The real Players challenge: Avoid getting 'Sawgrassed'

The real Players challenge: Avoid getting 'Sawgrassed'

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — After nine trips to The Players Championship, Jordan Spieth knows how to play the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. He knows where to miss shots, where to be aggressive and where to tread lightly. He also knows that, historically, none of that institutional knowledge matters.

“I’ve played less rounds there than any other place I’ve played over the years,” joked Spieth, a tongue-and-cheek acknowledgement that he’s missed more cuts (five) than he’s made (four).

Spieth refers to the phenomenon as being “Sawgrassed,” the act of being lulled into overly bold and unwise decisions when the right path is often the safe route.

“The ball seems like it’s always running away from the hole to the edges of the green, that’s pretty frustrating,” Spieth said. “You get a few pins where you feel like it’s a bowl and then the way it’s designed you end up with a crowned situation so if you’re a little off you can end up in trouble.”

Spieth — whose best finish at the PGA Tour’s flagship event is a tie for fourth place, the first year he played TPC Sawgrass in 2014 — rattles off examples effortlessly of how the Stadium Course dictates the action, not the player.

The par-5 11th hole, for example, played to a 4.69 stroke average and ranked 16th during last year’s Players Championship. It is, by any measure, a “birdie” hole on an otherwise demanding golf course, but even that relatively obvious observation is situational. It’s the same at the par-5 second hole, which was equally accommodating last year (4.78 stroke average) but no less challenging.

“[No.] 11 at Sawgrass, if [your second shot] is over a certain yardage I never try to hit the green. I should have that philosophy, you should play to a certain place depending on where the pin is,” Spieth said. “So I’ll hit right of the right bunker to the left pin on No. 2 if I don’t have an iron in and I’ll make sure I’m left as can be to the back-right pin if I don’t have the right number. I just haven’t found a game plan around Sawgrass where I’m not trying to be the hero on every shot.”

THE PLAYERS Championship - Round One
THE PLAYERS Championship - Round One

Tee times, groupings for Rounds 1 and 2 of The Players

A look at the tee times and pairings for the first two rounds at TPC Sawgrass.

It's the evil genius of Pete Dye, who designed the Stadium Course.

Making holes longer and growing the rough to ridiculous lengths is the go-to for Tour officials, but if you really want to toughen up courses, make players think — really think.

“You know exactly what you need to do, you can get in some funky spots. If you drive it well you’ll have plenty of opportunity to be aggressive and make some birdies, but if you get out of position and you’re scrambling, bad numbers can come into play pretty quickly,” said Rickie Fowler, who won The Players in 2015. “It keeps you on your toes.”

If it’s the decision-making that gives Spieth fits at TPC Sawgrass, for players like Fowler, the challenge is how the layout dictates the game plan and creates doubt. Much of this is obvious, like the tee shot at the par-4 10th hole that demands a draw, but knowing what shot you should play is a far cry from being comfortable with executing that shot.

“There’s going to be times when there’s uncomfortable shots, that’s the design and pin location and wind direction, there’s going to be holes that look great and set up well and others that are funky and don’t fit the shot you would like to hit,” Fowler said. “Sometimes you can play something that doesn’t fit and will end up in a decent area, but there’s others where you just kind of say a prayer and hope for the best.”

THE PLAYERS Championship - Final Round
THE PLAYERS Championship - Final Round

How to watch The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass

Here are TV times, including Live From The Players, for the PGA Tour’s crown jewel.

The nuanced distinction with the Stadium Course is that the challenge isn’t in the degree of difficulty — many players, for example, said last week’s stop at Bay Hill was a far more demanding test — but instead, how maddening a round at TPC Sawgrass can be.

Nor is the Tour’s premier event a particularly demanding physical test, at least compared to the rigors of Augusta National or Muirfield Village, but it’s the mental grind that takes a toll.

“You have to have so much energy in the tank for those finishing holes,” Spieth said. “Sometimes if you’ve kind of been using up so much energy during the round mentally I just need to be a little quieter, a little more accepting so I have it for those last few holes.”

The Stadium Course isn’t statistically the year’s most demanding test but as Spieth so perfectly observed, avoiding getting “Sawgrassed” comes with an entirely different set of challenges.