The Players: Inside track

Our man Harry Emanuel with his preview of this week’s Players Championship at Sawgrass.

The Players Championship
Course: TPC Sawgrass
Location: Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Since: 1974
Yardage: 7,220
Par: 72
Low winning total: 264 Greg Norman (1994)
Course record: 63 Fred Couples (1992) Greg Norman (1994)
Field: 144
Cut: Top 70 plus ties after two days
Tee Off: 1220 BST Thursday
The Players Championship, the self styled ‘fifth major’, will be played at TPC Sawgrass for the 28th time.
One of the strongest fields of the year has been assembled for the 36th running of the tournament with 47 of the top 50 players in the world, while 102 of the 144 players in the field have recorded at least one victory on the PGA Tour.
The field includes 10 previous winners: Sergio Garcia (2008), Phil Mickelson (2007), Stephen Ames (2006), Fred Funk (2005), Adam Scott (2004), Davis Love III (2003 & 1992), Tiger Woods (2001), Justin Leonard (1998), Steve Elkington (1997 & ’91) and Fred Couples (1994 & ’84).
Last Time Out
Only five times in the history of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass has the winner managed just one round in the 60s. Sergio Garcia became the fifth in 2008 when he opened with a six-under 66 and then came back with rounds of 73-73-71 over the final 54 holes.
Although Garcia held the first-round lead a year ago, he eventually had to come from three strokes off the pace to force a play-off with Paul Goydos. Garcia then made a par on the first extra hole, the par-three 17th, to win a year after finishing in second place, two strokes behind Phil Mickelson. No player has ever successfully defended the title.
TPC Sawgrass was designed by Pete Dye in 1979, who is also responsible for Harbour Town Golf Links and Whistling Straits. In 2007 the tournament date was changed from March to May and the entire course was dug up.
Extensive drainage was added to the fairways and the sub-air system used at Augusta was installed under the greens. Holes 1, 8, 11, 14, 16 and 18 were lengthened by a total of 125 yards. The changes have created a golf course which plays hard and fast.
Since the changes in 2007 the rough is much shorter (two inches of Bermuda rather than five inches of Bermuda over seeded with Rye) and players are able to progress the ball towards the hole rather than simply ‘hacking out’ back onto the fairways.
With trees, water hazards and bunkers on many of the holes, players cannot afford to be wayward off the tee and the course demands accuracy rather than power.
The fairways funnel the ball to the same areas and the players generally hit their second shots from the same spots. Sawgrass is foremost a second-shot golf course and five of last seven winners led the field in greens in regulation.
The Bermuda greens are small, fast and contoured. The sub-air system allows the organisers to control the speed of the greens and they are set to run at 12.5 on the stimpmeter. Unlike other venues the speed should remain constant during week.
With such small greens, even the most accurate players will miss them and need to get up and down. Lots of skill will be required around the greens and this week will be a test of scrambling as much as anything else.
They Said
“I think, like all golf courses, first and foremost, you want to putt well. And the greens out there are difficult. They’re very fast. Emphasis is put on your approach shots to get yourself in a good position.” – Padraig Harrington
“There’s rough that’s not brutally difficult, so you can get balls up-and-down around these greens if you hit good shots. You’re going to miss a lot of greens as firm as they are and as small as they are and as guarded.” – Phil Mickelson
“Obviously it’s the best field in all of golf and played on a golf course that is very demanding, and if the wind blows it’s very tricky.” – Tiger Woods
Horses for Courses
The only players to have won the tournament twice are Davis Love III, Fred Couples, Hal Sutton and Steve Elkington (Jack Nicklaus is the only three-time winner of the event).
Since the changes to the course in 2007 only two players have registered two top-10 finishes. Defending champion Sergio Garcia finished second the year before winning and Jeff Quinney has been sixth and third in the last two years.
Key Holes
The signature hole is the par-three 17th. At only 137 yards on the scorecard it may seem pretty innocuous but players hit into an island green completely surrounded by water and there is no bail-out area.
Although the focus of attention is always on the 17th the most difficult hole on the golf course is the 18th which was ranked the fourth most difficult hole on the PGA Tour in 2008. These are the toughest finishing holes on tour.
Wind is often a major factor at Sawgrass, especially at the 17th. In calm conditions in 2003 only 29 balls went into the water compared to 93 in very windy conditions in 2007. This wind always gets up in the afternoon but the early forecast is for cloudy but warm weather with light winds.
Accuracy off the tee is more important than power but good iron play is often the deciding factor, although good scrambling skills and a solid putting touch are required for victory.