PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Welcome to a March Players, where the cold, the wet and the rain have already worn down the field – and we’re still at least a day away from the 36-hole cut.
When the PGA Tour relocated its showcase event from May to March in 2019, this week’s trudge was always on the menu. North Florida in March can be perfect, like it has largely been since The Players returned to the spring, or it can look like Friday’s radar that was drenched in ominous blobs of yellow and red as a massive storm inched its way over TPC Sawgrass.
But as bad as the first two days have been, it’s Saturday’s forecast that players have been eyeing wearily all week. The Tour’s own forecast calls for a “high impact weather day” as a cold front pushes through the area. There’s a 100% chance of storms from 9 to 11 a.m.
That’s when things get interesting.
Behind the front, winds switch out of the northeast at 20-30 mph with gusts up to 35 mph. That intensity would make any course dramatically more difficult, but at TPC Sawgrass, a northeast wind creates an entirely new course.
When the Tour moved The Players to May in 2007, it left behind the worries of those northeast winds and fierce cold fronts. An entire generation of Tour players have never stood on the iconic 17th tee facing a cold and heavy 30 mph wind. That seems likely to change on Saturday.
“We’ve been lucky my entire career playing it into an east to south wind, so it is either off the right or helping,” said Billy Horschel, who played his first Players in 2013. “When the wind is going to blow that hard, it changes the hole.”
There are a few players in this week’s field who have experience with those types of conditions. Henrik Stenson played his first Players in 2006 and tied for third in similarly cold and wet conditions.
“I’ve played it plenty of times in some really tough conditions, brutal conditions and 17 is definitely one of the tee shots you’re not looking forward to if it’s blowing really strong and cold,” Stenson said. “It can be a tough hole in fairly easy conditions, but if you’re standing there hitting 7-iron, it’s normally a pitching wedge, it’s not an inviting shot.
“You’ve got to keep it low because of the conditions and gusting winds, and at the same time you can’t go long and you can’t go short.”
Horschel lives in Ponte Vedra Beach and practices out of TPC Sawgrass. Although he’s never played the 17th into a north or northeast wind during The Players, he has tested himself during practice rounds throughout the year.
“We’d have a north wind sometimes, 10 to 15 mph, and we’d put a little hitting mat up on that hill behind the tee. We’d hit 3-irons into that green. It was something,” he said.
The 2019 Players did provide a glimpse into what might be on tap Saturday afternoon at No. 17 when the wind turned out of the north for the final round. The scoring average at No. 17 jumped to 3.26, and the penultimate hole ranked as the second toughest that day, just behind the 18th hole. By comparison, the scoring average for Round 3 in ’19 was 2.9 and the 17th hole was the 13th toughest.
The unique challenge of the island green is dramatically compounded by a strong northeast wind. Hitting more club off the tee is the obvious adjustment, but the actual execution of the shot is far more nuanced.
“You’ve got to flight it the right way. If I’m hitting a 7-iron and it’s playing 165, 170 [yards], let’s say I flight it a little bit and the wind dies down; I’m over the green,” Horschel said. “There is luck involved.”
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Davis Love III can attest to that. The two-time Players champion has seen every possible wind in his 29 starts at the circuit’s marquee event, but it’s that northeast option that always made things exponentially more difficult.
“I’ve almost hit the hill behind the green [with his tee shot]. You’re like it’s gusting and playing like 165 and you have to keep it down and if you don’t get the wind the ball is going up when it hits the flag,” Love laughed. “Instead of being a scary shot it’s a potential disaster coming.”
Many of the older players tell horror stories of hitting 5-irons into the 17thgreen. That’s probably not going to happen Saturday at The Players thanks to modern equipment and better athletes.
But if the forecast holds, most agree a 7-iron into the 140-yard hole isn’t out of the question.
“You go from a pitching wedge to a 7-iron. It’s not 140 yards playing 200, it’s not that. You’re trying to keep it under the gust,” Love said. “It’s a trick shot a little bit. We’re really good at hitting trick shots, but sometimes they don’t come off.”
For a generation of players who think of the 17th as nothing more than a pitching-wedge hole, Saturday’s cold front promises to be truly chilling.