Look for another close finish at TPC Sawgrass

May, 6, 2009
05/06/09
7:19
AM ET

The PGA Tour travels this week to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., for golf's "fifth major" -- The Players Championship. Pete Dye's TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course is one of golf's most recognized venues, highlighted by the 137-yard par-3 17th hole and its knee-knocking island green. This week the stats blog looks deeper into the recent ballstriking trends of the champions and profiles the infamous 17th hole.

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Dye created TPC Sawgrass with a few key directives: challenge the world's finest players as the permanent home of The Players Championship, make it the first "stadium course" with the spectators in mind, and create a venue that favors no particular style of player.

TPC Sawgrass features a good mix of dogleg rights and lefts, as well as a variety of short, medium and long par-3s, par-4s and par-5s. There are no two consecutive holes that play in the same direction. Dye made significant efforts to create a challenging and balanced course. The result today is a 7,215-yard par-72 layout that plays like a major championship track.

Last year, TPC Sawgrass was the sixth most difficult scoring course out of 54 PGA Tour stops, behind Royal Birkdale (British Open), Oakland Hills (PGA Championship), Torrey Pines (U.S. Open), TPC Southwind and Muirfield Village.

For further evidence that this truly resembles a major championship, here are some numbers from the 35-year history of this event: 20 of its 29 champions have also won a major, no winner has managed to repeat and only five players have won the event multiple times, with Jack Nicklaus being the only three-time winner.

The other quality that defines this course is its true risk/reward nature. An excellent example of this is the 532-yard par-5 second hole. Since 2003, there have been 1,640 attempts to reach this green in two shots. Players going for this green average 4.52 strokes and are a combined 785 under par. In contrast, 1,001 players have laid up during this time, averaging 5.10 strokes and totaling 102 over par.

This risk/reward nature greatly contrasts the precision and control demanded off the tee. The course design challenges players to continually strategize, and leads to some great drama -- the tournament has been decided by 2 strokes or fewer on 23 occasions.

In the 27 years that The Players Championship has been held at TPC Sawgrass, the course has had a variety of champions with different strengths. That said, there have been some recent trends that strongly favor the ball strikers over the short-game wizards.

Three of the past four champions have led the field in both driving accuracy and greens hit (Sergio Garcia in 2008, Stephen Ames in 2006 and Fred Funk in 2005). In the past five years, only Phil Mickelson (2007) has managed to win without leading the field in GIR (24th).

Adam Scott also topped the field in GIR in 2004 to make four of the past five champions the leader in GIR. These champs (Garcia, Mickelson, Ames, Funk, Scott) were much less dominant in putting average, ranking T-69th, 22nd, T-13th, T-69th and T-50th respectively.

So short, yet so scary
Two more reasons for the close finishes and great drama here are the two closing holes. The 462-yard par-4 18th hole was the fourth most difficult on the PGA Tour last year out of 972. It averaged 4.52 strokes and yielded only 31 birdies last year, compared with 146 bogeys, 40 doubles and eight others.

No. 17: Total balls in the water by year

Year No. of balls
2003 29
2004 30
2005 67
2006 57
2007 93
2008 65

Since 2003, 13 percent of all tee shots have ended up in the water on No. 17. Of the 27 winners here, only two have made a bogey on the 17th hole on Sunday: Steve Elkington in 1991 and Funk in 2005. The others made 16 pars and nine birdies.

Par-3s with the most total balls in the water in 2008

Course Hole Total Yardage
TPC Southwind 11 74 157
PGA National 15 65 179
TPC Sawgrass 17 64 137
Quail Hollow Golf Club 17 57 217
TPC Southwind 14 52 239

TPC Sawgrass' 17th hole is at least 20 yards shorter than the other top five "most wet" par-3s. The average length of the other top five holes is 198 yards compared with TPC Sawgrass' 137 yards.

Waterlogged

Year All par-3s from 125 to 150 yards 17th at TPC Sawgrass
2003 2.96 3.04
2004 2.96 3.02
2005 3.00 3.21
2006 2.99 3.25
2007 2.99 3.38
2008 2.93 3.30 *
* TPC Sawgrass' 17th was the only par-3 in this distance range with an over-par average in 2008.

The field
The Players Championship features the finest players in all the world. Here are some of the numbers that emphasize the quality of the field this week:

• 10 of the top 10 in the world rankings
• 24 of the top 25 in the world rankings (minus Lee Westwood)
• 47 of the top 50 in the world rankings
• 96 of the top 100 on the 2008 FedEx Cup standings
• 103 of the top 125 on the 2009 FedEx Cup standings
• 102 players with PGA Tour victories
• Every winner on the PGA Tour dating back to the 2007 AT&T National
• 20 major champions with a collective 43 major titles

Notables
• Currently the No. 3-ranked player in the world, Garcia is looking to become the first repeat winner in Players Championship history. He has won seven times on the PGA Tour, including last year's playoff victory over journeyman Paul Goydos on the famous 17th hole. Last year's playoff ended what was the longest playoff drought on the PGA Tour.

