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THE PLAYERS features diverse winner’s list

4 Min Read

Stats Report

THE PLAYERS features diverse winner’s list

    Written by Justin Ray, @JustinRayGolf

    Holes-in-one on No. 17 at THE PLAYERS

    In 2018, Webb Simpson shook off whatever lingering long-putter demons remained hovering nearby, literally rolling to a blowout victory. In his four-shot romp, Simpson led the field in Strokes Gained: Putting, making 14 putts longer than 10 feet for the week. Simpson lost strokes to the field on approach and still won the tournament, a testament to just how dazzling he was on the greens.

    The last two champions, however, took a markedly different route. Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas combined to hit 46 drives of 300 yards or further in their victories, 40 more than Simpson did in his. While Simpson gained more than 60% of his strokes on the greens, Thomas and McIlroy gained about 8% of theirs with the shortest club in the bag. Simpson ranked 16th in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green when he won in 2018; Thomas and McIlroy led the field in that stat in their victories.

    TPC Sawgrass seemingly favors no particular type of player. After all, it has famously never seen a back-to-back champion, and nobody has won at TPC Sawgrass more than twice in a career. But has its spot on the calendar shifted what skills are more valued in determining success?

    Twenty First Group dove into the numbers to find out.

    Scoring Tougher in March

    THE PLAYERS was held 12 times in May from 2007 through 2018. During that time, the field scoring average was 72.5, three-quarters of a stroke lower than the last 12 times this tournament was held in March. Nearly 18% of rounds in May resulted in scores in the 60s – that number was just 12.5% the last 12 times the tournament was held in May.

    Across the board, scoring conditions were more fruitful later in the year. The average winning score has been about 0.7 strokes lower in May. There were 41 rounds of 65 or lower in May from 2007-2018, 12 more than in the last 12 instances (not counting the canceled 2020 edition) in March. The field averaged about 3% more greens in regulation and about half-a-bogey-or-worse fewer per round, too.

    THE PLAYERS - March vs May Since 1997
    Scoring average73.2372.48
    Rounds in 60s12.5%17.7%
    65s or lower2941
    Average winning score-11.9-12.6

    Decidedly Different

    Let’s look at what successful performers at THE PLAYERS differed from March to May. Since 2004, ShotLink has been able to track detailed Strokes Gained data at TPC Sawgrass. These numbers clearly illustrate that the tournament is more of a ball-striking evaluation in March than in its previous home on the calendar.

    Players who have finished in the top 10 at THE PLAYERS in May since 2004 have averaged +1.80 Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green per round. That number leaps to +2.04 per round for players in March. The largest gap between the two months comes in performance off the tee: top-10 finishers in March average +0.49 Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee per round, while in May it’s just +0.35.

    In turn, putting proved to be incrementally more decisive in May. Top-10 finishers in May averaged +0.84 Strokes Gained: Putting per round, a bit more than their March counterparts (+0.78). Those players made about 2% more putts from 4-8 feet, and slightly more putts from 10-15 feet.

    When isolating the comparison to just the top-five finishers, the numbers tighten up. Top-5 finishers in March have averaged +1.84 Strokes Gained: Ball Striking (a stat that isolates performance off the tee and on approach shots) per round, +0.21 more than those in May. Meanwhile, the Strokes Gained: Putting averages are identical, at +0.94 per round.

    Comparing tournament winners in March and May expands the trend further. The five PLAYERS champions in March since 2004 gained 45% more strokes off-the-tee per round than the 12 winners in May did. In terms of Strokes Gained: Ball Striking, the number is staggering: the five March champs in that span averaged +2.89 per round. The dozen in May averaged significantly less, just +1.76. Meanwhile, the winners in May gained +0.42 more strokes putting per round – a gulf equivalent to the season-long difference in 2021 between 1st and 44th place.

    Stretching back pre-ShotLink, the trend continues. Since 1990, the average driving distance rank of PLAYERS champions in March is 20.7. Less than half of those winners in that span – nine of 19 – ranked outside the top-10 in the field that week in average distance off the tee. In May, the average rank is 31.2, with 10 of those 12 champions landing outside the top-10 in the traditional driving distance metric.

    This year marks the 40th time a PLAYERS champion will be decided at TPC Sawgrass. There’s an unquantifiable brilliance to generating a setup that has never seen the same player win in consecutive years. By parsing the detailed stats at Sawgrass, however, we can better explain the routes the world’s best can take to a career-changing win.

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