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3 smart-and-simple strategy tips from a top tour pro—and he's using them at the 2024 Players

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Mike Ehrmann

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — The key to winning the Players Championship isn't simply about hitting the shots. But rather, knowing what shots to hit.

It makes TPC Sawgrass is one of those courses—perhaps the course on tour—where you have to keep your wits about you. And the players know it.

"It's a genius design," said defending champion Scottie Scheffler of the course.

"I think he was a genius," added Viktor Hovland about course designer Pete Dye, before his first round. "I really like a lot of his golf courses."

High praise, and perhaps a clue into what's required of golfers this week.

When it comes to smart, strategic golf, you won't find many better golfers than Patrick Cantlay. Cantlay has three top-25 finishes in five starts at the Players Championship, and relishes the task at devising interesting strategies to attack different holes.

Being a smart golfer is an essential skill, but a soft skill. You can't go practice being a smart golfer like you can practice your putting. So how do you develop that skill, and hone it for big weeks like at the Players?

"It's a good question," Cantlay said, before offering some advice ...

1. Take confidence from small steps

It's easy to go down deep down a rabbit hole on your own game, obsessing over your stats and hyper-focusing about where you want to improve. But it's important to keep the numbers about your own game in perspective, Cantlay says.

You're not going to be able to transform any part of your game overnight. But by being diligent about tracking your progress, you'll able to draw confidence in the small amounts of progress you do make.

"I've been working with a stats team for a number of years, and the way I think about it, the more decisions I can make that are reinforced by the stats, I'm gaining incrementally every time," he says. "Trying to make the most data-based decisions over and over and over again to give myself the best opportunity to succeed, that's really how I think about it."

2. The safest route may look strange

An interesting wrinkle about TPC Sawgrass is that often, the course will make certain shots look more heroic than they actually are. The lesson there, both during Players week and beyond, is to not come into any hole with pre-assumptions. Work backward from the safest spot on the green, and sometimes, that may look a little strange.

"There are a lot of hole locations where you have to take the hole location on. The left hole locations on 4, there's no real safe place to play away to because the two putts are so hard. Seventeen, obviously, there's no place to bail out, tee shot on 18 and second shot on 16," he said. "So I think if you hit good shots, they look very heroic because that's just the nature of those golf holes."

3. Know when to change the plan

Game plans are great. Essential, even. But sometimes, based on circumstances, you need to change things up. That's OK, but before you go calling audibles, Cantlay says to clearly lay out the reasons why, establish a new goal, and commit.

"There's a time and place for deviating from that plan, whether it's wind or conditions or how I'm feeling," he says. "That's something I build into my game plan each week."