“The bigger reasons had to do with weather, daylight, the ability to have drier conditions, get the golf course set up the way we want to.”
-Tim Finchem, former PGA Tour commissioner, January 2006
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – For a generation of PGA Tour players the message remained unchanged – The Players was better when played in May.
When then-commissioner Finchem announced the move of the circuit’s flagship event from March to May beginning in 2007, the PowerPoint presentation was always the same. The event would fit more seamlessly into the golf calendar, the fan experience would be enhanced, more daylight would provide greater flexibility in the schedule and - most importantly - the warm and dry days of May would allow the Stadium Course to be its best self.
With hindsight as the undisputed scorecard, the Tour’s decision to pivot back to March, the event’s traditional landing spot since 1976 didn’t need any bullet points. The relocation was a scheduling necessity, end of list.
With the ultimate goal of ending the season before football relegated every other sport to white noise, the Tour had to dramatically overhaul its schedule. The PGA Championship moved to May which required The Players to slide back to March, and officials trimmed a playoff event from the lineup to complete the nip and tuck.
Condensed, clean and uncluttered.
It had to be done, but that’s not to say The Players relocation isn’t something of a mid-major mulligan. Although Finchem spent a decade on his soapbox telling anyone who would listen that a May Players was superior to a March Players, history and retrospect suggest otherwise.
“I never really felt like they got a great handle on setting the course up the way they should have in the May date,” said Adam Scott, a March (2004) winner of The Players. “I felt like they should have taken more rough away and really gone to let the ball run and run into the trees and the pine straw, run further off greens, and play it really firm and fast.”
Critiques of golf courses by touring professionals are always relative. There’s a reason why Baskin-Robbins went with 21 flavors. Not everyone likes vanilla and not every player relishes Bermuda rough and hard and fast fairways.
Nor is this a question of whether the Stadium will play easier this week than it did in May.
“I think it’s a wash,” said Jim Furyk, who is something of the mayor of TPC Sawgrass. “The rye [rough] has a chance to play a little softer and gentler but also in March it has a chance to play a little tougher with the forecast for the weekend with a north wind. That’s the more difficult wind.”
Statistically, the May Players is the more user-friendly version, with an average winning score of 12.5 under par compared to 11.3 under for the 12 years prior to the move, but anecdotally it seems players prefer the lush, over-seeded setup.
Count Vaughn Taylor squarely in the March camp, but then given his record in May that’s no big surprise. In his first two starts at The Players, Taylor finished tied for 32nd and eighth (2005 and ’06). Following the move to May he was 0-for-8 in cuts made.
“I think in May the greens have been firmer and faster and my swing was kind of in shambles for a while there. I just couldn’t keep it in play and hit it in the rough too much,” Taylor said. “The course this time of year is much more playable.”
Playable is often code for “easier,” but that depends on the weather and this week’s forecast, which calls for colder and windier conditions on the weekend. The March model may be easier on the eyes but that doesn’t necessarily translate to lower scores.
“The last hole last year I hit 3-iron, 9-iron. Today it was 3-wood and a 3-iron. So a little bit different,” figured Tiger Woods, the only player to have won the event in both March (2001) and May (’13).
Every player told a similar tale.
“The last few years on No. 5 we’ve been hitting 3-wood, 8-iron,” said Billy Horschel, who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach. “When I play any other time of the year I’m hitting driver and maybe a 6-iron or 5-iron. It’s going to be completely different. How long the course is going to play is going to shock some people.”
And Scott added: “I hit a 5-iron into the first hole, and I haven't hit anything but a 9-iron or a wedge in there for 12 years.”
The real tell will come when players arrive at the iconic 17th tee. In May the predominant winds from the south meant that No. 17, and the 18th hole, played downwind, but with the northern winds that are forecasted this weekend mean the closing stretch will become much more daunting.
This week, Woods recalled having to hit 6-iron into the par-3 17th hole when it was played in March. It was a notion players who have only played the event in May find strangely intriguing, like skydiving or eating gas station sushi.
“6-iron, 5-iron, if Tiger is hitting that it must have been blowing pretty good,” said Troy Merritt, who has never played a March Players. “It’s a much dicier hole with that wind.”
Finchem wasn’t wrong when he embraced the friendly confines of May. In theory, the course should have presented an empty canvas primed for championship conditions, although officials never seemed to find the balance between crusty and contrived. But then the scheduled condensed, the landscape changed and continuity outweighed championship management.
“The reason that we're in March is because when you look at the global competitive sports calendar, we felt this was a very strong position and an opportunity for more fans to follow and engage the players and the PGA Tour earlier in the season,” said Jay Monahan, Finchem’s successor as PGA Tour commissioner.
Whether The Players should be held in March or May isn’t really up for discussion – it had to move. What is open to debate is whether the event is better in March than it was in May and only time will provide that answer.