March vs. May: The Players Comes Home on the Calendar
Would you believe that the average round at last year’s Players Championship was under par? Declawed and defanged in 2018, the often-monstrous TPC Sawgrass yielded a scoring average of 71.4, putting its difficulty rank on the PGA Tour (29th) more in line with Scottsdale (32nd) than Quail Hollow (5th).
Moving the tournament back to March will present a different test this week.
The Players Championship was held in May for 12 years. During that time, the field scoring average was 72.5, 17.7 percent of all rounds were shot in the 60s, and players averaged 3.62 bogeys or worse per round.
In the last 12 Players Championships held in March, those numbers are significantly different. The field scoring average was nearly an entire stroke more difficult (73.4), only 11.6 percent of rounds were in the 60s, and players averaged more than four bogeys or worse per round (4.06).
When expanding the sample size to the last thirty years, rounds of 75 or higher are also much more frequent in March than in May. Nearly one-third of all Players Championship rounds from 1989-2006 were scores of 75 or higher (31.3%). That number was just 25.6% in May (2007-2018).
Fourteen of the last thirty Players Championships have had a field scoring average of 73 or higher. Eleven of those instances came in March, while only three were in May.
Prepare for some higher scores and a tougher test in 2019.
Trends at TPC Sawgrass
– There has never been a player win in back-to-back years at TPC Sawgrass. The only course on the PGA Tour with a longer active consecutive streak without a player winning in back-to-back years is Colonial Country Club, who last yielded a repeat champion in 1952-53 (Ben Hogan). In fact, only two defending champions at TPC Sawgrass have ever finished in the top-five, and no defending champ has been in the top-ten since Adam Scott in 2005.
– Over the last five years, there are 105 different players with at least ten rounds at TPC Sawgrass. Among that group, only three have a scoring average of 70.5 or better: Rafa Cabrera Bello (70.3), Rory Sabbatini (70.4) and Francesco Molinari (70.5). Molinari won last week at Bay Hill, while Cabrera Bello finished tied for third.
– Adam Scott (39-under) has the best cumulative score to par at The Players Championship since 2010. The next four on that list are Matt Kuchar (-37), Zach Johnson (-33), Sergio Garcia (-32) and Francesco Molinari (-27).
– Justin Thomas has just one top-ten finish in four career starts at TPC Sawgrass, but no player has been more explosive on this course in recent years. Thomas averages 5.1 birdies/eagles per round here, most of any player with at least fifteen rounds going back to 2010.
– This will be the 33rd Player Championship held since the inception of the Official World Golf Ranking. More players ranked 40th or lower in the Ranking (eleven) have won at TPC Sawgrass than players in the top-ten (ten).
– No player has more rounds in the 60s on this course since 2010 than Garcia, with fifteen. Garcia’s 99 birdies and eagles on this course IN the last five years is also the most. Rounding out the top-five of that list is Scott (90), Billy Horschel (83), Ian Poulter (80) and Justin Rose (80).
Notes on players headlining the field
– Phil Mickelson has left the world in limbo as to his plans to play this week, and looking at the numbers, nobody should blame him. Mickelson has not had a round in the 60s at TPC Sawgrass since 2011 and is a combined 14-over-par in his last 18 trips around the course. Mickelson cited the rough as one factor in his decision making, but maybe Lefty is playing possum: he’s currently 9th on the PGA Tour in average proximity from the rough, a rank he has improved upon in five consecutive seasons.
– Tiger Woods is famously the only man to win The Players in both March (2001) and May (2013). From 1997-2006, the last ten years the event was held in March, Woods ranked second in scoring average among players with twelve or more rounds (71.48), trailing only Scott Hoch (71.18).
– This will be the eleventh time Dustin Johnson has teed it up in this event, and amazingly, he has never had a top-ten finish here. However, his form at TPC Sawgrass has improved in recent years: since 2016, Johnson ranks T-6 among all players in cumulative score to par (-15) and fifth in greens in regulation per round (12.6). And about that ‘no top-tens’ thing: it didn’t stop Webb Simpson in 2018, who had never finished better than 15th at TPC Sawgrass before lifting the trophy.
– Rory McIlroy has finished 6th or better in each of his last five worldwide starts. The last time he did that was at the end of 2011. His sixth start in that run was a victory at the Hong Kong Open.