It’s nearly impossible to be a consistent contender at TPC Sawgrass
March 13, 2019
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Inside the PGA TOUR
THE PLAYERS Championship preview
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Dustin Johnson, the world’s top-ranked player, has made 10 starts at THE PLAYERS Championship. His best finish is a tie for 12th two years ago. It’s the only PGA TOUR event he’s played 10 times or more without a top-10 finish.
“I don’t know – I struggle with everything,” Johnson said Wednesday in trying to explain a track record at TPC Sawgrass he calls “frustrating.”
Reigning FedExCup champion Justin Rose is the world’s second-ranked player. He’s made 15 PLAYERS starts with just one top-10 finish, a tie for fourth in 2014. Like Johnson, Rose’s results here are a career-low -- it’s his most starts in a single TOUR event with so few top 10s.
“I’m slightly bemused by why I haven’t done better,” Rose said. “… Doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”
Indeed, it doesn’t – and yet those two aren’t alone. Some of the game’s most notable and successful players have come to TPC Sawgrass and made the kind of noise usually reserved for art galleries and libraries.
Bubba Watson has 11 PLAYERS starts without a top 10; no other tournament has shut him out that many times. World No. 3 Brooks Koepka doesn’t have a top-10 in four starts. Combined, those two players have five major victories and 17 overall TOUR wins; each is also a native Floridian, but any “local” knowledge obviously hasn’t translated here.
Not that any of that should matter, insisted Koepka. “Course history isn’t what you guys make it up to be, I don’t think,” he said.
Course history and past results, however, usually provide a starting point for contenders. Yet even the game’s two biggest names have consistently failed to stay in the mix at THE PLAYERS.
Tiger Woods is the only player to win this event in both March and May but has just three top 10s in his other 16 starts at THE PLAYERS. In Tiger’s legendary career, he’s never made as many starts at a single event with so few top 10s.
Phil Mickelson won THE PLAYERS in 2007 when it first moved to May but hasn’t had a top 10 since then. In 25 career starts, he has just three top 10s. The only other tournament in his career that comes close to matching that level of futility is the BMW Championship, in which he has two top 10s in 21 starts. Of course, that tournament rotates its host course each year.
So what does all this tell us? Pretty much what we’ve known all along – that TPC Sawgrass favors no one and diffuses the horses-for-courses theory so prevalent at some other TOUR events.
“It’s when Charles Howell goes to the Sony Open, he’s pretty much a stock standard top-10 guy or a win. I don’t know if there’s anyone out there that plays that well at this golf course – and that’s what’s so interesting about it,” said Jason Day, whose rollercoaster results at TPC Sawgrass include a win in 2016, two other top 10s and three missed cuts.
One big reason why TPC Sawgrass doesn’t favor a particular style? It has avoided becoming a bomber’s paradise. At 7,189 yards, it’s not particularly long, and accuracy is at a premium – especially after THE PLAYERS moved to May with its firmer, faster conditions. Day, for instance, won two years ago basically hitting 2-iron off the tee instead of being able to bomb it.
Most of the game’s best players are big hitters but not being able to overpower the Stadium Course has reduced their advantage.
Jason Day on the "major feel" of THE PLAYERS Championship
“All the notables in the game now are a reflection of what is going on in the game; they’re the bombers, they hit it forever,” said David Duval, the 1999 PLAYERS winner who is now a Golf Channel analyst. “That’s not a necessity here. It opens up the field that much more because of that. … there’s no soft spots among the 144 teeing it up.
“The reality is that length is always an advantage. It doesn’t matter the golf course you play. But I think also at the same time as I talked about for a number of years about this golf course, a lot of the modern players and in a way seemingly like to bully a golf course into submission with length. This golf course doesn't not allow that. You have to play the golf course as it was built and designed and you can get around that way.”
Pete Dye’s course put a premium on precision, where shotmakers such as Fred Funk and Tim Clark can succeed, where the shorter hitters are on somewhat equal turf.
“If this was a modern-style golf course where every carry was 300 [yards] and things widened out, it would be frustrating for 40 percent of the field,” Rose said. “I don’t think any one of the PGA TOUR players that are here this week is frustrated by this golf course. I think everybody gets here thinking, ‘I’ve got a good chance to win.’
“The best players in the world think they’ve got a better chance to win, which they do, but I think that it’s slightly condensed. I think the top players in the world these days are the guys who are hitting it generally a lot further than most, so you might run into six, seven, eight, nine venues a year where you’re playing against guys who just maybe can’t beat you based on their skill set versus yours.
“This golf course allows everybody that chance to win, which is I think appropriate for THE PLAYERS Championship.”
Adam Scott at TPC Sawgrass in just his third PLAYERS start in 2004 and has three top 10s and three other four other top 20s since then. That makes him one of the few players who can point to at least a modicum of consistency at this event.
“I think probably there are certain courses that people love and, I wouldn’t say hate, but just they don’t agree with you,” Scott said. “Whether it’s visually or a particular hole or something – I mean, a lot of guys struggle putting at Riviera and I putt well there, which is weird. And this might be a course like that as well, where it’s just difficult to see the right shot, difficult to read the greens.
“If you get on a bad run here, this course really can dent your confidence because the severity of penalty is very extreme, and that was part of the design from Pete Dye. You’re on the green, or three inches to the left, you’re in the water. It’s a big difference in a game of inches.”
Johnson, fresh off his 20th career TOUR win at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, has never played THE PLAYERS in March. But he thinks the schedule switch might play to his strength, with a more receptive course that doesn’t penalize his lengthy shots that run out into trouble.
“Playing it how we did, where it was just straight Bermuda – it was always really firm and fast,” he said. “It kind of brought the whole into play, but that’s just how it was and how it played and the short Bermuda rough was really difficult to judge. Now the course plays completely different. It’s softer, it’s longer, the rough’s a little bit deeper but it’s still playable. …
“It definitely sets up better for me like this.”
That’s good news for DJ but perhaps bad news for the rest of the field. Don’t worry, though – if we’ve seen anything about TPC Sawgrass, the course will find a way to equalize the field.