Next stop for PLAYERS: A windy and green March
May 12, 2018
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- The winds are expected to increase in March. (Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – On Sunday, TPC Sawgrass will take on its traditional pinkish hue in honor of Mother’s Day. Players, caddies and fans alike will don appropriate attire to celebrate their mothers as well as raise awareness for the fight against breast cancer. The “PINK OUT” has been a colorful part of the final round at THE PLAYERS Championship since the tournament moved to May in 2007.
But 10 months from now, when the best golfers in the world reconvene at TPC Sawgrass in its new earlier time slot on the PGA TOUR schedule, don’t be surprised if a distinctly different color dominates Championship Sunday. While mothers will always be revered and the TOUR will continue to support the appropriate charities, the finish on March 17 might necessitate a chromatic adjustment.
Anybody ready for a “GREEN OUT”?
“It’s going to be pretty cool and pretty exciting to end the tournament on St. Patrick’s Day,” said Adam Campbell, in line to become the 2019 tournament chairman. “It brings a very exciting holiday that you can match very well with watching golf.”
With the announcement that THE PLAYERS will be held March 14-17 next season, the PGA TOUR’s flagship event officially makes the calendar move that was first unveiled last year in conjuction with the PGA Championship’s move to May.
It’s not so much a new date as a return to an old one. From 1977-2006, THE PLAYERS was held in the second half of March, nicely embedded as the anchor of the Florida Swing. In 2007 – the same year of the inaugural FedExCup season – the tournament was moved to May.
The move back comes earlier in the month of March. Campbell, currently the first vice chairman in his 19th year as a volunteer at THE PLAYERS, considers it the natural fit with Pete Dye’s masterpiece.
“The course was built for March,” Campbell said. “Everyone is looking at this and saying, wow, such a big change. We’ve been in May for just 10 years. I look at it as more of we’re going home. We’re going home to March.”
Jared Rice, the tournament director for THE PLAYERS, was not yet a TOUR employee when the event was last held in March. He was in Detroit, working in sales and marketing for the NHL’s Red Wings. The impact of seeing THE PLAYERS on television while winter weather often kept Michigan golfers indoors is not lost on him.
“It gave you that itch to want to go out and play,” Rice said, “and it gave you that feeling that the golf season was really ramping up now. … Being that first event of significance within a new or revised FedExCup season is going to be really great for the tournament.”
Of the 144 players in this week’s field, just 23 were in the field when THE PLAYERS was last played in March in 2006. One of those is Adam Scott, the winner two years earlier. He welcomes the tournament’s return to its earlier place in the calendar.
“I think it’s good for the tournament overall, I honestly do,” he said. “I know they moved it here to May 10 years ago, trying to strengthen the tournament I guess was the idea, and I think it’s done that. It certainly hasn’t hurt the tournament.
“But I think it will really strengthen the tournament going back to the March date. It’s going to just be the announcement of really serious golf for the year and for the TOUR.”
While the March timeframe is familiar, some of the issues attached with that date may no longer be a significant factor. Specifically, we’re talking wet conditions.
During the six-year stretch between 2000-05, the tournament was forced into a Monday finish three time due to weather delays. The last time, in 2005, the total rainfall was 2.46 inches, and the fourth round on Monday began without a re-pairing of the groups before the third round had completed.
Stewart Williams, the PGA TOUR’s staff meteorologist, was asked to gather data for tournament and TOUR officials as they contemplated the move back to March. His findings: the average rainfall for the PLAYERS in March is 0.84 of an inch; the average since the May date is 0.56 inches.
“What most people remember are the few bad days we got in March,” Williams said. “The wind would blow really hard and it would get really cold and it would rain really hard. But I also remember we had a lot of days in the 70s, with lows in the 50s and maybe 40s. It’s not doom and gloom.”
Plus, TPC Sawgrass is not the same course as it was 10 years ago. Significant improvements have been made – sand-capped fairways, a SubAir system, improved drainage and renovated greens to name a few. In addition, parking issues such as lot flooding or cars getting stuck should be minimized by recent upgrades to the grounds outside the course. Those state-of-the-art updates – not to mention the 77,000 square-foot clubhouse built in 2007 -- make it easier to withstand wet conditions.
