How to win at the Stadium? Start with straight, and have a short game

Greenwood/Getty Images
Luke Donald doesn't overpower courses, but keeps the ball in play and has a great short game. He knows that's a winning recipe at the Stadium Course.
May 09, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- In the 30 years since THE PLAYERS Championship moved to its permanent home at the Stadium Course, the list of champions defies categorization. There have been long hitters, short hitters, great putters, suspect putters, excellent ballstrikers and even the occasional grinder.

LARRY DORMAN ARCHIVE: Read all of Larry Dorman's signature columns for PGATOUR.COM. Archive

The styles of play, body types, nationalities and career resumes of the champions are as diverse as a meeting of the general assembly of the United Nations. And in the five years since the dates were changed from March to May, and the course was made firm and fast with SubAir systems and sand-based fairways, the only visible commonalities among the champions has been a large golf bag with their name on it and a week of superb golf.

Simply put, just about anyone good enough to get into the field of 144 players can win here. And the one sure thing since Jerry Pate won the inaugural event in 1982? The champion won't repeat.

Why is this? The first two words would be Pete Dye. Lovers and loathers of his design, and there are plenty of each, all concede that his genius lies in his ability to take the golfer out of the padded confines of their comfort zone and into his well-laid trap.

Luke Donald, currently residing at the No. 2 position in the Official World Golf Ranking, is among the admirers of Dye's design.

"I think it's a good golf course for me and one that I have a good chance of winning around," said Donald, whose past performance chart includes a T2 in 2005 and a T4 last year. "I think short game is important around here. There's obviously -- it's important to hit greens at this course.

"They are small, they are undulating. But if you do miss them, it helps to be able to be pretty good around the greens and get the ball up and down. I don't think it favors any one style of golf. It doesn't really favor the bomber; there's no real advantage to the guy who hits it 330."

Donald has to be considered among the favorites this week. His analysis of the golf course is reflected in a comparison of stats from the past 10 champions, allowing for the predictable statistical anomalies.

Doesn't favor the bomber? Bingo. Of the past 10 winners, only Adam Scott (No. 5 in the field at 297.5 yards) was among the top 10 in driving distance. There are two reasons for this: the par 4s are not very long by today's standards -- even the 481-yard 14th plays downhill -- and the gnarly TPC rough makes it imperative to drive the ball in the fairway.

Three of the past seven winners have been either first or tied for first in fairways hit (averaging 79.16 percent), and only Craig Perks in 2002 (57.1 percent) and Phil Mickelson in 2007 (53.57 percent) have been below 60 percent.

Great iron play? Another prerequisite. Three champions in the past decade were No. 1 in both fairways hit and greens in regulation -- Fred Funk in 2005, Stephen Ames in 2006 and Sergio Garcia in 2008 -- and no champion has been outside the top 25 in greens hit. Five were in the top 10.

Excellent short games make up for a correspondingly low percentage of greens hit -- and Mickelson did hit 16 of 18 greens during his Sunday march to victory.

"You can't just step on the tee and spray it everywhere," said Hunter Mahan, the only two-time winner on the PGA TOUR this year. "You're going to have to be, I feel like, a technician when you play it. You've got to hit fairways, you've got to hit greens.

"I don't think you can win from the trees. I mean, it's just -- the course is too challenging, too punishing that way."

Joe Ogilvie, who missed the past two PLAYERS, also cites the plentiful pine trees and the necessity to stay out of them, as one of three reasons so many different types of players have successfully solved the puzzle.

Tune in to LIVE@
Starting with Thursday's first round, PGATOUR.COM will have exclusive live streaming coverage from the famed 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass during THE PLAYERS Championship. Check out this preview

"No. 1, there are still trees, which is a rarity, except for Augusta National," Ogilvie said. "No. 2, there's a premium on accuracy. No. 3 is you really don't have to hit it very long. If you can keep it in between the rough lines, there's not a hole out here that's a long hole. It's one of the few courses you can say that about.

"Every par-five is reachable, save the ninth, so it's just not a bombers golf course. It takes a lot of the weapons out of the longer players' hands."

Tiger Woods, the 2001 champion, concurred with that assessment.

"I think on this particular golf course you have to hit the ball well," he said. "There's no getting around it; you just have to hit the golf ball well. And I think this course has shown over the years that it brings everyone together because of Pete's angles that he creates. Everyone is hitting to the same spots, and we're all playing to the same areas; just what club we choose to get there to the same spots."

Ogilvie talked about one of the intangibles in the design, the angles that Dye has created into the greens and the fact that, at times, the actual demands of how to play a hole are opposite to the perceived visual demands.

"Pete makes you unbalanced," he said. "That's the genius of it. That's why he's in the Hall of Fame."

Mickelson, one of the most recently inducted members of the World Golf Hall of Fame, demonstrated the kind of attitude that was one of his keys to success in 2007.

"I think that what I've come to appreciate over the years is that as difficult and penalizing as it is for a mis-hit, missed green, missed tee shot, it's very rewarding on the greens if you're able to find them," he said. "If you're able to hit a good shot within 15, 18 feet of the hole, you're rewarded for a very good opportunity for birdie.

"I thought the risk reward, taking on and executing a great shot, is very well done in its design. And I think that the penalty for a mis-hit was very penalizing, but still, it was a very fair, fun test."

Fun? Not a word often applied to the test here. But one worth remembering should another very different champion hoist the crystal on Sunday.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.