Same tournament, new course with Players moving to March

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Justin Thomas has played the 15th hole at The Players Championship some 20 times, but not 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 an entirely 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.”

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.”

Doug Ferguson is an Associated Press writer.

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