How stars have adjusted back to THE PLAYERS in March
March 11, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Every Shot Live at THE PLAYERS Championship 2020
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was supposed to be harder.
A year ago THE PLAYERS Championship made a return to its traditional March slot in the PGA TOUR schedule after 12 years where the best on TOUR contested the flagship event in May. The warnings were stark to the new breed of player who had not experienced TPC Sawgrass in the earlier timeslot … this will be tougher.
Ponte Vedra Beach in March compared to May brings different winds and potentially cooler temperatures for a start. Pete Dye’s masterpiece is tough enough but add gusting winds of note and you might be swimming after your ball more than you would care to.
Former FedExCup champion Justin Thomas obviously never played in March prior to last year as he was just 13 years old in 2006, but he certainly got wind of how it used to be.
“I’ve heard some horror stories from guys in the past about how in Jacksonville this time of year you can get some cold, cold days, you can get a strong north wind where we're hitting 6-, 7-, 8-iron on 17. I would imagine if that's the case then you won't be seeing any (record rounds),” Thomas said.
We know the stats backed up the narrative. When comparing the 12 tournaments in May compared to the previous 12 that were in March, eight of the nine toughest scoring average years were in March.
In total the March dates averaged out at 73.40 with the May contests in at 72.48 so it was almost an entire stroke harder in March compared to May in that time period. Also in that time the six course record equaling scores of 9-under 63 posted were all in May and there were 117 more rounds in the 80s in March over May.
But for all the concern … reality painted a different picture in 2019. In the March return the scoring average for the week sat at 71.512. Almost half a stroke under par. Winner Rory McIlroy was rarely troubled. The two-time FedExCup champion went out there and shot 67-65-70-70 to win his first PLAYERS at 16 under. It was clearly not so tough for him.
Rory McIlroy wins THE PLAYERS Championship
So what happened?
Well nice weather without overly tough breezes certainly helped. And while most players still maintain TPC Sawgrass does not hold significant bias towards one style of player over another, it now certainly plays into the hands of a longer hitter more than it did before given the potential for softer conditions.
Generally speaking each hole at Sawgrass has a sweet spot to play from on approach and in May, with the ball rolling out in warmer and firmer conditions, pretty much all players could get to those spots albeit with different clubs. In March, with softer conditions and less roll, it can be harder to get to those spots for some.
The forecast this week is similar to a year ago. It calls for dry weather with afternoon highs in the upper 70s each day. Winds of eight to 16 miles per hour will be out of the southeast on Thursday and Friday shifting to more of an east/northeast direction this weekend.
With players reporting that the fairways and greens are playing a little soft at the moment it may well be a green light to the elite in this 144-man field unless things bake out.
“The greens are a little soft at the moment. Unless conditions drastically change it is going to be low scoring this week again really. Even though it plays longer in March and there is some decent rough out here … if the greens are soft it doesn’t matter,” former champion Adam Scott says.
When explaining how the change helped him towards victory a year ago McIlroy confirmed a shift towards his length certainly helped. Those with a little more length get the benefit of having shorter irons and wedges into greens, and less of the field can match them.
“Off the tee, the course certainly plays a lot longer in March than it does in May, so I was able to hit driver a lot more. The fairways are a little softer, so the course plays a touch wider,” McIlroy said.
The 12 winners in March prior to McIlroy averaged six yards further than the field in driving distance while the May winners averaged just 2.2yards more. McIlroy was 17 yards above the field average driving distance in 2019.
It is why Bryson DeChambeau and his extra length off the tee this season is confident. It is why those without the prodigious length are putting some extra practice in with their mid irons. On top of that, players are trying to tune up their short games.
“And then the other thing is having the rough overseeded around the greens, that was a big thing for me because I've always been more comfortable chipping out of that sort of overseeded rough rather than a pure Bermuda,” McIlroy added.
“Pure Bermuda, especially in May time here, it was sort of a hit and hope. It was a little bit of a guessing game around the greens, where at least nowadays, if you do miss a green … the guys with the best short games and the best techniques can sort of rise to the top a little bit.”
There is at least one player in the field really diving into the statistics of how he can make the most of his game at the course. Five-time PGA TOUR winner Marc Leishman is in great form thanks to a win earlier this year at the Farmers Insurance Open and a runner up finish last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by Mastercard. But his record at THE PLAYERS has just one top 10 (T8 in 2013) in 10 previous tries with a scoring average of 72.25.
He missed the cut in the March return last year and as such has decided to lean heavily on the analytics used by the International Team at last years Presidents Cup. Captain Ernie Els went within a whisker of leading the Internationals to a rare win over the U.S. thanks heavily to data driven pairings. Leishman has handed over some of the game plan at Sawgrass to the stats gurus.
“My record here is terrible so it’s worth a try. Even my parents don’t have confidence in me here. They booked travel from Australia and are landing in Virginia Beach on Saturday instead of here thinking they’ll see me,” Leishman joked.
“But in all seriousness the course plays longer in March for sure and sometimes that can sort of trick you into trying to hit it further when you don’t need to. I'm going to put my game plan in the hands of the data guys a little as a trial. It worked for me in Melbourne so I might as well have a crack at this. There are now certain holes I know I do need to try to get the ball out there further and others where I need to focus more on accuracy.”
Leishman averages about a stroke better than the field per round when it comes to Strokes Gained: Approach the Green this season. He sits fifth on TOUR at +1.099 entering the tournament. It has long been a key component to his success as an elite player.
The data team highlighted how that strength of his game has been a significant weakness at Sawgrass, hence the need to change tactics. In fact four of his 10 previous PLAYERS appearances had Leishman lose significant strokes per round to the field in that statistic and he’s never gone close to his best numbers here.
“If you are not trying to learn you’re not evolving as a player,” Leishman says. “When it comes down to it … at THE PLAYERS you always need to be at your best or very near to it whether it is played in March, May or Christmas Day.”