You might have had the opportunity at some point to play a golf course that is the site of a PGA Tour event, and maybe played reasonably well. But what if you played that same golf course when it was prepared for tournament week? And what if that course was already renowned as one of the most difficult tests the game can offer?
We take you to Ponte Vedra Beach and the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, site of this week's Players Championship.
Go in knowing that the creation of the late Pete Dye is a headache for even the best players in the world. The tournament field typically averages about a half stroke to three-quarters of a stroke over par 72 for a round. Now put amateurs of varying handicaps on the same tees—7,189 to 7,245 yards—in tournament conditions with fast and firm greens and deep rough.
There’s history here. Golf Digest has proved in various exhibitions that amateurs have a tough time on difficult courses in tournament conditions.
At the 2007 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods said that a 10-handicap couldn’t break 100 that week at Oakmont. That prompted three Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenges, the first played the Friday before the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines South. Tony Romo, a 2.2 at the time, shot 84; Justin Timberlake (6.0) shot 98; and contest winner John Atkinson, an 8.1-handicap selected from 56,000 contestants, shot 114. The next year, the Challenge again preceded the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, and the round took six hours and 21 minutes. This time the four low-single-digit handicappers were Ben Roethlisberger, who shot 81, Michael Jordan (86) and Timberlake (88). The 10-handicap contest winner, Larry Giebelhausen, shot 101. (Tiger had bet Jordan that Michael wouldn’t break 92, and after the round, MJ proclaimed, “I don’t take checks.”) Before the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, contest winner Peggy Ference shot 118, following Mark Wahlberg (97), Wayne Gretzky (100) and Drew Brees (102).
The December before that competition at Pebble, Golf Digest’s David Owen, a 6-handicapper at the time, played the course from the tips and shot 50-50—100. In 2018, Owen, then a 7.9-handicap (“and rising”) left Connecticut in the winter and played Sawgrass from the shortest tees and from the tips, shooting an 82 at 5,019 yards and a 111 from 7,245 yards.
More perspective: Before the 2009 Masters, Golf Digest asked me to form a team to assess Augusta National Golf Club’s Course Rating after it had been lengthened more than 500 yards during multiple transformations over the previous two decades. Augusta National doesn’t have an official USGA rating. The reason? Despite the fact that almost every member has a USGA Handicap Index from another club, Augusta National maintains its system for members only.
I estimated Augusta National’s Course Rating that week at a formidable 78.1. I estimated the Slope at 137—high, but not off the charts. From the championship tees, most Bogey Golfers can’t reach Augusta’s long par 4s in regulation, but the fairways are relatively wide and the players can hit relatively short third shots into greens, minimizing many of the difficulty factors (water, bunkers, green targets, etc.). I estimated that a player with a Course Handicap of 0 could expect to shoot an 81, a 9 might shoot 91, an 18 would shoot 103 and a 36 approximately 125.
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THE DANGERS OF SAWGRASS
In 1985, Golf Digest sponsored a contest to identify America’s Worst Avid Golfer, with the final to be played at Sawgrass. Angelo Spagnolo, then 31, made a 66 at the 17th—including a three-putt—on his way to “winning” with a 257 for 18 holes. After a flurry of line drives at 17 splashed and seven more bounced over the green into the water, Spagnolo reluctantly agreed when his caddie suggested putting onto the green from the adjoining walkway.
So what would you do at Sawgrass? Let’s run some numbers.
Course Rating is a measure of a course’s difficulty level for a scratch golfer—someone who has a 0.0 Handicap Index.
Slope Rating measures the relative difficulty of a course for Bogey Golfers and other players of “varying abilities” when compared with the Course Rating. Though there are no limits for a Course Rating—the par-73, 8,325-yard Pines Course at The International in Bolton, Mass., has a Course Rating of 80.0—Slope Ratings basically range from 55 to 155. Standard playing difficulty is 113.
At the Stadium Course at Sawgrass, the Course Rating issued by the Florida State Golf Association is 76.4 and the Slope Rating is 155. These are ratings for normal playing conditions—so the actual uncapped Slope Rating during the Players would be higher. On a non-tournament week, the average scores for scratch golfers would be in the area of 2.6 strokes over the 76.4 Rating, but under tournament week conditions I estimate the average score as close to 81 by a scratch player. A golfer with an 18-handicap typically would shoot 116, but would be in the 122-124 range under tournament conditions (see accompanying chart).
Rough and slicker greens during tournament week mean almost every hole demands forced carries over water or bunkers—a major challenge for amateurs when compared to pros. Also, some of the greens have a shallow depth, and most of the greens have severe slopes punishing you if you don’t stop the ball near the hole, producing more three-putts than normal. Amateurs are challenged to produce the ball flight and spin needed to approach the greens correctly.
Adding to the challenge of the approaches, many fairways run at angles and then into pine straw, water and sand, causing amateur golfers to struggle with distance control and accuracy. Even a scratch golfer would expect to frequently score an 85.
Producing many double bogeys are four long par 4s—the 471-yard fifth hole, the 451-yard seventh, the 481-yard 14th and the 470-yard 15th—and, of course, the famed 137-yard 17th. A group of 36-handicappers who want to see the back tees that week, besides taking an extra hour or more to finish, would see scores over par almost double their handicaps.
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HOW FAR DO YOU REALLY HIT IT?
Finally, let’s discuss the ability of amateurs to get to the greens in close to regulation from the back tees. A study that I did for Golf Digest a number of years ago produced one of the most telling numbers in how far amateurs are behind pros’ 300-plus-yard drives and how dramatically amateur players inflate their driving distances. In that test, lower-handicappers claimed their average drives went 247 yards, but driving distance stats taken in a pro-am tournament measured 232—a 15-yard exaggeration. Poorer players claimed a driving average of 227 yards but hit it 198 yards—a 29-yard exaggeration. The worse the players, the more they kid themselves about how good (and long) they are. Nobody, it seems, wants to admit he drives the ball less than 200 yards. Succumbing to self-delusion, it seems most amateurs tend to equate their best drive with their average drive. In looking at the self-assessed strengths and weaknesses from the amateurs who hit a fairway and then missed a green, “driving” was named a strength as often as it was a weakness.
It all adds up to a long and exhausting day for amateurs and a new appreciation for just how good PGA Tour pros really are—especially Justin Thomas’ winning rounds last year of 71-71-74-68 for a 14-under-par 274 total. That score would be out of reach for almost all amateurs even with handicap strokes.