By BRIAN WACKER
A year ago, Tiger Woods hit 3-iron, 9-iron into the 18th green at TPC Sawgrass during the final round of the Players Championship. This Tuesday morning, it was 3-wood, 3-iron.
He wasn’t the only one to notice a significant difference.
On the 450-yard seventh, Billy Horschel used to attack the par 4 with a driver or 3-wood and a wedge. This year, he’s hitting 5-iron into the green.
It has been more than a decade – since 2006 to be precise – since the Players Championship has been contested in March. Woods’ club choice on the final hole (as well as area resident Horschel’s) perhaps best sums up the biggest difference between the US PGA Tour’s flagship event being played later in the American spring versus now.
“The ball doesn’t fly as far and the golf course just plays slower,” said Woods, one of just 24 players in the 144-man field this week to have experienced the tournament in both months, and the only one to have won it in both, too. “The golf course plays so much shorter in May than it does in March. That’s probably the biggest difference. We’re going to have to hit more clubs off the tees, have a little bit longer clubs into the greens, but the difference is the greens are much slower and much more receptive.”
Those aren’t the only differences, however.
For one, the appearance of Pete Dye’s masterpiece is vastly different, with a heavy rye overseed giving the 7,189-yard track a lush, dark green look. It’s more than just an aesthetic. There’s a benefit for a venue that demands target golf.
“It sharpens the course,” said 2004 Players winner Adam Scott. “It suits it better. It gives it more definition for us.”
And about that grass, the rough off the fairway is also only about 2½-inches long. Thick, yes, but with the tightness of a hair brush, meaning there should be far fewer hack-it-out-and-hope second shots and more creativity and playability. Translation: potential for better scoring opportunities.
On the flip side, wayward tee shots are more likely to run off into the pine straw and scrub rather than getting snagged by deep rough.
Around the green, things are even more telling.
“I’m surprised that even though the rough isn’t the same difficulty level because of the type of grass it still plays just as challenging around greens, where it’s super thick,” Jordan Spieth said. “Hitting into greens from this rough is easier but around the greens it plays different. Typically with overseed we don’t see a lot of rough. But It plays closer to bluegrass than bermuda.”
Then there’s the weather.
In May, temperatures routinely reached well into the 30s and in some years the greens were burnt to the extent of being nearly unplayable. The course played firm, fast and bouncy.
This week, the forecast is calling for highs in the mid-20s for the first two rounds, with that number dipping into the high teens on the weekend.
Wind will also be a factor – breezes out of the north will make the course play that much longer, something that could be particularly impactful on the final two holes, the par-3 17th over water and the 462-yard 18th that features water up the entire left side.
“The 17th and 18th are dicey now,” Spieth said. “When the weather was warm and with less wind [in May], 17 was a pitching wedge. Now it could be an 8-iron. That’s a big difference.”
“In years past [on 17] the wind was behind you off the right, it was an easy club,” added Horschel. “You just had to worry about hitting it too good or too far. Now, you have to hit it the perfect height. The 18th is the same way. Guys used to be able to hit 3-wood and have a short iron in. Now it’s driver and a mid-iron or a 3-wood and a long iron.”
What will it all mean?
“They’re very different to play,” Scott said of the tournament being held in March instead of May. “I mean, it’s hard.”