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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Justin Thomas has played the 15th hole at The Players Championship some 20 times but never this early in the year. That’s why he turned to his caddie for some last-minute advice during a practice round.
“We don’t have to worry about going through the fairway, right?” he asked Jimmy Johnson.
The field is as strong as ever, with everyone from the top 50 in the world ranking in the 144-man field. The prize money is richer than ever at $12.5 million, with $2.25 million going to the winner. And it would seem to be the same Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass that has hosted the PGA Tour’s signature event since 1982.
But it’s not.
A move to March changes everything.
The Players Championship has gone green, with rye overseed making it lush, green and longer than when it was held in May on Bermuda grass that could be fast and fiery. The prevailing wind can come out of a different direction, which can make that island green on the par-3 17th look a little smaller.
“I’ve been between 6-iron and 5-iron on 17 to hit the shot,” Tiger Woods said. “Not too many people can say that unless they’ve played in March.”
What hasn’t changed is handicapping the field. The TPC Sawgrass was renowned in any month for not favoring any one style of golf. It has produced champions like Woods and Greg Norman, or Fred Funk and Hal Sutton when it was held in March. Moved to May, the winners have similarly varied games, whether it was Phil Mickelson and Jason Day, or Tim Clark and K.J. Choi.
Woods is the only player to win in March and May.
It all starts to unfold Thursday, with only 23 players having experienced the March conditions before the move to May in 2007. Woods and Adam Scott are the only players at Sawgrass who have won The Players when it was in March.
“I think we’re in for a good challenge this week,” Scott said. “It’s not brutally difficult, but if the wind blows, it’s going to play tough.”
Heavy rain earlier in the week made the fairways even softer and speckled some golf balls with mud — something else rarely seen in May — but Scott noticed the difference immediately.
“I hit a 5-iron into the first hole,” he said. “I have hit anything but a 9-iron or a wedge in there for 12 years. A lot of other holes are like that, too. So if it does firm up a little bit, even if you’re hitting 7-iron into the first, I think it’s going to require some really good driving and some really good irons. I think it’s a great test.”
Dustin Johnson is among those who look forward to the move to March, even though he has played this event only in May. He hasn’t played it every well, not by his standards or anyone else who has reached No. 1 in the world and has 20 victories for his career.
Johnson, coming off a five-shot victory in Mexico City three weeks ago, has never finished higher than a tie for 12th in his 10 starts. He has only five rounds in the 60s.
“Just judging the distance, balls going miles and would never stop in the fairways,” Johnson said. “I feel like good shots weren’t always rewarded with the way the course was playing. But, yeah, I struggled. It was frustrating, too.”
Woods, who played nine holes Tuesday and nine holes Wednesday, had one of those moments that Scott described. During his practice round Tuesday, he hit a 3-wood bullet off the tee, just like always. But instead of hitting 9-iron, he went with a 3-iron.
One thing hasn’t changed as far as Woods is concerned.
“It’s a very simple formula here: hit it good,” Woods said. “It’s not real complicated. The golf course is one that Pete (Dye) has set up to intimidate you visually. You have to overcome that part of it. And, no, you can’t really play poorly and win this event. I think we all have to accept that you’re going to hit good shots and going to get some weird hops and get some really, really funky lies whether it’s off the fairway or around the greens.”
No one played better last year than Webb Simpson, who built such a big lead in tying the 54-hole record that he shot a 73 in the final round — the highest Sunday score by a PGA Tour winner last year — and still won by four shots.
Now he defends his title on what feels like a new course, which might be the one comparison with a major this week.
“I kind of had to re-learn the golf course the last few days,” Simpson said. “Based on our past events here in May, just making sure I’m clear on what we’re doing off the tees. … I’m trying to treat it like a new golf course since it is a lot different.”