Wind could get ‘scary’ with Players Championship’s move back to March

ORLANDO – It’s a completely different animal.

That’s the cautionary take from Jim “Bones” Mackay about the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, home to this week’s Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s flagship event near its headquarters in the northeast portion of the Sunshine State.

It’s not a cuddly animal, either, as the tournament’s move back to March will create an arduous challenge for the best players in the game. The former long-time caddie for Phil Mickelson who’s now an on-course reporter for NBC/Golf Channel started ticking off reasons why the course could be more of a beast this time of year than when it was contested in May the past dozen years.

Significant increase in wind. Different playing surface. Cooler temperatures. More challenging rough. A longer course. A slower course.

“When I was a kid I used to go up there and watch PGA Tour school late in the year, and you watch those guys play in a lot of wind and it was a nightmare,” Mackay said. “Everything’s harder with 15- to 20-mph wind. You’re on edge. You can’t play nearly as effectively from the rough. The course is going to play much, much longer. It’s a completely different animal.”

Few in the field that features all top-50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking will recognize the Stadium Course. Nearly the entire layout is an eye-popping emerald after a wall-to-wall rye overseed late last year. The course is lush, as opposed to when it was dry, brown and full of Bermuda grass when the Players in May.

The overseeding of the greens, tees, fairways, rough and practice grounds took five days as four kinds of seed were applied – rye/fine fescue on the tees, fairways and rough; and velvet bent/Poa Trivialis on the greens.

PGA Tour officials are confident the course will recover from foul weather much quicker because of the overseed. Drainage improvements with the fairways and the installation of a SubAir system under every green also allow the course to recover quicker after storms and gives officials better control of the course, especially with the greens, which could be firm and fast while the course plays long and slow.

Defending champion Webb Simpson saw the altered course for the first time during a media outing last month. Simpson said his prep work for his title defense will need an alteration, and he’ll lean heavily on his caddie, Paul Tesori, who lives nearby and has been to the course many times since the renovation.

Working in Simpson’s favor is he liked what he saw.

“Quail Hollow is so similar to this golf course,” Simpson said of the course that hosts the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte. Simpson’s home is behind the seventh tee at Quail Hollow. “It’s pretty much the same grass. And I’m on that golf course so much – and they overseed every year – so I feel like I’m really used to it.

“The only thing I’m going to have to change in terms of my game plan is the fairways are going to be wider because they won’t run as much because the course won’t be as firm.”

Former FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel lives near TPC Sawgrass, and when he’s off the road he spends nearly all his time practicing his craft there. He plays the Stadium Course 10-12 times a year.

“It’s a complete opposite,” Horschel said.

Especially the wind. In May, when the wind did blow, it came from a different direction, and players had the wind at their backs on Nos. 17 and 18. In March the predominant wind will come from another direction and will be into the players’ faces and blowing in from the left on those closing holes.

“Playing 17 and 18 downwind makes them play so much easier,” Horschel said. “I think Pete Dye designed the course to be played with the wind coming into you off the left and into your face on 17 and 18. Now those holes will be really scary.”

Which is how it should be, said Paul Azinger. The former PGA champion and winner of 12 PGA Tour events played 15 Players Championships in March and one in May.

“I love TPC Sawgrass and I love the fact the Players is back in March with the potential for weather,” said Azinger, the lead analyst for NBC/Golf Channel. “Pete Dye built TPC Sawgrass for March because of the wind. Hole No. 17 into the wind, that means players go from a pitching wedge and 9-iron to a 6-, 7- or 8-iron, and I’ll tell you, that’s a small target with a 6-iron. And come Sunday, I don’t care who you are, you can’t stop thinking about 17. It is in your head the whole time. It’s the scariest thing to wait on all day.

“And 18 into the wind means driver, 6-iron. That won’t be easy. So hopefully, the wind will come a blowing when the bell rings.” Gwk

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