“We’re talking about 10 years of technology and millions of dollars they’ve poured into this course,” Campbell said. “I’ve heard people say we’re rolling the dice and ask if we’re going to have a Monday finish. What people forget is that while we may be increasing that chance, depending on the weather, we’ve done a lot of things to prepare for things of that nature.”
Temperatures, of course, will be milder in March; Williams’ data indicates the average high temperature is 10 degrees cooler. He remembers a few frost days during tournament week. Depending on your perspective, that can be a good thing (if you dislike sweat-inducing temps and sweltering humidity) or a bad thing (if your closet is filled mostly with T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops). Campbell said volunteer apparel will be adjusted to include cool-temperature gear.
Tiger Woods, the only player who has won THE PLAYERS in both March (2001) and May (2013), expects the course to play differently in the cooler climes.
“This golf course this time of year is far shorter,” he said. “It's always hot, ball's always flying, and with it all being Bermuda, we're getting runout. In March that's not always the case. There are numerous years that … we've all had mud balls, and you have to deal with that type of difficulty coming into these greens. This time of year, no, ball's rolling, ball's flying, it's usually dry. These greens are always dry this time of year, so very different.”
Woods doesn’t favor March or May, for one simple reason: “I won them both.”
The most significant weather change will be the wind – not just in speed but direction. At this week’s PLAYERS, said Williams, the wind has been a sea breeze from the east or southeast at 10-15 mph. In March, the winds are generally from the north or northeast at 15-25 mph. When Fred Funk won in the rain-delayed 2005 PLAYERS, the winds came out of the west-northwest with gusts up to 35 mph.
The wind switch and increased velocity will make TPC Sawgrass more challenging, said veteran Steve Stricker, making his 21st PLAYERS start this week. So will the re-introduction of overseeded rye on the dormant Bermuda grass that was unnecessary in the warmer May temperatures.
“17’s going to play a little bit harder,” he said, referring to the iconic island green. “Probably the whole course will play a little bit harder. The conditions will get faster and firmer. The type of grass we’re playing on now in May is in great shape, but I think they can do different things in March to speed things up. I think it will be fun and interesting.”
Entering this week, Jordan Spieth had missed three straight cuts at TPC Sawgrass. He made the cut on the number Friday, and then posted his best career round at THE PLAYERS on Saturday with a 7-under 65. He joked earlier in the week that any change would be good for him, although he prefers regular Bermuda than the overseed he’ll see next season.
He was just 12 years old when THE PLAYERS was last in March, but he thinks the scoring could be lower next year.
“The biggest change will be within the rough,” he said. “Obviously around the greens, overseed becomes an easier grass to chip off of than this grainy Bermuda. But out of the rough, judging fliers and shots around the green, explosion shots, having that kind of feel – that goes away a little bit when overseed comes in. …
“I think the scores will potentially go lower with a change in grass type. Now that’s obviously dependent on conditions outside, but given the same conditions, I think the scores will be a little bit lower with the tournament being moved up.”
From a viewing perspective, TPC Sawgrass will pop with a more consistent and vibrant green while reducing the brown spots that develop in the unrelenting Florida sun and dry conditions. Meanwhile, the wind switch will be the great equalizer – and tournament officials readily embrace its impact on TPC Sawgrass.
“Getting the wind up speaks to that original visioning of a truly diabolical golf course and all the challenges that exist today,” Rice said. “Adding all the elements that Mother Nature brings with wind in March will make it that much more challenging.
“Plus, the positive with bringing in the overseeded grass is that it will give us a brilliant emerald look, which will really be a nice touch.”
Certainly it will be a nice touch on March 17 when the tournament concludes.
Interesting enough, it won’t be the first time that a PGA TOUR event in Northeast Florida has ended on St. Patrick’s Day.
In 1974, when THE PLAYERS Championship made its debut, the tournament was played in Atlanta in late August. Meanwhile, the Greater Jacksonville Open was still on the PGA TOUR schedule. Held at Deerwood Country Club – located 18 miles west of the swamp that would eventually be turned into TPC Sawgrass a few years later – the final round concluded on March 17, played under dry, windy conditions in pleasant temperatures.
The winner’s last name that day was most appropriate: Hubert Green.
Celebrating the May era of THE PLAYERS Championship