It’s finally here – the first major championship of the year…or at least that’s what the PGA Tour wants you to think. The top players in the world gather in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL for The Players Championship at legendary TPC Sawgrass.
It seems like the broadcasts have been given the firm directive from the PGA Tour marketing machine to push the narrative that the Players Championship is the 5th major. That’s why you’ve seen graphics where a player’s performance at last year’s majors now includes their finish at TPC Sawgrass. Or how it’s now called “The Season of Championships” starting with the Players Championship in March (and concluding with the FedEx Cup, which equally has the marketing department giggling with delight). Once the PGA Tour inevitably splits with the USGA and R&A and create their own set of rules, they’ll cut the tap dancing and full on say it’s a major (and congratulations to Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar – major champions!).
Regardless of the propaganda, golf fans should be excited this week. The Players Championship has it all – a stacked field, a good golf course from a legendary architect, an iconic hole, a rowdy crowd and a tournament rich in history with some of the biggest names in golf calling themselves champions.
Here’s everything to know before placing any wagers on the Players Championship.
Pick a star off the top of your head and they’ll be in the field. Rory, JT, Koepka, Rose, you name it. With a big purse and a prestigious trophy on the line, none of the top players would miss this event.
There are a couple question marks from two fan favorites heading in. One is Tiger Woods, who surprisingly withdrew from Bay Hill last week with a strained neck. The hot takes were flying as any time Tiger hints at an injury the mainstream sports world freaks out – but he appears to be OK. He’s slated to give a press conference on Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass, and unless he suffers a setback in a practice round he’ll likely be there.
Phil Mickelson isn’t shy to give his opinion on things. A few weeks back, he said the Players Championship isn’t a must play for him. This comment makes sense considering his disastrous performance at TPC Sawgrass last year (in a dress shirt no less), and that his erratic nature off the tee doesn’t really jive at places like TPC Sawgrass where anything off line from the tee box can be very punishing. He backtracked a bit off these comments and is committed to play, but given how bad he was last week at Bay Hill (another place where players get punished with inaccuracy off the tee), maybe he has a change of heart.
Regardless, this star-studded field will be tough to handicap for bettors this week.
The Golf Course
Pete and Alice Dye have created some of the most iconic golf courses in the world, but TPC Sawgrass is considered their crown jewel achievement. The golf course opened in 1980 after then PGA Tour commissioner Deane Berman sought to find a permanent home for a new illustrious event. The PGA Tour lacked a defining tournament on it’s schedule, and Berman hoped the creation of the Players Championship would some day rival that of the other four majors.
After being rebuked by several country clubs around the Jacksonville area, Berman decided to build one himself. He purchased 415 acres of wooded swampland from two prominent landowners in Ponte Vedra for $1 (or so the story goes – I’m going to venture to guess there was some sort of royalty agreement also involved that the PGA Tour doesn’t want to disclose because it destroys their narrative). He then hired Pete and Alice Dye to fulfill his dream of creating a challenging and iconic golf course that could deliver drama and provide spectators with a stadium-like atmosphere to enjoy the proceedings.
And with that, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was born:
I wouldn’t say the Stadium Course is the “crown jewel” of the Dye collection of golf courses. Of the more mainstream Dye golf courses regularly seen on the PGA Tour and as major venues, I prefer Whistling Straits and Austin Country Club. Several of his non-professional golf courses like French Lick and Blackwolf Run consistently appear on Top 100 Golf Course Lists in the world. And for most amateurs, the Stadium Course is quite a tough endeavor. With the positioning of bunkers, water hazards and the greens, sloppiness at the golf course is severely punished. While it might be a bucket list golf course, there will certainly be those who walk off the 18th very frustrated with their play.
But in terms of a test for the best players in the world, this golf course is perfect. There’s a very wide variance of scores at the Stadium Course because of it’s layout. Those who are aggressive and striking the ball well will be handsomely rewarded with great angles into pin positions. Others who are timid or very loose with their tee shots and irons will have tough sledding.
Many holes at the Stadium Course utilize hazards very well. Some golf courses position hazards to punish bad shots even further, and don’t give much of an incentive to hit towards them with the reward of a perfect angle for their second. Not the stadium course – Pete Dye positioned hazards (particularly the long, elongated bunkers hugging the fairways) in harmony with the angle of the green from front to back to encourage the bold to hit towards them off the tee. Here’s a few examples of this:
Here, hybrid or three wood off the tee down the right side of the fairway towards the bunker is the ideal shot. From there, the green is wide open for anyone, whether they prefer to hit a draw or a fade in. Anything down the left is “safe”, but the second requires a carry over two bunkers and limits the landing zone onto the green, particularly on back left pin locations.
Here, players are free to pull driver, but those who challenge the left side of the fairway towards the elongated bunker and the water hazard have a better access to the green. They also can eliminate the collection area on the back left of the green, unlike those who hit their tee shot down to the right where it’s in the back of their mind for their second.
When the pin is back right, anything down the right side of the fairway has almost no shot at that location, especially when the winds are up and the greens firm up. Those who take on the bunker down the left side have a much better access to that pin.
While the golf course has some very good architectural traits, it’s the 17th hole that’s the most famous and the one most fans immediately picture when they’re asked to think of the first thing that comes to mind about TPC Sawgrass.
The hole isn’t an architectural masterpiece – but it’s the most popular hole on the PGA Tour schedule because from a spectator standpoint it’s tough to beat. It’s a great viewing opportunity for anyone in attendance to witness greatness and failure.
There’s disaster lurking for anyone stepping up to the tee, as Sergio Garcia found out back in 2013 as he went toe to toe with Tiger:
It can also be the setting for incredible drama and give rise to one of the most memorable calls in golf broadcast history:
TPC Sawgrass isn’t the caliber of golf course that deserves to be held to the same esteem of Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, and countless other golf courses in the United States that actually host majors. But TPC Sawgrass has a great blend of challenging holes and mainstream appeal to be a great host for a usually exciting tournament.
With the move to March, it was expected that the golf course would play firm and fast with the bermuda fairways and rough still dormant this time of year. However, the golf course was overseeded with rye last November so that the Stadium Course will be lush and green as the Emerald City. That’s a little disappointing, but considering the players largely dislike firm and fast conditions and the PGA Tour is all in on pushing the event as the “First Major”, it’s not an overly surprising move.
TPC Sawgrass can’t be overpowered with the driver, so it’ll be those with a strong command their irons and wedges with a great chance of taking home the trophy on Sunday. As discussed above, the golf course is designed with setting up the second shot off the tee, not to pound it 300+ yards away with little regard to having it land in the rough or fairway.
This week I’ll be leaning heavily on statistics focused on the approach shots – strokes gained, proximity, relative to par from different distances, etc. Recent winners of the Players Championship are (or were) world-class iron players from Webb Simpson, to Martin Kaymer, to Jason Day, to the best iron player of all time Tiger Woods. Those who also have a very strategic approach to their game will fare well at the Players Championship.
The X Factor this week will be the wind. TPC Sawgrass plays brutal in windy conditions, as the bermuda greens crust up very quickly and players have tremendous difficulty trying to hold greens on the approach or control their pace on putts. In 2016, wind played havoc on the tournament in the third round where the average score of the day was 75 and seven players carded rounds over 80 (and Ken Duke’s 65 is regarded as one of the greatest rounds of golf in history given the tough scoring conditions). And that’s in May – the winds can be quite breezy in March. Make sure to check the forecast and compare to the tee times – those on the right side of the draw will have a big leg up over those who do not.