The move to March? ‘I’ll let you know on Sunday'
Pros anticipate vastly different conditions at THE PLAYERS Championship in March
March 13, 2019
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
TPC Sawgrass overseed process
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Greener. Cooler. Windier. And tougher.
Those are a few of the adjectives players have used to describe the return of THE PLAYERS Championship to March for the first time since 2006.
The best players in the world are preparing to take on a different sort of TPC Sawgrass now that the tournament has been moved back to March. The Stadium Course has new grass (ryegrass as opposed to Bermuda) and new, rye-overseeded greens. And that’s not all that’s different.
The weather will be cooler (70s dipping to 60s on the weekend, as opposed to 90s). The wind could well be different (coming out of the north and into players’ faces on 17 and 18). And to a man, players this week have said the 7,189-yard, par-72 Pete Dye gem feels much longer.
“The ball doesn’t fly as far,” said Tiger Woods, the only player to win THE PLAYERS in March (2001) and May (2013), and one of only two in the field (Adam Scott) to have won the tournament in March. “The golf course just plays slower.”
Paul Casey said he played the first hole with a 3-wood and a sand wedge in May. But when he tackled the hole in a practice round on Tuesday, it was driver, 7-iron.
Indeed, March presents a tougher PLAYERS, statistically.
Since 1995, the dozen March PLAYERS were a combined .92 strokes harder than the dozen May PLAYERS. Players have shot zero rounds of 63 in March, six in May. There have been 18 fewer rounds of 65 or better in March than May, and 117 more rounds in the 80s.
“I’ll let you know on Sunday,” Justin Thomas said, when asked which date he prefers. “I’ve played nine holes. … I loved it in May. Just, I love firm, fast, tricky conditions, if you will. But at the end of the day, I’ve played well on soft, longer courses before.”
A hard rain fell on the course Monday night, and a stiff wind blew all day Tuesday. Conditions were calmer Wednesday. Come Thursday, conditions are expected to be on the mild, sunny side, but that’s expected to change with weekend showers and cooler temperatures in the 60s.
All of which has an impact when it’s time to take on some of the most demanding holes in tournament golf. Consider: Over the last 12 years of May PLAYERS, the field has gone a combined 227 over par on the watery, nerve-wracking final three holes. For the 12 years of March PLAYERS before that, they went a combined 854 over par on those same holes.
Woods said he was once between a 5- and 6-iron for his tee shot at the island 17th hole in March. Few of today’s younger players can recall needing much more than a pitching wedge in May.
Tiger Woods discusses the move from May to March for THE PLAYERS
Absent a T4 finish in 2014, Justin Rose has never done particularly well at THE PLAYERS, missing the cut six times in 15 starts. The change to March? He’s ready to roll the dice.
“When it's green, I think it just—everything sets up better,” Rose said, “and for me personally, they talk about does the golf course suit your eye, and I think that when it's greener the golf course does suit your eye a lot better around here. The definition is there in terms of the run-outs and the fairways and the margins that you're playing with.”
Thomas expects fewer tee shots to roll out into the rough. When they do, the ryegrass is thick but fairly short, only a couple of inches. What’s more, he added, it’s more predictable than Bermuda.
The X factor this week may be those tee shots. Stiffer winds and cooler temperatures may put a premium back on driving; not for nothing have March winners included such impeccable drivers as Davis Love III (twice), Greg Norman, Adam Scott, and peak Woods.
In May, Scott said, firm fairways left everyone in the same spot off the tee, “whether were you a long hitter and hitting an iron off the tee or a shorter hitter hitting a 3-wood or driver.”
Like Rose, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson is looking forward to the change.
“I've struggled there in May,” said Johnson, who will make his 11th start and is still looking for his first top-10 finish here. “So hopefully … the golf course is going to play completely different. I feel like the ball's not going to go near as far, probably going to be a little bit softer, hit a lot more drivers. I just always remember growing up watching THE PLAYERS and it being green and overseeded and guys hitting shots and spinning back.
“You can't do that in May,” he added. “Everything bounces forward.”
Paul Casey, too, is excited for the tournament’s back-to-the-future calendar dates. He has played TPC Sawgrass in a field-best 1.62 fewer strokes per round in March (albeit with just two starts, including a T10 in 2004) over May (nine starts, four missed cuts, two WDs).
“I know it’s harder, but I like harder golf courses,” Casey said. “For some reason, I could never figure out how to play it in May.”