We convened a special Players Champions Confidential roundtable of former Players champions like Greg Norman, Raymond Floyd, Adam Scott, Justin Leonard and others to talk about this year's tournament and whether they think the famous 17th hole is a gimmick or a work of genius. Special thanks to these gracious champions for their time. We hope you enjoy it.
1. Whose game suits the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and who’s your pick to win this year’s Players Championship?
Adam Scott, 2004 champion: TPC Sawgrass does not necessarily favor any style of game in particular. However, it does test every element of someone’s game, which is why it is such a great course. Graeme McDowell would be my pick.
Greg Norman, 1994 champion: To win at Sawgrass you really need to have your mental game in top gear and then hit the ball solidly, positioning it well off the tee, understanding where not to miss the greens, and then finally putt well with good speed. There can be only one favorite for this coming week, Adam Scott. Closely followed by McIlroy and Phil and Tiger. But then again, the Players often throws in a dark horse to keep us all on our toes.
Mark McCumber, 1988 champion: If I were betting my house, I would go with Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy. It’s a course that doesn’t favor any one player. I think it takes someone who drives it well, who is a good iron player because the greens aren’t overly large, and it tests you mentally—I wouldn’t say on the same level as the U.S. Open, but it tests you mentally because you’re going to go through a stretch where something isn’t quite right or where something funky happens, and you have to gut it out. That’s why I think we only have two winners (Tim Clark and Craig Perks) who had not won a PGA Tour event before. Most of the other players have won other tournaments, many of them majors. Tiger has won, but he hasn’t consistently played great there. I think if you’re off your game physically or mentally, it’s very hard to contend there.
Stephen Ames, 2006 champion: I think it rewards a guy who is a little more accurate off the tee. I’ve got to pick Tiger, but I know he doesn’t like TPC, even though he’s hitting it straighter than he’s ever hitting it before. I’ve still got to pick Tiger or even Rory.
Raymond Floyd, 1981 champion: To be honest, I don’t follow golf that closely anymore. I’m not even sure when the Players is. But I think you have to look at how a guy has been playing going in. I’d go back and check the money list. There are some guys who play well no matter what — a certain course just fits their attitude — so I’d see who they might be.
Justin Leonard, 1998 champion: I think Brandt Snedeker would have a good chance this year with as well as he’s playing. Obviously, he’s hitting the ball really well so far. I don’t think there is a formula to winning there. There are all kinds of different types of players who win. Guys like myself and Stephens Ames, who hit it pretty straight and grind our way around. Phil’s won, Tiger’s won, Davis has won a couple of times — those are guys who can really get it out there and take advantage of the par 5s. I don’t know if there is a certain type of player who will win. I think that’s the great thing about the place. It identifies a guy who is playing really well that week. And there’s all kinds of players who can win that week.
K.J. Choi, 2011 champion: I feel that Tiger will win next week. Although he hasn't won the Players since 2001, he has been playing well and I feel that he may be due here.
Tom Kite, 1989 champion: I don’t get into picking. Leave that up to the media. On Tour, games change on such short notice. You go to the range Thursday morning and figure something out that’ll make all the difference. I enjoy watching to see who performs, not predicting who will win.
Henrik Stenson, 2009 champion: It is always ridiculously hard to pick winners in golf, and at TPC Sawgrass I do not think it is any easier. I guess at this point Adam [Scott] has to be a name to throw in the hat due to his form and confidence. Being a past champion at Sawgrass, he knows how to do it. (But hopefully so do I!)
Mark Hayes, 1977 champion: Always gotta look towards Tiger. He likes that course, and he’s playing well. If I had to pick, he’d be the guy.
Lanny Wadkins, 1979 champion: Haven’t even thought about it!
2. Where does the Players rank in importance for you?
Scott: The players recognize the significance of the event and we do view the Players as the fifth-best event. But it is still not a major.
