Learning process: Top golfers use practice rounds to re-learn TPC Sawgrass

Weather could impact play as much as course conditions

(WJXT/Matt Kingston)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It's like being re-introduced to a high school friend after years apart. Yes, the course looks familiar, but there is a lot to learn and to remember.

That's the experience of some of the world's top golfers this week at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. With The Players Championship returning to March, practice rounds this week have been as important as ever, even for those players who excelled at The Players before it moved to May in 2007.

"The ball doesn't fly as far and the golf course just plays slower," said Tiger Woods, the only player to have won the tournament in both March and May. "The only year I really remember it being just brutally hard and fast was when David (Duval) won, '99 I think it was. I believe I shot 75-75 on the weekend and moved up. So that's something that can happen here. It's going to get cool, it's windy. We don't have to deal with, I guess, the ball not going as far in May. It's just the golf course plays so much shorter in May than it does in March. That's probably the biggest difference."

Woods and Adam Scott are the only players in the field who won the tournament when it was played in March. Neither believes their previous experience in March will make much of an impact on the competition this year. 

"I've had one round here in 12 years on the overseed, and it played incredibly long today," Scott said. "I mean, it was a little bit wet because there was a lot of rain last night, but I hit a 5-iron into the first hole, and I haven't hit anything but a 9-iron or a wedge in there for 12 years. A lot of other holes like that too."

Jason Day won the tournament in 2016. He has spent time in Ponte Vedra during the month of March previously, including two practice rounds two weeks ago and two more this week. He knows the kind of impact the March weather can have on the course.

"I know the big thing is making sure that the weather is suitable for us," Day said. "I remember being here last year at the same time as what The Players was going to be. It was 45 degrees and blowing 30 miles an hour. So that's the only tough part about this is that the weather can have a huge factor in how the score finishes."

When the tournament was contested in May, the course was set up to play firm and fast. Balls would run in the fairways and the greens could be tricky to hold on approach shots. That was by design. It was, however, hot the way the course was initially designed, with the tournament in March envisioned.

Two other players who are favored to contend this week, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose, have different opinions on how firm the course will play in the month of March.

"I think it's more target golf, and for me, that's how this golf course was designed. It's a stadium-style course, a target-style golf course," Rose said. "I don't think it was designed to be firm and fast and running and bouncy and out of control. I think the targets are there to be hit. And if you do, you get rewarded."

The course has an underground system to control the moisture on the greens and elsewhere. How the Tour instructs the grounds crew could impact how the course plays over the four days.

"It's totally just going to be the softness of the course I think is going to be the big difference," Thomas said. "You would think that they will get them firmer and firmer as the week goes on. The greens, that is. And it will still be a premium on hitting the fairway and playing good golf because I think it's no secret or no surprise that you just need to strike it well around here to play well and then just leave it in the right places."

We'll begin learning if the players are correct in Thursday's first round.

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