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Would move back to March actually improve Players?

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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.