McCumber: If you look at it through neutral eyes, how do you judge a tournament’s importance, through strength of field? It’s the strongest field every year, bar none. It’s the current, best, active players in the world, and it’s a full field. I think the course has proved to be a course that doesn’t favor one style of play. When Hogan won three majors, he didn’t even enter the PGA. So obviously, they weren’t thinking of majors the way we do now. I think this major thing really got started more in my lifetime, in the ’60s and ’70s when Jack came along wanting to outdo Bobby Jones. Is it a “major”? What certifies one? You guys probably have more to say about that than anybody. But you don’t get players skipping it. It was a big deal a couple of years again when Rory and Lee Westwood skipped it. I think it’s accepted as a tournament of major importance.
Choi: Many might say that the majors are the most important to them but the Players really has been the most important to me. When I first moved to the States, I made Jacksonville my first home and always wanted to win the Players.
Leonard: We don’t sit around and talk about it, but I think most players realize that winning the Players is just one tiny step below winning a major.
Kite: I never understood why there was such an adverse reaction to calling it a major, especially among the media, but among some players, too. You have a great field every year, and you play on a great golf course. Sawgrass has produced as wide a range of champions as any top tournament. It doesn’t favor any one type of player. You get long hitters, short hitters, wild drivers and straight ones. Since day one, it’s been like that. If it’s not considered a major, it sure looks like one.
Hayes: Most players think it should have been made a major a long time ago. That’s a leap, to make it the fifth major. But you’ve got the cream of the crop playing that week. The facilities are dynamite. I think the course is as good or better than any of them, except for Augusta. And you play it at the same place every year kind of like the Masters. I can say it’s as good a tournament as any of them, after the Masters. If they make a fifth, the Players would be the choice. It’s not up to me, though.
Norman: The Players may not be an official major, but it usually has one of the stronger and deeper fields of the year on a difficult Pete Dye golf course. So if you win the Players, you have really accomplished something. You have beaten the best players in the world on an extremely difficult golf course. It may not be a major, but that trophy sits very close to any of the four majors.
Wadkins: I think when I was playing I put it in the upper echelon—below the majors, but with Riviera and a few others on that next tier. At Riviera, it was mainly about the golf course. With the Players, it’s all about the quality of the field. And it’s our championship. It never felt like a major, but it’s almost there.
Floyd: It’s certainly not a major. I’d say it’s a rung under. As an American, I’d rate it above the World Golf Championships. But that’s just me.
Ames: If you really go back and look at it, the Players has a stronger field than the Masters. But you don’t get the same recognition for winning it because it’s not the Masters, it’s the Players Championship. But you get the same reward: a five-year exemption. For me, it was great. It wasn’t a major, but it gave me the same reward.
3. What’s your best memory from your win?
McCumber: I knew the course fairly well. I only played nine holes on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, I was out on the [practice] green, and Lee Trevino, who was the analyst, and Bob Goalby, who I knew from my early years, asked if I wanted to play nine holes and fill them in on some things they could use on their telecast since I was a local guy. I said, “Sure,” and shot 31. Lee said, “Kid, don’t get in your way this week.” And I kind of played that way. I’m walking up to the 18th green on Sunday, and I’m playing with the late, great Payne Stewart and David Frost. They had fallen back at that point, but I’m walking up to the green and I know I’ve won unless I break my leg and fall into the water. I look across the pond and see a sign, and it looks like a commercial artist did it. It wasn’t some family that had spray-painted it. There was a sign that was 10 feet long maybe on a canvas. And it said “Jacksonville’s Winner.” And emotionally it triggered a flood of tears of what it meant. The practical side of me said, “I can’t believe someone would do that, they didn’t even know I was going to win.” That was pretty nice of them.
Stenson: It was a great final-round 66 for me. I had my whole family there, which was great. We celebrated my dad’s 60th birthday that week. He said he could not have asked for a better birthday present, and I guess I can agree.
Wadkins: Back then, when we played at the old Sawgrass Country Club, I thought it was the hardest course I’d ever seen. The wind could be just brutal. The greens were tiny. If you miss a fairway, you’d be down with the snakes and gators. You could lose an arm and a leg in that rough. It took a lot of patience to win it, which was rare for me.
