There’s no protoype player to win at TPC Sawgrass

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MAY 14: Si Woo Kim of South Korea hits a long putt on the 17th hole during the final round of the THE PLAYERS Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on May 14, 2017 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images) Getty Images

There’s no protoype player to win at TPC Sawgrass

PGA Tour

There’s no protoype player to win at TPC Sawgrass

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There are only a handful of tournaments on the PGA Tour where the golf course has a starring role.

The mountainous fairways of Kapalua’s Plantation Course are a signature feature of the Sentry Tournament of Champions. PGA National is famed for its ‘Bear Trap’ trio of holes, where dozens of balls are rinsed annually. TPC Scottsdale is known for one hole, which is dry, unlike the fans that surround it. And of course, Pebble Beach, where the views from the course are more memorable than many of the holes on it.

But TPC Sawgrass is perhaps the only venue on Tour that has a role every bit as prominent as the players competing on it — authoring constant drama, often a (literal) splash of tragedy, and occasionally even farce. Just ask Len Mattiace. Twenty years ago he came to the 17th tee one stroke off the lead at the Players. He drowned his tee shot, hit his third into the bunker then knifed his fourth back into the aqua. He ended up with a quintuple bogey 8 and finished four shots back of Justin Leonard. And he is just one of the many victims punished harshly since the Players moved to the new course in 1982.

There’s a reason why players cheered when the winner that year, Jerry Pate, shoved Tour commissioner Deane Beman and architect Pete Dye into the water guarding the closing hole.

Like all Dye designs, TPC Sawgrass exacts its pound of flesh without favor, yet there is no identikit picture of a typical winner here. There are major-winning bombers, such as Tiger Woods, Jason Day, Henrik Stenson, and Phil Mickleson. But also guys such as Craig Perks, Fred Funk, Tim Clark and Matt Kuchar, all of whom, by comparison to the long ballers, can hear their tee shots land.

“Pete likes to try and intimidate you visually, and then tries to really punish you for making a mistake,” Woods said. “There’s only a few holes in which you can be aggressive off the tee length-wise and have an advantage. But generally we’re all kind of playing from the same spot, and that just opens up the field. So many guys have a chance to win here.”

“You look at the list of winners here and it’s all over the place,” Justin Thomas said. The reigning PGA champion has seen his own share of peaks and valleys in just 11 career rounds here. He shot a Sunday 65 two years ago, but a Saturday 79 last year.

“When it gets firm and fast, it’s hard. It’s the hardest par-72 we’ll play, that’s for sure,” Thomas said. “You look at any course with four par-5s, on paper you would think that Tour players would rip it up and we’d be licking our chops. That being said, you kind of have to just take what it gives you and kind of take your medicine when you get out of position.”

The difficulty isn’t born only of firm conditions over which the players have no control. TPC Sawgrass demands then guys deliver on what they can control.

“I think you have the work the ball both directions off the tee and into the greens, in different wind conditions. You have to have true control of the golf ball tee to green into very small windows. So you have to stand up and you have to kind of pick these shots with full confidence and trust them,” Jordan Spieth said.

Spieth almost won here in his debut in 2014, when he didn’t make a bogey in the first three rounds.

“I just kind of assumed it would come easy to me,” he said wryly on Tuesday. He has missed the cut every year since, with only one round under par in that time.

“There’s trouble on both sides of most every single hole. There’s certain pins you have to miss them — you just really have to think through this place. If you do miss it, you have to be in the right spots, otherwise you don’t really have much of a chance of getting a par putt inside of 10 feet. The room for error is just smaller, and that makes it more difficult if you get off a little bit and you try and force anything.”

One of the dilemmas Dye poses is forcing power players to choke back, taking them out of their comfort zone and putting a premium on patience.

“It’s a placement course. You don’t need to hit it long. You just need to place it off the tee and then have a really good iron week,” said Jon Rahm, one of the longest hitters in the game. “It’s very demanding from the fairway to the green. It’s more a second-shot golf course I would say rather than the tee shot, but the tee shot is actually extremely demanding as well.”

Every player who has tackled TPC Sawgrass has learned a bruising lesson. That includes Rahm, even though he has just one prior appearance at the Players.

“It’s a test, and that’s something that I had to learn last year when on Saturday I went a little more aggressive than maybe I should have and ended up making more bogeys than I really wanted to,” Rahm said, displaying an admirable gift for understatement in recalling his 82.

Aggressive play is in the DNA of Phil Mickelson, who is embarking on his 25th tour of duty at Sawgrass this week. He won the Players in 2007, the first year the tournament moved to May. That was at the start of his relationship with Butch Harmon, a week during which Mickelson reined in his go-for-broke style a little. Harmon is long gone as his coach and Mickelson has finished no better than T-17 since that win, and hasn’t broken 70 here in seven years.

“When the tournament was in March, there were more drivers than in May because the fairways were softer,” said Mickelson, who expects to hit driver on about half of the holes this week. “It seems that about 300 to 350, there’s a lot of holes where you don’t want to hit it much past that. A lot of times now it might be a 3-wood. I probably could hit driver every hole if you wanted to. It doesn’t take driver out of the hands where you don’t have options. You have options.”

What isn’t optional is actually hitting the fairway, and if he is to earn a second title the five-time major winner will need to focus on where he hits his driver, not just how often. Mickelson ranks sixth in strokes gained: approach the Green, a performance category that is key to determining who is in the mix on Sunday afternoon at TPC Sawgrass. The average rank in that statistical category of the last five winners: 7.4.

Unfortunately for Mickelson, he also stands a dismal 208th in driving accuracy this season. And as he has learned in exactly one-third of his Players starts, on this course that stat often determines who is headed for the airport on Friday.

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