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How difficult is it to win in your first start at TPC Sawgrass?

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Winning a golf tournament the first time you play in it is a storyline often brought up during the Masters. Should it also be a storyline at this week’s Players Championship? 

We raise the question primarily because of the success that Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Victor Hovland have had on the PGA Tour since they turned professional last summer.

The three young Tour winners are grouped together in their maiden starts at TPC Sawgrass and if one lifts the gold trophy on Sunday, he will have added to history.

Excluding 1982, which was the first year the tournament was held at this venue, only two pros have won The Players Championship in his first attempt on the Stadium Course: Hal Sutton in 1983 and Craig Perks in 2002. That’s two first-time winners in 37 years.

That’s not a surprise. The Stadium Course is a difficult test for any players in the field, let alone a first-timer. Andrew Putnam, who missed the cut as a 2019 rookie, had this to say prior to his first Players: “The Stadium Course is visually intimidating. Sometimes the visual makes you swing away from the hazards and everything, but you just got to be committed to your lines and really have a good game plan.”

Look through history: Par-3 17th at TPC Sawgrass

Click through images that show the history of the iconic Par-3 17th on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

There’s a learning curve involved in playing at a time-tested venue, where the rest of the field has already learned valuable lessons. Tommy Fleetwood, who was T-41 as a Players rookie in 2017, said that his education involved where to land the ball on his approach shots. “The greens are pretty firm, and there's a few run-offs, so you do have to do a bit more short-game [practice] around the greens, find a few misses, find where you can't go, find where you can go, and just get comfortable with some shots. “

The Players Championship: Full-field tee times | Full coverage

Mackenzie Hughes shot 67 in his first round at The Players in 2017 and said later that the course kept him on his toes all day. “There's just not really a moment where you can let up,” he said. “It's so subtle, so tricky. There were so many shots in my group [that] looked like close to being perfect and then they'd just kind of roll off the green at the last minute.”

But the biggest reason winning The Players in your debut is so difficult is because it’s hard to win any long-standing event in your first try. As much as Putnam, Fleetwood, or Hughes might protest, The Players Championship has nothing on the Tour’s other venerable tournaments.

Other than The Players, 11 full-field events on the PGA Tour have been hosted by the same course since the 1980s. Here’s how those events fare when it comes to identifying a first-time winner:

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Sony Open – Russell Henley, in 2013, was the only player this century to win at Waialae CC in his first appearance. Prior to Henley, the last debutant to win in Honolulu was Bruce Lietzke in 1977.

Farmers Insurance Open – Jon Rahm, in 2017, is the only player to win at Torrey Pines South in his first attempt (excluding, of course, Tom Weiskopf, who won the first year the tournament was held at Torrey Pines in 1968). Prior to Rahm, the last man to win the tournament in his first try was Arnold Palmer in 1957 at Mission Valley.

Waste Management Phoenix Open – J.B. Holmes ,in 2006; Kyle Stanley, in 2012; and Brooks Koepka, in 2015, are the only first-timers to win at TPC Scottsdale this century.

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AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am – The last player to win in his tournament debut on the Monterey Peninsula was Brett Ogle in 1993.

Genesis Invitational – Adam Scott won in 2005, but the victory is unofficial because rain shortened the tournament to 36 holes. If you don’t count Scott – and the Tour doesn’t – you must go back to Pat Fitzsimons victory in 1975 to find a player who won in his first try at Riviera.

Arnold Palmer Invitational – Robert Gamez, in 1990, is the most recent player to win the  championship at Bay Hill in his debut.

The Masters – Not including the inaugural Masters in 1934, only Gene Sarazen, in 1935, and Fuzzy Zoeller, in 1979, have won at Augusta National in their initial attempt at the only major that is played on the same course every year.

RBC Heritage – Hilton Head has produced five debut winners since 2000, the most of any tournament on the list. They were Stewart Cink, in 2000; Jose Coceres, in 2001; Boo Weekley, in 2007; Wesley Bryan, in 2017; and Satoshi Kodaira, in 2018.

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Charles Schwab Challenge – Sergio Garcia, in 2001, is the most recent first-timer to win at Colonial.

Memorial Tournament – Hideki Matsuyama, in 2014, is the only player to win at Muirfield Village in his first try. That’s not including Roger Maltbie, of course, who won the inaugural Memorial in 1976.

The Travelers Championship – TPC River Highlands has hosted this event in Connecticut since 1984 and discounting that season, only Phil Blackmar, in 1985, and Jordan Spieth, in 2017, won in their debut.