Cracking Sawgrass: Leading contenders discuss how the date change alters THE PLAYERS Championship

What did the field make of course conditions when the last edition of THE PLAYERS Championship returned to a March slot in the calendar?

Until 2006 the PGA Tour's annual visit to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was an early spring event, taking place in late March.

In a quest for warmer temperatures and better conditions the tournament moved to May from 2007 until 2018.

It wasn't a failed experiment but, when the PGA Championship re-located to May, something had to give and THE PLAYERS Championship returned to steal a March on the other Majors (the tournament likes to fashion itself as "the fifth Major").

Twelve months ago we witnessed a) only one round before Covid prompted a cancellation, and b) a lot of talk about how the Pete Dye-designed course had played differently in March 2019 compared to the previous 12 Mays.

A key element of this is revealed on and around the greens because the staff have overseeded the Bermuda grass with Rye grass to produce a lusher, greener surface.

Let's take a look at what the leading contenders made of the move and consider who their conclusions might favour.

Rory McIlroy on "wider" fairways and fairer grass around the greens:

"For me, the two big things to note were: off the tee, a lot longer in March so I was able to hit driver a lot more. The fairways are softer so it plays a touch wider.

"And two, with rough overseeded around the greens, that was big thing for me because I've always been more comfortable chipping out of that sort of rough. In May, it was sort of a hit and hope, guessing games around the greens.

"I said it about Jason Day. He's got a wonderful short game and he can actually show it in March whereas in May it's a leveller of everyone."

McIlroy on learning to love Pete Dye designs:

"So the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits was when I turned a corner. I turned up there and I hated it. I really did not like it. I had to tell myself, 'Just get your head around liking this place for one week and embrace that it's visually a little funky and whatever.'

"I finished one shot out of a playoff and, going on from there, I've won at (Dye-designed) Kiawah Island, Crooked Stick and here. I've started to quite like them.

"But they're an acquired taste, like beer when you're younger. You sort of don't like it but then you think it's cool to drink it and then you sort of acquire a taste for it."

Dustin Johnson on his struggles with the course in May:

"I like playing it overseeded and it's going to look a lot better on TV. It also plays a little bit better because it's softer and longer. You've got to hit really good golf shots.

"I've always struggled around here because it played really fast and firm. Now it's definitely a lot more receptive, but it's still going to play difficult.

"Why did I struggle? Just couldn't ever get anything going. I struggled to read the greens, struggled judging the distance, the ball was going miles and would never stop in the fairways.

"I felt like good shots weren't always rewarded. It was frustrating."

Adam Scott on Sawgrass strategy:

"Drives are really not running at all in March. So, holes like the 14th and 16th, the ball doesn't run down near any of the trouble, but it's leaving us much longer second shots, which is more difficult.

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"I think it's a good strategic golf course, I really do. I don't think you can overpower the course and I don't think you can play out of the rough all week and do well."

Justin Thomas on the highs and lows at Sawgrass:

"It's a place I love. I love the golf course. It's just a very well-designed course, tee to green, forces you to work it both ways off the tee and into the green,

"It rewards good golf and penalizes bad golf. Those days where I had some high numbers, I was not playing well and I didn't really have any control of my ball.

"If you get the ball in the fairway you have a lot of wedges and 9-irons. It's a place where you can get it going, you just kind of have to stay patient and wait for your spots."

Webb Simpson on the difficulty of defending a lead:

"The finishing holes - it's one of those courses where you feel so uncomfortable and unconfident with a one shot lead or even a two shot lead even with a few to go. Other places you can put it on cruise control, but so much can happen here on 16, 17, 18. A lot of fireworks.

"Even in 2018 when I had a big lead, I really didn't feel comfortable until I hit it on the green on 17. You're not really thinking bad thoughts, but you're thinking you've seen guys hit it in the water and make a mess out of it."

Rickie Fowler, however, takes a very different view:

"The golf course, if you look at it properly, it's fairly straightforward. Hit it in the fairway, hit it on the green, wear out the fairways and greens."

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Conclusions:

It's often said that players hit from the same spots at Sawgrass, that hints at approach play being key and Scott's assertion that approach shots are now longer backs that up.

McIlroy hints that excellent scramblers will now be rewarded.

Only two men are currently in the top 25 for Strokes Gained Approach and Around the Green, and both are long from the tee.

Dustin Johnson is one and Justin Thomas the other. They're priced 11/1 and 16/1 with Paddy Power.

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