PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The ides of March are upon us, and so is the return of the Players Championship to March for the first time since 2006.
It's been 12 hot, humid years of players shooting sizzling-low scores (six 63s posted in May compared to none in March) at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in May. One of the best moves involving the PGA Tour's revamped, condensed schedule aimed at crowning a FedEx Cup champion before Labor Day and avoiding conflicts with pro and college football has to be making the Players strategically positioned as the first significant event of the year.
Count Vijay Singh, who recently settled his lawsuit with the PGA Tour, among those who celebrated this decision (“In the news,” Nov. 21). Singh, 56, won the 2018 Senior Players Championship last year to earn a spot in the field for his 25th start in golf's unofficial fifth major (tee times).
"I was always wanting to play back in March," said Singh, who finished second here in 2001. "To know that the tournament was coming back here and I wasn't going to play that much on the regular Tour last year, so I said, for me to get through would be to win, and my goal that week was to win, and fortunately I did."
This week is more than a home game for Singh. The range at TPC Sawgrass should be his permanent mailing address. One of golf's all-time range rats, Singh has worn out grooves almost as fast as Cleveland, his longtime endorser, could mill them. When asked how many bags of balls he would have hit 20 years ago, he said he would beat them until he was ready.
"It could be five bags, 10 bags, I don't know," Singh said. "But I like practicing."
Cancel the contest for understatement of the year, because we have a winner. But there is a hint of truth when Singh says he never really plays the course.
"When I come here, I'm at the back of the range. The golf course is always pretty full," he said, noting he has played just one round at TPC Sawgrass this year.
But Singh knows the golf course – to borrow a phrase made famous here by Gary Koch – "better than most," and he's one of only 23 players in the field this week with Players experience in March. When he says the course will play longer under cooler, more blustery conditions, you can believe him. He noted that when the tournament was held in May, he hit 3-wood and 7-iron to the par-4 seventh hole, measuring 451 yards.
"Yesterday," he said, "I played with Martin Kaymer, and we both hit driver, 5-iron."
When Jason Day won in May 2016, he bludgeoned the course to death with 2 irons off the tee. But he may have to unsheath his head covers this go-round, with winds expected to be out of the north-northeast and turning the famed 137-yard 17th-hole island green from a flip wedge to 8-, 9-iron and possibly more.
"I've been between 6-iron and 5-iron on 17 to hit the shot; not too many people can say that, unless they've played in March," said Tiger Woods, the only player to win the title in March and May. "That course is one of the hardest you can play when the wind is swirling around there."
For the first time in 14 years, the course has been overseeded with ryegrass, and it will make the course play slower. It is a vibrant shade of green. So long to firm, fast and bouncy.
"I've never seen that much grass on the golf course, so lush, so perfect as it is right now," Singh said.
David Duval, an NBC/Golf Channel analyst and the 1999 Players champion, applauded the wall-to-wall overseed of the Stadium Course and said that it didn't look right to him in May.
"It puts the control back in the superintendent’s hands and the PGA Tour staff’s hands," he said. "And it asks these players to do exactly what this golf course wants them to do. And that’s not necessarily just brute strength and force, but think your way around and figure out how to shoot a score.”
Interestingly, the average winning score in the 12 years that the Players was held in May was 12 under, the same as the previous 12 years in March. The rough is cut to only 2½ inches compared to 4 inches before 2007, and the greens are soft and receptive. That led Mark McCumber, the 1988 champion, to suggest that the setup is designed so as not to ruffle any feathers in the return to March.
It is a setup that has Singh believing he still can win here. Though he's beginning to shift his emphasis to the Champions Tour – "When I started playing there, I don't want to come back here," he said – Singh re-hired his former trainer Jeff Fronk, who started treating him "like I was still 30." Clips of his 60-120-minute workouts posted by his son, Qass, went viral on social media.
"He's taken over and he said, 'I want to promote you the right way,' and he's done a good job so far," Singh said.
The hard work has paid off. Two weeks ago, Singh played in the final group at the Honda Classic, boosting his confidence that he could become the Tour's oldest winner.
"I got my juices flowing again, and I felt like I had a chance to win," he said. "And I feel like I can do it over here."
What makes Singh so confident that he can march to victory in March?
"The golf course does not require 340-yard drives every hole," he said. "You still have to drive it pretty straight here, and if Fred Funk [the 2005 champion] can win here, then obviously anybody that's not a long hitter can, too. So, I like my chances."
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak