Golf: Long hitters Koepka and Johnson love lush TPC Sawgrass

FILE PHOTO: Mar 3, 2019; Palm Beach Gardens, FL, USA; Brooks Koepka plays his shot from the 18th tee during the final round of The Honda Classic golf tournament at PGA National (Champion). Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports (Reuters)

(Reuters) - Long hitters Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson are licking their lips at the prospect of being able to unleash their drivers at the Players Championship starting in Florida on Thursday. After being staged in May since 2007, the PGA Tour flagship event returns to its old March timeslot, which means different grass and more likely different weather will greet a field that includes all top 50 in the world in Ponte Vedra Beach. Firm and fast conditions in spring turned the venerable TPC Sawgrass almost into a pitch and putt course the past few years, taking driver out of the hands of many players and rewarding precision more than power. But the lush overseeded rye, a winter grass that dies out in spring, has given the course this year a greener tinge and presented it in a softer condition for the world's best players. "I think you're definitely going to have to have a few more drivers in hand," three-times major winner Brooks Koepka told reporters on Wednesday. "Being soft widens the fairways a little bit. I think it's definitely going to play into a longer hitter's hands." World number one Dustin Johnson agreed. "Last few years I've struggled around here," said the American. "Never could get it going (when the) course played firm and fast. "It brought the whole field into (contention). Now the course plays completely different -- softer, longer." Johnson has never had a top-10 finish, though he came close the past two years, while Koepka also flirted with top-10 the past two years. If quiet self-belief counts for anything, Koepka could be the man to beat. "I'm trying to treat it like a major (but) I'm trying to treat every event like a major," he said. "I've got a lot more confidence now than I've ever had. Sometimes the game comes easy to me." A glance at winners when the tournament was played in May reveals a few long hitters - Phil Mickelson (2007) and Jason Day (2017) to name two - but also several who will never enjoy that moniker, among them Tim Clark (2010) and Webb Simpson (2018). "I had to relearn the course the last few days, based on past events in May, making sure I'm clear on what we're doing off the tees," said Simpson. "I'm trying to treat it like a new golf course, since it is a lot different." But no matter how the course is presented, quality never goes out of style: Just one man has won the event in both March and May - Tiger Woods, in 2001 and 2013. (Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Hugh Lawson)