The last playoff at The Players Championship came in 1987 when Sandy Lyle beat Jeff Sluman with a par on the third playoff hole. Garcia joined Lyle as the only European-born players to win The Players Championship.

• Mickelson looks to continue his momentum in 2009. The 2007 champion is currently ranked second in the 2009 FedEx Cup standings with 1,273 points. Mickelson, who has recorded two victories already this year, is the only player with two or more victories in each of the past six years. Mickelson now has 36 career victories on the PGA Tour.

Mickelson holds or shares several Players Championship scoring records:

• Low nine-hole score (back nine): 6-under 30, 1996, TPC Sawgrass, third round (nine-way tie)
• Low first-round score: 8-under 64, 2002, TPC Sawgrass (seven-way tie)
• Low third-round score: 8-under 64, 1996, TPC Sawgrass (four-way tie)

• Kenny Perry will be making his 21st career start at The Players Championship. He led through two rounds last year and trailed by 1 stroke entering the final round. A tough Sunday put him at T-15 for the week.

• Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and Funk are the three most recognizable Ponte Vedra Beach residents in the field. Funk has the best record at this event. Playing for the 19th consecutive time, the 2005 champion has made the cut in all but four tries at TPC Sawgrass, with six top-20 finishes. Furyk is competing in his 14th Players Championship, with his best finish a T-3 in 2006. Singh, the 2008 FedExCup champion, is playing for the 17th consecutive year.

• Rookie Jeff Klauk is one of 18 first-time participants, but he will most certainly get the lion's share of the attention. Klauk graduated from nearby Nease High School (as did Tim Tebow) and literally grew up at TPC Sawgrass, where his father, Fred, served as golf course superintendent for more than 25 years before retiring in 2008.

Fantasy foursomes
With this elite field, you have the unique opportunity to pick many of your favorite players, and a case can be made for any of the notables above. Focus on recent history, favor the ball strikers over the putters in your selection, and note that par-5 strategy and par-5 scoring will also play an important role.

Leaning on the major champions in the field is also a good way to go. Here are a couple possible rosters for this exciting week:

Tiger Woods: Who else? Tiger has not been able to get all elements of his game to click just yet. He admits his "struggles" here are because he hasn't hit it all that well, especially off the tee. Though he has never missed a cut here, he has gone a stretch of six consecutive events without a top-10 finish, dating back to his 2001 win. This is his longest streak at any single event without a win and it's due to be broken. Though the numbers may not be there for this one, leaving him out of your lineup is as scary as the tee shot on 17. Ration his starts here if you must, but he is due.

Paul Casey: The Brit finally notched his first PGA Tour win this year with his victory at the Shell Houston Open. Casey is hitting a respectable 67.4 percent of his greens this year and he ranks 12th in putting average. He has made all five of his cuts on the PGA Tour in 2009, including four top-25s.

Sean O'Hair: Coming off his third career PGA Tour victory at Quail Hollow last week, O'Hair has already passed his best year's earnings by a half million dollars and it's only May. He has an amazing eight finishes of T-13 or better in 10 starts. O'Hair ranks fifth in GIR, 12th in total driving and first in all-around ranking. O'Hair has had solid success on the par-5s here, including 2007 when he tied for third in par-5 scoring at 9 under par.

Brian Gay: He has played solid all year, including 10 out of 11 made cuts, six top-25s and a victory at the Verizon Heritage. Gay is the type of ball striker that should excel here, ranking second on tour in driving accuracy at 74.3 percent and 31st on tour in GIR at 67.8 percent. Gay is also fourth in scrambling and eighth in total putting.

Zach Johnson: Another great ball striker, Johnson ranks 14th on tour in driving accuracy and 12th in GIR. We know from his Masters victory he can be very patient and play the par-5s as 3-shot holes.

Tim Clark: It's only a matter of time before this South African picks up his first PGA Tour victory. He ranks fifth on tour in driving accuracy, 19th in GIR, tied for fifth in putting average and second in all-around ranking. In the 2007 Players Championship, he led the field in par-5 scoring at 12 under par. Clark has made eight of nine cuts in 2009, including six top-25s.

Henrik Stenson: The Swede has finished in the top 25 in all three of his starts here, including two top-10s. He has three top-three finishes worldwide this year, but has not played enough rounds to be officially ranked in the PGA Tour skill statistics.

Luke Donald: The Englishman's ballstriking numbers are not exceptional this year, but he is hitting a respectable 67.6 percent of his greens. He is third on tour in putting, but what stands out about Donald is his solid recent record here: T-27th, T-16th, MC and second. In his runner-up finish in 2005, he finished tied for second in par-5 scoring.

Send comments, suggestions and corrections to Nathan.J.Easler@espn.com. Information from the PGA Tour was used in this report.

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