The Players Championship doesn’t reward a specific type of player. Or does it?
There is a debate surrounding the Players Championship, one that surfaces every year when the tournament arrives. We’re not going to get into it here, since we don’t have four hours to quarrel. Plus, there is a second discussion about the PGA Tour’s flagship event we’d rather explore: That it favors no specific type of golfer, making it nearly impossible to consistently contend at TPC Sawgrass. Though not as heated as the “fifth major” conversation (so much for not mentioning it), those who compete in the tournament are not without strong opinions on the matter.
Rory McIlroy says: “It sort of tests everyone, and favors no one.” Jason Day remarked: “I don’t know if there’s anyone out there who plays that well at this golf course, and that’s what’s so interesting about it.” And Tiger Woods noted: “It’s one of those places, it’s very polarizing. You either have it or you don’t.”
And these are the sentiments from guys who have won.
Yet while many are unwavering in their belief that the Players favors no one golfer, is it objectively true? TPC Sawgrass has seen alterations, as well as a move from March to May and back to March a year ago, changing the conditions of the course. But no matter a layout’s dexterity, it still, in theory, should showcase some consistent characteristics from year to year. So we set to discover: Is the Players Championship really a cauldron of chaos, or are there trends that can be identified and exploited? We examined the past 15 tournaments and pinpointed three areas that observers believe do and do not matter to decipher where reality lies.
“Accuracy over distance”
Mark Broadie’s revolutionary work in the strokes-gained arena has proved that, in the professional realm, distance is more imperative to success than accuracy off the tee. TPC Sawgrass, though, is supposedly an aberration. The course isn’t considered long by today’s Tour standards at 7,189 yards, so it brings medium and shorter hitters into the mix. And though its rough isn’t penal, Sawgrass’ numerous water hazards, bunkers and tree limbs put a premium on angles. The presumption, then, is that you must keep your ball in the short stuff, or expect to be making other weekend plans.
And this is all true—or at least it used to be. From 2005 to 2011, only 2007 champ Phil Mickelson finished outside the top 11 in fairways hit (he was 65th out of 79 who made the cut) and still won the Players, with three players—Fred Funk, Stephen Ames and Sergio Garcia—leading the category.
However, since 2011, only one winner—Webb Simpson in 2018—has finished in the top 10 in driving accuracy. Moreover, five of the past eight winners have finished in the bottom half of driving accuracy, highlighted by McIlroy ranking 49th in 2019 and Day ranking 51st in 2016. The variance between the two periods is distinct: From 2005 to 2011, the winner’s average accuracy rank was 13.43 versus 31.75 from 2012 to 2019. Subtract the lone wolf from each group (Mickelson and Simpson) and those numbers become 4.83 to 36.14.
It’s not just the winners who have disregarded precision. Jim Furyk was the only player to finish in the top 10 on the leader board and in accuracy in 2019. The year before, it was just Simpson and Jason Dufner. The top-10 finishers at the 2019 Players held a collective 64.45 driving accuracy percentage, well below what is was 15 years before (70.78 percent).
In turn, as the importance of accuracy has decreased at Sawgrass, distance has filled the void.
From 2005 to 2011, only one winner (Sergio Garcia in 2008) finished in the top 25 in driving distance-all drives for the week, with three of the seven finishing outside the top 60 ... and even Garcia finished 41st in driving distance-measured for the week. Since then, six of the last eight winners have finished 18th or better in distance, with Simpson (70th) supporting the only poor power display. Again, it’s not just the victors that are relying on the long ball: McIlroy, Tommy Fleetwood, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Day and Hideki Matsuyama—players who have never been accused of being pea-shooters—finished in the top 10 last year whereas Davis Love III was the singular bomber on the 2005 board. Winners are now gaining 2.66 strokes gained/off-the-tee in the past eight years compared to an average 2.01 SG/OTT from 2005-2011.
In short, TPC Sawgrass isn’t as prejudiced against short hitters as other Tour venues, but it hardly runs counter to the growing rule of distance.
In that same breath, that strokes gained/off-the-tee figure is relatively small for Players champions compared to other Tour event winners. Essentially, you can’t drive it poorly … but that alone won’t facilitate victory. So what will?
Yes, “Course [X] is a ball-striker’s paradise” is a platitude. Still, despite its overuse and obviousness, it rings true at the Players.
Five of the last eight winners finished in the top five in greens in regulation, with all eight winners gaining an average of 4.90 strokes over the field in approach. Subtract Simpson’s output (Webb lost strokes to the field with his irons at -0.72) and that figure skyrockets to 5.72 strokes/approach.
However, that is nothing new at TPC Sawgrass. From 2005 to 2011 the winner averaged 6.54 strokes/approach for the week. The only outlier is Stephen Ames, who amassed a massive 10.49 strokes/approach in 2006. In fact, only Simpson and K.J Choi failed to gain at least four strokes over the field in approach in the last 15 years, and Choi wasn’t bad (3.09 sg/approach) by any means.
But are these winners true ball-strikers, or did they merely get hot for a week?
We compared each winner’s Sawgrass output to their performance the rest of the season, and the results are clear: Their Players accomplishments were no aberrations.
As a caveat, 2009 champ Henrik Stenson did not accumulate enough Tour starts to qualify that season for its statistical rankings, giving us a working list of 14 past winners. Out of this group, eight finished 14th or better in strokes gained/approach on the year, with 10 ranking inside the top 25. Three—Day, Kaymer, Funk—were just outside that threshold at 33rd, 42nd and 35th. The only odd duck is Si Woo Kim. The South Korean gained 4.11 strokes on the field in approach in his 2017 victory march ... yet finished 175th in the category for the year.
Is TPC Sawgrass a ball-striker’s paradise? You’re darn right it is.
“Short game still matters”
Sticking with the strokes-gained theme, the metric has essentially proved the adage “drive for show, putt for dough” to be obsolete. But the Players, we are told, is a last bastion where putting still matters.
And, as it turns out, the stats back that up.
Over the last 15 years, winners have gained an average of 4.88 strokes in putting over the field. It is a number that is remarkably consistent; only McIlroy (0.66 sg/putting) was middling, with Simpson (9.37) and Tim Clark (9.31) the standouts. For context, that is almost double what the leaders gained on the field in driving (2.53).
Moreover, it’s not just putting. Average sg/around-the-green numbers for past winners at Sawgrass (2.55) and you see they are slightly more important to the final standing than off-the-tee. Combined with putting, that’s 7.41 strokes gained on the field.
However, using the same exercise we applied to irons, these short-game wonders are not necessarily a snapshot of a player’s season production. Only four winners finished 20th or better in sg/putting in the year of their victory while seven finished 50th or higher. About the same ratio applied for sg/around-the-green: Five players finished 20th or better in the category against seven who finished 60th or higher. Essentially, the champion's performance on and around the greens at Sawgrass is more a measure one-week’s providence than year-long proficiency.
Meaning yes, TPC Sawgrass is not the fickle beast that it is portrayed. All you have to do is keep the ball out of trouble, be a second-shot savant and get hot around the greens. Easy, right?
No wonder there’s never been a repeat champ.