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Pros vs. Joes

Players Championship: How hard is TPC Sawgrass for average golfers? Brutal

TPC Sawgrass 2020

EDITOR'S NOTE— The average player data used in this story was through 2022.

Despite the lore and the gore of the Players Championship, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is not the toughest layout played on the PGA Tour. In the last decade, it has ranked in the top 15 just twice; it was 12th in 2022, which considering how horrible the weather was last year, its actually lower than you'd likely imagine. On the Florida swing alone, it often trails other theoretically less fearsome venues like PGA National, Bay Hill and even Innisbrook.

But those are just numbers. The Stadium Course’s true ferocity lies in a place that statistics do not always adequately measure. It is in that dry mouth or accelerated heart rate, the deep breaths that fail to find calm or the deeper sighs of soul-crushing despair. The Stadium Course is the worst kind of torture chamber: the one that exists in your mind.

What’s truly beautiful about the menacing Stadium Course is that as a public venue that sees about 50,000 rounds a year, average golfers pay (mightily, at $600 per, not including caddie) for the privilege to be embarrassed 18 separate times. Moreover, what the average tour pro feels and experiences so, too, does the average Joe.

Pros v. Joes: TPC Sawgrass

How difficult is the home of the Players Championship for average golfers? We have the data that says it's very difficult.

While the Stadium Course routinely plays over par for the Players Championship (72.619 in 2022), it also brings out the worst in average golfers. That’s what the statistics say from the researchers at Arccos Golf, whose GPS sensors track every swing in a typical round. According to Arccos, the average score for players in the 5- to 15-handicap range is 89. That number is more than confirmed by those who’ve seen it in the flesh. Brandon Barfield is a 12-year veteran caddie at TPC Sawgrass and currently the assistant caddie master. He’s seen scores as high as 202 by a paying customer at the Stadium Course, and only once in over a thousand loops has a player shot even par.

“Most people who come out here, if they’re a 5- or 10-handicap, they’re going to score more like a 10- to 20-handicapper,” he said. “The course just plays 5-10 strokes harder. That might just be from their mentality coming out and knowing what they’re about to go through.

“That guy who shot 202 said he watched the Players on TV and he wanted to see exactly how hard it is. He found out exactly how this course can jump up and bite you all day long. My legs were hurting after that, but his arms had to hurt even worse.”

Of course the Arccos numbers for average golfers are predictably bad, although not as debilitating as 130-over-par. The group of 5- to 15-handicappers, somewhat better than the average golfer of course, score almost a full stroke over par or worse on 14 of the 18 holes. Arccos show the 5th, 7th, 14th and 18th holes all with an average score of around 1.2 strokes over par. Only on one driving hole do they hit the fairway more than half the time. On only one hole do they hit the green in regulation more than half the time, and we’re not entirely sure even that’s the case (more on that later). All that ineptitude doesn’t get any better the closer they get to the hole, either. The only time a chip or pitch shot from these Average Joes consistently gets inside 10 feet on a Stadium Course green is when it’s less than 10 yards from the hole, and even then it only happens about 61 percent of the time. Outside 10 yards, those pitches and chips get inside 10 feet only 30 percent of the time.

It’s not that the Stadium Course seems unfair or cartoonishly evil. Rather, it seems doable, gettable, until, of course, the golfer tries to do too much beyond his ability level. As Patrick Cantlay said in 2021, Dye fools you and challenges you at the same time.

“I feel like it will show you one side with trouble and you almost have to ignore the big flashy trouble but hug the trouble, because the worst side will be the bailout side, and once you bail out into the fat side, then the troubles start mounting,” Cantlay said. “Pete Dye kind of does that all day, and if you have enough guts to hit quality shots all the way around, you can shoot good numbers.”

Having enough guts is a universal challenge in golf and most especially at the Stadium course. Nothing typifies that emotional trauma more than its finish, a play in three acts that seems equal parts opportunity and misfortune, skill and will, execution and, well, execution (as in lethal injection). Navigating 16, 17 and 18, whether it’s to win a Players Championship or take home all the bets on the 19th hole, requires a player’s best but more often leads to his worst.

Here’s what the PGA Tour stats and Arccos’s average golfer numbers say about how the last act of the Stadium course plays out.

The tantalizingly reachable par-5 16th is the easiest hole on the course by the numbers, which of course everybody knows going in to the round, but as a player’s last best chance to post a score it exerts a pressure to succeed that is somehow greater than the fear of failure looming at the following two holes. Case in point: In the last 20 years, while it has accounted for the most birdies and eagles of any hole on the course, it’s also led to more balls in the water than any other hole, save the two to come.

For average golfers, the Arccos numbers say the 16th produces the longest drive of any hole at 233.9 yards, but the average score is just 5.85. From the typical resort guest tees, that’s still going to leave a 250-yard second shot and more often one of the trickiest layups on a par-5 this side of the 15th at Augusta National. With the water looming right, the average golfer’s bailout leaves him blocked by the overhanging oak tree just left and 50 yards short of the green. According to Arccos data, average golfers at the Stadium Course are still only hitting the green 48 percent of the time, mostly with their third shots.

PGA Tour players, who go for the green in two 73 percent of the time, hit the green 81 percent of the time and make birdie or eagle 47 percent of the time. Despite three-quarters of the shots coming from players going at the green in two, the average proximity to the hole is still about half that of the proximity of average golfers who mostly are going at the green with a wedge (53 feet for the pros vs. 102 feet for the Joes).

