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Culp's Corner

THE PLAYERS Championship Preview

by Josh Culp
Updated On: March 9, 2021, 9:01 pm ET

There are 50 PGA TOUR events on the super-season schedule. Some tournaments get classified as major championships while others fall just below that tier as "big-money events". THE PLAYERS will always be stuck in between tiers. 

The record book doesn't treat THE PLAYERS as a major but many of the players do. It certainly qualifies as a big-money event with $15 million up for grabs this week with $2.7 Million going to the winner. 

The extremely strong field usually caps out at 144 golfers at TPC Sawgrass but they are making some exceptions this year and it currently sits at a 154-man field size. Depending on pre-tourney WDs that number will end up anywhere between 144 and 154 before the first tee ball flies on Thursday morning. 

There will be plenty of headlines this week focusing on the season shutdown which started after round one of the 2020 PLAYERS, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I will let others shine their light on that. I'll turn my attention straight to the golf course.

The Course

TPC Sawgrass is the host this week. The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, more specifically, designed by Pete Dye back in 1980 and touched up a few times since then. It's currently a par 72 that plays up to 7,189 yards on the scoresheet.

TPC Sawgrass was instantly known as one of the toughest tests on TOUR and many courses have since plucked out pieces of TPC Sawgrass when building, whether it be the stadium design features or just mimicking some of the risk-reward holes. 

The par-3 17th island green is probably the most iconic hole on the course but it's just one of many holes on the property that provide volatile scoring this week. Avoiding big numbers is the name of the game this week with water in play on 17 holes. 

With water lurking everywhere, golfers have traditionally played it more conservatively off the tee with lots of non-drivers on the par 4s and 5s. However, a move to March has meant a change in turf conditions, allowing golfers to grip it and rip it a few more times per round. In May it was a bit more firm and fiery while the overseed slows the course down a bit. 

Just like last week at Bay Hill, scoring on the par 5s is crucial. All four of the par 5s have a birdie-or-better rate of 30 percent so exiting any of them with a par likely feels like a bogey for these pros. 

The short, par-4 12th is another exciting scoring opportunity. It's a fun risk-reward hole but is largely influenced by pin placement, wind speed/direction, and the amount of rough guarding the water. There are some days where the majority of the field will just lay back with an iron but otherwise it provides a lot of fireworks with a decent amount of eagle looks. 

I've touched on it a bit already, but for turf we will see bermudagrass that has been overseeded. The bermuda is generally still dormant at this time of year. The tee-to-green turf gets overseeded with ryegrass while the greens get a velvet bent and poa trivialis mixture. The greens are typically ramped up to run very speedy, certainly over 12 feet on the stimp.

Overall, this is one of the more juicy scoring environments from a fantasy perspective. You will likely see huge spreads between the low rounds and the blowup rounds. It's a course that will give us a handful of 67s each day but also a handful of 77s. Nobody is immune from those big numbers. Bad rounds can go sour very quickly, just like Bay Hill last week. 


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Course Quotes

Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.

Rory McIlroy: "I was saying to Jason [Day] out there, we were saying like when you get into this Bermuda in May, it takes a lot of skill out of it. It’s sort of hit and hope and you have to be lucky and you’re guessing half the time, where the way the overseed is around the greens now, you can actually showcase some of your skills and you can play shots with pretty certain knowing what it’s going to do, how it’s going to react."

Tiger Woods: "It’s just so much slower, it’s not as warm. The ball doesn’t fly as far and the golf course just plays slower... It’s just the golf course plays so much shorter in May than it does in March. That’s probably the biggest difference. We’re going to have to hit more clubs off the tees, have a little bit longer clubs into the greens, but the difference is the greens are much slower and much more receptive." 

Justin Rose: "I think it’s more target golf, and for me that’s how this golf course was designed. It’s a stadium-style course, a target-style golf course. I don’t think it was designed to be firm and fast and running and bouncy and out of control. I think the targets are there to be hit. And if you do, you get rewarded." 

Jason Day: "When I won here, I just hit 2-iron everywhere because it was firm. But now when you’re hitting a lot more drivers and 3-woods off tees, the greens are a little softer, but obviously they’re trying to firm them out. But yeah, it’s definitely going to play a little bit different. It’s going to play longer, but it’s going to be easier around the greens with regards to chipping and bunker work and all that stuff. The greens are running nice." 

Jim Furyk: "I think one thing about this golf course is that it makes you at times want to play very conservative. I think the 4th tee would be an instance like that. I don’t think that’s the way you play a Pete Dye golf course. I think you’ve got to take it on. You’ve got to be aggressive. If it eats you up, if you don’t hit the shots, you’re not going to be competitive. But you have to be aggressive off the tee. You have to challenge the golf course. And if you do drive the ball well, you can set yourself up for some opportunities."

It's no longer a plodder's paradise with the move to March. You still have to hit good shots and bad shots will still get penalized. There is a bit more wiggle room when the course is playing softer like we'd expect it to in March with overseed compared to bermudagrass in May. 


Correlated Courses

Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week: 

Sheshan International
Quail Hollow
TPC Boston
Bay Hill Club & Lodge
Augusta National

The theme seems to be courses with lots of water in play and/or courses with speedy greens. Those fast greens usually put an emphasis on iron play because if you miss in the wrong spots, you are quickly staring at a three-putt or a tough up-and-down. 


The Weather

Thursday: Sunny with a high of 69 degrees. Winds at 6 to 12 MPH. 

Friday: Partly Cloudy with a high of 72 degrees. Winds at 6 to 10 MPH.

It's another gorgeous Florida forecast. There is some rain in the Monday forecast right now so we just need to hope that stays on Monday and doesn't shift up a day. 

Josh Culp

Josh Culp joined NBC Sports Edge in 2014. The DFS enthusiast from Iowa State can be found on Twitter @futureoffantasy.