield and Southfield Rds., Dearborn
PURSE: $2.4 million, $360,000 to winner
TV: July 12-13, ESPN; July 14-15, ABC

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