Perhaps the person most excited to see the TPC Sawgrass course changes in action at THE PLAYERS Championship is also quite possibly the most unexpected and unknown of characters.
His name is Stephen Cox, and he is the tournament’s advance rules official, or in layman’s terms, the lead referee during the competition. His overall responsibilities, however, are far different than those of his counterparts in other sports and more comprehensive than what’s displayed on TV.
“They’ll see us arrive on a golf cart and give a ruling, and they think that’s it, just like the other major sports” said Cox, a United Kingdom native who has worked for the PGA since 1997. “It’s not that simple with our sport. We’re far more involved in the development of the playing area, and that takes a lot of our time pre-tournament.”
The PGA Tour official has been responsible for orchestrating much of the prep work behind the scenes of the tournament over the past 12 to 18 months, with the goal of ensuring the game’s stars are provided the best possible platform to perform.
For Cox and his team, which will include 20 rules officials during the tournament, those efforts have included working on the course’s recent modifications, such as the redesigned 12th hole, to more subtle projects in partnership with the course’s agronomy team to ensure, for example, that green speeds are ideal for tournament play. Ultimately, it is Cox’s team that maps out the course for the tournament, determining the length of a particular piece of rough and strategizing the placements of tees and holes.
Cox understands that significant focus will be placed on the 12th hole, which was transformed into a drivable par four. He explained that when they were designing it, they studied holes at other courses around the country, including the 15th at TPC River Highlands and the 10th at Riviera Country Club. They used the holes as benchmarks for creating the drivable hole that’s currently situated on the back nine of TPC Sawgrass, which they knew would be exciting to watch during the tournament. The hole’s renovations include the conversion of a mound on the left of the fairway into a bunker, as well as the conversion of a fairway bunker on the right side into a rough. The renovations also feature a reshaped green complex with a new pond on its left and new spectator mounding around it.
Cox said the hole fits perfectly within the back nine, noting that it’s placed early enough for players to recover if they falter, as well as press if they need to project themselves back into contention. He said the team involved in recreating the hole didn’t want to make it too difficult, adding that they want the players to feel like a four almost isn’t a good score. As a result, the PGA Tour official believes the new 12th will entice each of the tournament’s players to attempt the drive, regardless of how “long” they are.
“That’s one of the beauties about this golf course,” said Cox. “It’s not a long golf course. It’s a strategic golf course. Anyone can win on it.”
The 12th hole modifications were also necessary from a fan’s perspective, said Cox, whose responsibilities additionally include fan movement and overall fan experience. The old hole, he said, made it difficult for spectators to transition from the 12th to the 13th, while also positioning fans away from the green. Now, with the additional mounding, Cox said fans can see both the start and finish of a shot and transition from hole to hole in a more seamless fashion.
Cox is proud of the other modifications that have been made to the course, which include new hole locations on holes one, four, nine, 11 and 13; a new lake between holes six and seven; repositioned tees on seven and 15; modified green contours on eight; new bunkers and new grass; and a redesigned practice facility. As a result, he encourages tournament attendees to walk the entire course to see the changes, instead of congregating in one spot.
“It’s never been easier than it is right now to walk hole to hole,” said Cox, “and I think if people do that, they will be blown away by how beautiful the property is, particularly those holes that don’t get that much attention on television.”
Cox has several other miscellaneous duties, including coordinating with the weather team to predict how the week’s conditions may affect the tournament, as well as partnering with the security team to ensure players, media and fans are all taken care of throughout the week. That’s why, given the immensity of prep work that goes into the event, he’s ready to “get the show on the road” come the beginning of the tournament.
“We’re ready to play some golf,” said Cox. “We’ve spent an awful lot of time and effort. We’re looking forward to how the golf course plays out.”