The villainously infamous island green par-3 17th, barely much more than a wedge shot these days, is the toughest par 3 under 150 yards in the two decades of the ShotLink era, averaging just a click over par. And yet its green-in-regulation average is the highest on the course and its average proximity to the hole barely differs from any other similar length shot on tour. Like so much of the Stadium Course, the 17th haunts not for what it actually ends up being but instead for what it might be. In many cases, that easy “3” can be a double or even a quad. In 2021, there were 66 balls in the water at the Players Championship, or about one of every seven attempts that week. In 2022, wicked winds and nasty weather meant tour pros made 30 double bogeys and 14 "others." Compare that to 17 made on holes 1 through 16 for the entire tournament. All told, 64 balls found the water on this hole in 2022.

For resort guests and other public access players, the 17th is such a carnival ride that it should come with its own “I survived” T-shirts. Barfield, the TPC Sawgrass caddie, calls it a mind game that starts long before they get to the tee box. “When they hit their third shot on 16 and start looking over at 17, that’s when they start getting nervous,” he said. “You see the swings change a lot on 17. It’s like they’re trying to control everything, their swing, their emotions, all of it.

“We’re trying to cool a player’s mind as much as we can. On the walk, we might not be staring at the hole as much. Maybe take a picture to get his head out of worrying about the hole. But you can’t really change someone’s mind on that hole too much. They’ve been thinking about it since they pulled into the parking lot.”

For all its allure, the 17th hole can become a nightmare made real. We’ve all heard the story of the legendary Golf Digest “Worst Avid Golfer” contest in 1986, where a Pittsburgh grocer named Angelo Spagnolo made a record-setting 66 after having to resort to putting the ball along the path to the green because he couldn’t get a regular tee shot to stay on the putting surface. (When the Golf Channel had him recreate the scenario in 2011, he made a 44, including a bad ruling.) Barfield said he’s seen a 23 on the hole during his watch, but the standing rule is to limit golfers to three shots at the island green. “I would say that drop area doesn’t see very many balls,” he said. “They retee it right where they’re at and hit until they hit the green. I’d say one out of every eight guys is using a sleeve of balls on 17. And most of the time it’s one out of every four.

“I’ve done over a thousand loops out here and not once have I seen all four balls of a foursome on the green in one shot.”

It seems fair to say that so vexing is the 17th hole that it may cause most average golfers (and several pros) to lose their senses. The Arccos data backs that up, if only because it is so mysteriously positive. The average score by Arccos research at 17 is only 3.78 and the numbers say our collection of 5- to 15-handicappers hit the green 61 percent of the time, better than they do at any other hole at Sawgrass. What gives? Golf data analyst Lou Stagner, who is Arccos’s data insights lead, has a simple explanation. “A lot of those shots that hit the green most likely are mulligans,” he said. A player has to note on the Arccos app when penalty shots need to be added, and when you’re firing a sleeve into the drink at the most famous par-3 in the world, sometimes accounting goes by the wayside.

Stagner estimates that the greens in regulation at the 17th for average golfers in reality might be barely 20 percent. Indeed, he studied the random scatter of shots from a similar distance and found it encompassed an area more than twice the size of the 17th green. So he probably rightly believes an average score is most likely closer to something in the 5s than it is in the 3s. Barfield agrees.

“Some guys hit the green and it rolls off and they drop it up there on the green even though we know that’s not the rule. So they make some fake bogeys that way,” said the caddie. “Scores are not what people say they make out there. Just on that hole, though. I feel on every other hole they tell the truth.”

There is of course no sterner truth at the Stadium Course than than the heroic 18th. That might be especially true for average golfers, Barfield says, because “they think the round is over after 17 and that tee shot on 18 is the hardest on the course.” For ams and pros alike, the 18th offers one closing insult or pyrrhic triumph. For the PGA Tour, it stands neck and neck with the 14th as the hardest hole statistically on the layout. The number of bogeys or worse triples the number of birdies. In the ShotLink era, it is the toughest on the course, recording more doubles than any other hole. The best players in the world hit the green in regulation only 45 percent of the time, the least of any second shot on the course.

While the average golfer plays a tee 36 yards shorter than the pro tee, his drive according to Arccos data is more than 60 yards shorter. That means his second shot is even harder than the tour player’s: it’s longer and being executed by someone with considerably less ability. The amateur’s average proximity to the hole at 18 is almost 100 feet, about 60 feet more than the tour pro’s.

Conservatively, the amateur golfer is taking an average of close to 17 shots on the Stadium Course’s final three holes, or five over par, but even the PGA Tour player isn’t getting through that closing gauntlet unscathed. The average score last year was 12.1, or one over. It surprises no one that since 2003, almost 2,300 balls during the Players Championship have ended up in the water on those three holes alone, or that the course retrieves 140,000 balls annually from the pond at the 17th green.

“We try to make the last three holes the most demanding and 16, 17, 18 have done a pretty good job,” Dye once said, just the wryest of cackles in his voice. “If you finally get a golf hole that works on their minds a little bit then you’ve hit the jackpot.”

Dye hit that jackpot three times in a row with 16, 17 and 18. Said Barfield, “I think we’d get as many people signing up just to play 16, 17 and 18 as we do for full rounds. We’d probably have just as many balls end up in the water, too.”