The conversation about the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, the venue of the Players Championship, tends to revolve around a few well-worn observations. Pundits often mention its difficulty, its use of visual intimidation, and the dramatics of the island 17th green. Lately, though, I’ve noticed another assertion about TPC Sawgrass becoming more and more popular: that the course produces random outcomes.
Every PGA Tour leaderboard reflects an element of randomness. But from my perspective, attributing players’ results at Sawgrass to randomness is incomplete. Imagine if every tour event were hosted at the same golf course—except for one tournament held at a wildly different type of venue. The results at the unique course might strike many people as random. In a similar way, I think we tend to conflate randomness with difference at TPC Sawgrass. Sure, randomness exists, which past leaderboards reflect. But it is also just a different test, which past leaderboards also reflect.
Here I will dissect two specific factors that contribute toward both the tournament’s randomness and how it rewards different skill sets: 1) penalty hazards and 2) distinct features of the course that differentiate it from the standard PGA Tour venue.
People are quick to note that golfers have a low course-fit factor at the Stadium Course. To phrase it a bit less technically, the argument is that not many players are “horses for the course” at TPC Sawgrass. As supporting evidence, commentators note that no one has won the Players twice in the past 20 years.
This is due, in part, to the prevalence of water hazards at Sawgrass. Few courses on the PGA Tour have as much water as the Stadium Course does. Nearly every hole on the back nine has water in play.
Penalty hazards create variance.
Think about the scoring dynamics at the par-3 17th hole, the famous island green. Over the past few years, about 10% of tee shots have found the water on 17, a high percentage by tour standards. Yet over 90% of shots that find the green result in a score of par or better. So you’ll see plenty of pars or better, but you’ll also see some triple bogeys. It’s a boom-or-bust hole.
The 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. Photo: Andy Johnson
The tee shot on No. 17 can be compared to a three-point shot in the NBA. When a shooter makes a three, the offensive team scores three points. When the shooter misses, the offense earns zero points. Teams do not receive one point for hitting the rim; it’s all or nothing. And since NBA players make roughly one out of three shots from behind the three-point line, three-pointers are high-variance shots. Boom or bust.
While that example may seem a bit out of left field, I think it’s appropriate for the 17th hole at the Stadium Course. On most other par 3s, golfers actually do earn a point for “hitting the rim.” Coming up short of the target might result in a green-side bunker shot, which typically offers an opportunity to save par or escape with bogey at worst. But on 17 at Sawgrass, there are no points for hitting the rim. Either execute the shot or head to the drop zone.
Wind also plays a major role on the 17th hole. Player A may catch a gust and watch his ball trickle into the water by a slim margin; player B may tee off 30 seconds later, when the wind has died down, and hit an identical shot that stays dry.
Penalty hazards create variance.
In addition to its prevalence of water hazards, TPC Sawgrass is unique among tour courses for how harshly it penalizes wayward drives.
The Stadium Course, in this regard, presents a much different off-the-tee test than, say, the South Course at Torrey Pines does. At Torrey, there is only a minor advantage (~0.05 strokes) to missing the fairway by a few yards versus missing it by a wide margin. At TPC Sawgrass, there is a large distinction—more than 0.25 strokes—between small and big misses off the tee. Seriously wayward drives find trees or water at Sawgrass, so precision is a requirement.
Likewise, precision is demanded on approach shots. Because of penal bunkering and severe green contouring, errant approaches meet a more brutal fate than is ordinary on tour.
Consider No. 4 at the Stadium Course. Although it measures under 400 yards, it is consistently one of the more difficult holes on the golf course. Part of this difficulty comes from a set of undulations running through the middle of the green. These contours can funnel accurate approaches toward the hole, but they can also propel less accurate shots away, leaving players with incredibly challenging lag putts.
Below are the approaches into the fourth hole from the first round of the 2021 Players Championship. I’ve drawn an orange line to indicate the location of the separating contours. The “x” indicates that day’s pin position.
As you can see, many players who find the opposite side of the green from this hole location walk off No. 4 with a bogey. The target—the left side of the green—is small, requiring a precise approach for a scorable opportunity. The demand for an accurate second shot puts pressure on the tee shot. I, for one, would not enjoy facing the approach to the fourth green from the rough or the bunker on the right. Nor would I want to attempt the approach with a mid-iron; I’d much prefer to have a wedge in my hands. So it’s important not only to find this fairway, but also to find it with a driver or fairway wood.
But, as this overhead view shows, hitting the fairway with a high-dispersion club on No. 4 is no easy task.
The 4th hole at TPC Sawgrass (Google Earth)
With precision at such a premium, this hole should allow exceptionally accurate ball-strikers like Collin Morikawa to differentiate themselves from the field.
From Thursday to Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, you’ll see precision rewarded and wayward drives punished. You’ll also see some frustration and despondent walks to drop zones.
But on Sunday evening, someone is going to hoist the trophy, and attributing this player’s victory to randomness would be lazy. The Players Championship may not yield the most predictable leaderboard, but it crowns a worthy champion.