Would move back to March actually improve Players?

By Rex HoggardMay 10, 2017, 8:40 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Hindsight is the ultimate arbiter, and as momentum builds for The Players to pack its bags and move back to the cooler confines of March, it’s worth revisiting the rationale for the event’s shift to May a decade ago.

Eleven years ago, the PGA Tour told anyone who would listen that, well, the grass would be greener in May.

“We have warmer weather and drier weather, which means we can prepare the golf course in a more consistent fashion and keep it firmer and faster at a much higher percentage of the time,” then-commissioner Tim Finchem said in March 2006. “We like the date change, we like the position on the schedule and we like what it does for our ability to set up the golf course and for television.”

There were other factors beyond growing grass and overcast skies, like the long shadow cast by the Masters that made it tough for The Players, which was normally about two weeks before the year’s first major, to stand out.

“I wasn’t on the Tour at the time, but I think the reason they moved it to May is they hated being the run-up to the Masters,” said Billy Horschel, who never played the event in March but lives in Ponte Vedra Beach. “They felt they had a great product and they wanted to be considered the fifth major and they wanted to move it away from the Masters.”

On that front, mission accomplished. But the conditioning of TPC Sawgrass didn’t necessarily get better in May. In fact, some would say the course, which transitioned to Bermuda grass from the over-seeded bent grass, suffered from an agronomic perspective in the new time slot.


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Three years ago, players weren’t allowed to practice early in the week on three of the Stadium Course’s greens because of a combination of factors, including a cold and wet winter and the “misapplication” of a product designed to combat the wintery conditions. The fact that players are raving about the condition of the course this week is a testament to the troubles the staff at TPC Sawgrass have had getting the layout championship-ready since the move to May.

“The course you see this year is the best you’re ever going to see it. We’ve had a great winter, no rain, a lot of sunshine and a lot of warmth the last two and a half months to get the course in the shape it is,” Horschel said.

So it’s little surprise that new commissioner Jay Monahan has been singing the praises of a March Players since he took office in January.

Although he declined to address a potential move on Tuesday, it’s generally understood in Tour circles that a move back to March, which some say could come as early as 2019, is a key component of a schedule makeover that would include an earlier finish to the season (Labor Day) and the possible move of the PGA Championship to May.

But the question remains, is the tournament better in March than it is in May?

Well, that’s complicated.

“The course changes significantly. March will play tougher,” said Luke Donald, whose record at The Players in March - he tied for second in 2005 two years before the move - is markedly better than in May. “Tee to green the course was harder so there was more relevance to your short game. The bent [grass] greens were faster and broke more so you had to have more visualization, more touch. You also had to control your ball flight because it was much more windy in March.”

But if that’s a vote for a potential move back to March, it’s not unanimous.

“Softer, over-seeded, ball doesn’t run as far, fairways play wider, greens play wider,” said Paul Casey of a March date. But when pressed as to whether that would make the course a better test: “No, just makes it a little easier because it’s wider and you can throw darts.”

Firm and fast was among the primary selling points to move the event to the warmer confines of May - highs this week at TPC Sawgrass will hover around the 90-degree mark - but that hasn’t necessarily translated into a better test.

“It’s a better test [in May], but the over-seed is a great test,” Casey added, before mulling the question for a few moments. “Yeah, let’s go back to March.”

In this case, “better” seems to mean harder. In the 10 years before the event moved to May in ’07, the scoring average was 73.483, almost a stroke higher than it has played the last decade in May (72.504), and the average winning score in May over that same span is 12.3 under par compared to 11.3 under in March.

“The best player is still going to win, but it’s a more challenging test in March than it is in May, because of the weather,” Horschel said.

There is no shortage of reasons to move The Players back to March, solidifying the Florida swing being among the more understated opportunities, but whether it’s a better event in March than May depends on who you ask, and what year it is.

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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.



FALLING

Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”


Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)


Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

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McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

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Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.