Sobel: Why You Shouldn’t Treat the Players Championship Like a Major

Sobel: Why You Shouldn’t Treat the Players Championship Like a Major article feature image

Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

The Highlights

  • This isn’t a major and players don’t treat it like a major. So don’t bet it like a major.
  • Don’t go too deep on the previous results.
  • The longer hitters still own an advantage.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — I went to dinner Tuesday night with, among others, two PGA Tour members who are in this week’s Players Championship field. Here’s everything I learned during our meal about this edition of the tournament and the course setup: ____________________

That’s right … nothing.

Over the course of two hours, none of that ever came up in the conversation. We talked a little golf, sure. And lots of other things. But never did we get into any nitty-gritty details about this event.

Moral of the story? (No, it’s not that I failed to do my due diligence as a reporter, but hey, thanks for the suggestion.) Some people still lobby for this tournament to be on level footing with the four major championships — including Jordan Spieth, who’s stated this position multiple times this week. But here’s the reality: You don’t have Tuesday dinner with two pros before the Masters or U.S. Open and never wind up speaking about Augusta National or Shinnecock. During major weeks, the tourneys and the venues are in the forefront of players’ minds, constantly permeating their thoughts and conversations.

This week? Not so much.

Now, there are about 100 better reasons that keep The Players from being considered a major championship, but this dinner-related evidence should help the argument.

All of which leads to one important conclusion for our purposes: This isn’t a major, so don’t bet it like a major.

Even though seven of the past 10 winners at TPC Sawgrass are major champions, the leaderboard at this tournament more often resembles other PGA Tour events than majors.

The competitors don’t treat this week any differently than other weeks. Other than locals, they don’t make scouting trips to see the course weeks in advance. Most stay in hotels rather than houses. Some have swing coaches and short-game wizards and mental gurus on hand, but certainly not as many as they would during a major championship week.

Don’t get me wrong. They players still care about this one. They still want to win it — and receive all of the lofty accolades that it brings. But they don’t treat it like a major.

Neither should you.


Leveling the field

In between explaining his record at The Players and relaying a fun anecdote about caddie Joe LaCava teasing him for trailing Fred Couples’ win total before capturing the TPC for the second time in 2013, Tiger Woods made an incredibly salient point about TPC Sawgrass.

“This golf course negates a lot of different things,” Woods explained. “We’re all playing from basically the same spots off the tees with our approach shots.”

That’s such a strong observation from Tiger. But it doesn’t necessarily mean everything is negated. Think about it: If all players are trying to hit the ball into the fairway, say, 290 yards from the tee, the longer hitters might hit 3-wood (or even … gulp … a long iron), whereas the shorter hitters will need driver. Would you rather pick a guy hitting driver into the fairway or 3-wood? Yup, 3-wood every time. So yes, the longer hitters still own an advantage.

Tiger off the first tee

(There’s also one that asks: “Will Tiger Woods shoot an eagle in the first round?” To which one can only answer: For the sake of America, let’s hope not.)

We all know Woods has struggled with opening tee shots over the years, often pushing or pulling his drive so poorly that he can’t recover for par.

The first hole at TPC Sawgrass, however — and yes, he’s teeing off the first on Thursday afternoon, not the 10th — is a 399-yard hole that shouldn’t be more than a 2-iron off the tee.

Obviously, it’s never a given that he can find the short stuff, even with a 2-iron, but I love the “yes” option at -150.


Life’s a beach 

Rory McIlroy admittedly didn’t like this tournament very much early in his career, but now insists he’s grown to like it a lot.

On Wednesday, I asked him about the evolution of this opinion and why he’s changed his mind.

I never expected the answer he gave — but I loved it.

“I started staying on the beach a few years ago,” he replied. “That’s made the event a lot more enjoyable. … I stayed pretty much on property there at that hotel, and I just felt like I couldn’t get away from it, and it’s busy and there’s a lot of people. To go and stay on the beach now, it’s a nice sort of release from everything that’s going on around the event. So I actually put a lot of it down to that.”

That’s brilliant. I love it for a few reasons.

First of all, I know exactly what he means. Not that anyone cares about my enjoyment level at a specific tournament, but I literally started staying at the beach for this event about a decade ago, and the ability to return to the room, sit on the balcony and stare out at the waves for a few minutes can transform your entire disposition.

Secondly, I love it because it’s completely unquantifiable. There’s no statistical metric that can account for McIlroy’s increased enjoyment here. It’s not like they started contouring the fairways and greens to his specific approval or gave him only the most plum tee times. He likes this event more now, because experience helped him figure out how and why he’d like it more.

Too often we simply examine the numbers, but this is a great reminder that there are often important variables that have nothing to do with analytics.

Seven-year sitch

If you’re digging deep into the archives to cull Players Championship leaderboards from years gone by, here’s a suggestion: Don’t go too deep.

As you’ll recall, this event moved from March to May seven years ago. The result is that we have much warmer temperatures and, accordingly, a faster and firmer golf course.

So if you’re picking a guy such as Adam Scott or Henrik Stenson specifically only because they’ve won here before, that’s a poor evaluation, since they each won on a completely different golf course. (Full disclosure: I still like Stenson this week, as he’s played well here since the move to later on the calendar.)

That leads to another suggestion to file away for next year: Don’t go too deep on the previous results.

With the PGA Championship moving to May for 2019 and beyond, The Players will move back to its previous March date — which means colder temperatures, a softer course and a potentially much different leaderboard.