By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Want to build the prototypical golfer to succeed at THE PLAYERS Championship? Sorry, you can't. Not possible.
Look at the list of winners at TPC Sawgrass. Long and short hitters. Shot-makers and escape artists. Guys who putt well for an entire career -- and guys who putt well for one week.
Big names have won (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson) and so have the big surprises. Remember Craig Perks in 2002?
Not only is this the deepest field in golf, it's also the most unpredictable. On Thursday, 145 players will tee off in the first round. History suggests any one of them can win.
Wait, that's not entirely true. You can eliminate players who fall into two categories -- the defending champ (it's never happened in this event; sorry, Matt Kuchar) and first-timers (has happened only twice at TPC Sawgrass).
But then, the very nature of unpredictability is that it goes against history.
"The course is such an amazing test," said Johnny Miller, the NBC golf analyst who missed the cut six times in eight starts on the Stadium Course. "It's very unpredictable.
"Even Tiger and Phil, everybody gets glimpses of greatness, but it's hard to carry it year after year."
At TPC Sawgrass, there is no blueprint for success, no horse for this course. Anybody's game indeed.
"It's just one of these courses where the best player who plays well that week will win," Rory McIlroy said. "It doesn't suit any type of game style."
Woods, the best player of his generation, has one win in 15 career starts at THE PLAYERS. That's a success rate of 6.67 percent -- well below Tiger's career average of 26 percent and certainly the lowest in any of the TOUR's biggest events.
Tiger has figured out Torrey Pines, Muirfield Village, Firestone and Bay Hill. He's yet to figure out Pete Dye's masterpiece.
"It's one of those courses where they've got some tough lines," Woods said, "If you're not playing well, you're going to get exposed."
TPC Sawgrass, in other words, is the great equalizer. Fred Funk won in 2005 despite ranking near the bottom in the field in driving distance. David Duval won in 1999 despite ranking near the bottom in driving accuracy.
"I think this place you pretty much need everything," Kuchar said. "... You don't have to be long to win, which is a great testament that you get players of all natures."
Sure, you'll likely find those type of contradictions at any big-time championship event. But here, it seems to be the rule. There is no easy way to navigate TPC Sawgrass. You will encounter problems. Bank on it.
As Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee said, "It asks things of players that are not asked the rest of the year."
That's why patience will be at a premium this week.
"It is a major championship-style golf course that if you don't think your way around and you don't play real well, you don't have much chance," said Davis Love III, one of just four players with multiple wins since the tournament moved to TPC Sawgrass in 1982.
Love, who is making his 28th PLAYERS start this week, has more competitive rounds at TPC Sawgrass than any other player in the field. He mentioned this week how easy it is to get distracted at a Dye course. As he said, "Don't look at all the stuff he built that doesn't really affect you."
McIlroy had another way to describe it. "Tricky," he said. "This is a tricky golf course. ... Visually it's a tough track."
Consequently, first-timers generally struggle here. If any common thread for success does exist, it's that experience matters.
Of the last 10 winners, the average number of PLAYERS appearances is 9.7 starts. The least-experienced champ during that span was Adam Scott, who was making his third PLAYERS start when he won in 2004. On the other end of the spectrum is Love, who was making his 18th start when he won for the second time in 2002.
"Experience does play a key role here," Brandt Snedeker said. "There is a way you're supposed to play this golf course.
"Pete Dye did a great job of telling you where you need to hit it on every hole, and you need to do a good job of doing that and miss it in spots where you can manage from. It's a demanding golf course."
Snedeker, making his sixth PLAYERS start this week, has yet to unlock the Stadium Course's secrets. He's missed the cut in each of his last four starts here.
Of course, given how well the youngsters have played this year on TOUR, perhaps it wouldn't be a huge surprise if they were in contention on Sunday afternoon. There are 26 first-timers in this week's field and seven already have TOUR wins on their resumes.
One of those is Billy Horschel, who lives in the Jacksonville area and just won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans two weeks ago. He plays the Stadium Course "20 times a year" but said it's no advantage.
"The problem is that the course is completely different than when we play it," Horschel said.
Perhaps that's why much-decorated locals such as Jim Furyk or Vijay Singh have never won THE PLAYERS. Familiarity does not count.
Reputation is also ignored. TPC Sawgrass offers no relief for those with the biggest resumes.
Check out PGATOUR.COM's Expert Picks this week. Nobody picked Tiger Woods as a possible winner, and only one expert picked Rory McIlroy. And those are the top two players in the world.
That makes no sense at any other big event. But here, it does (well, sort of).
"All the top players have bad records around here," said Graeme McDowell, who has never finished better than a tie for 26th in four previous starts. "I'm sure guys like Rory and top players that perhaps don't love this golf course, they're only a couple rounds away from getting back in love with it."
Indeed. The winner on Sunday no doubt will be in love with TPC Sawgrass. But which player will that be? Well, you've got 145 choices.