Leonard: The most memorable moment is probably that shot at 17. After watching Len Mattiace hit it in the water a couple of times, I stood up there with a 9-iron and hit it on the green. A sense of relief came from that. It’s something I will never forget.
Ames: The fun part was that I had a six-shot lead going into the last two holes, which was nice. It’s better than having one and trying to just get it in. In some respects, I was freewheeling it, which was good because those two last holes aren’t easy.
Choi: My best memory was my tee shot on the 17th in the final round. It was the most important shot of the tournament for me. If I hadn't made that birdie, I wouldn't have won the tournament.
Scott: The atmosphere of the 17th and 18th holes on Sunday certainly stuck with me.
Norman: Probably the disappointment of not going 72 holes that week without a bogey. My first bogey and only bogey came on the 13th hole on the final day. I would love to have that par putt back on the 13th green. It’s pretty rare to go bogey-free for an entire tournament. I had heard that Lee Trevino did it in 1974 in New Orleans, and I would have been the next player to do so, some 20 years later.
Hayes: I remember the wind at Sawgrass Country Club. The year I won we had what we called Black Friday. You had to tie your hat down. I was sharing a condo with Tom Kite that week, and on the second day I went out early and he went out late. I passed him on No. 1 when I was making the turn. I had played well on the front, which was brutal. I watched a couple of guys hit full shots off of up-slopes that couldn’t have gone more than 10 yards. So I wished him luck. I think he shot 85 that day. I lost four shots coming in and shot 74. That turned out to be a great score. Even though I’m an Oklahoma boy, I never liked the wind. But it helped me win. Winning the Players was a great gift. I played 10 years after that, on the exemption you got for winning. It relieved me from having to play every week. I was getting bored of that by then and was getting older. I had two boys, young ones, and I wanted to see them grow up a little bit. There’s nothing I’d want back. It really helped me, especially with my family, even if I couldn’t maintain that level of play afterward.
4. Is the par-3 17th a good hole or a gimmick?
Choi: It is a great hole. It may be short but there really is no room for error on that hole. Depending on the pin placement, you really don't have too big of an area to land the ball.
Stenson: It is the signature hole of the course, and I love it. I think it is great that the best players in the world can get nightmares over a wedge shot. I love short par 3s with lots of danger. You know you will get the reward if you hit a good shot and get penalized if you do not. I do not like the 229-yard par-3s that seem to be today’s fashion. I know it partly comes from a course owner telling the designer he wants an 8,000-yard championship course, which means you cannot have any short par 3s. But almost all of the world’s great par 3s are between wedge and 7-iron.
Hayes: Great hole. Mainly because of the way the wind blows through there. Guys are scared of it for a reason — you don’t have too many options. I hit maybe two balls in there. The back of the green is really flat, but you need height to get it to stay there. What people don’t realize is that the drop area is no piece of cake either. The sand under there makes the turf so tight, you can skull it as easy as you please.
Wadkins: I always liked 17. Very exciting hole. You need to have tunnel vision to play it. You need to look at the flagstick and nothing else. Start looking around and you start to see way too much for your own good. There’s a lot of water out there. I always tried to aim at the center of the green and work it toward the flag. I put it in the water a few times, but I think I played it pretty well over the years.
Floyd: Oh, it’s certainly not a gimmick. There’s plenty of room. At that length, the trick of the hole is the wind. It’ll switch on you, kinda like No. 12 at Augusta. They’re very comparable: You never know where the wind is, so you’re never sure of yourself.
Leonard: I think it can be a very difficult hole if the green is firm and the wind is blowing. I know I’d rather keep a 5-iron down that try and keep a wedge down out of the wind. It can be a very difficult hole. You can hit a pretty good shot and make a 5. Especially a couple of times when the greens had gotten really firm, and you land it on top and it keeps rolling back. I think those days are a little bit gone. I think they want the golf course to play fair. And they realize with the bermuda greens, that they don’t need them to get fast and firm for the course to play difficult.
Ames: I think it’s more gimmicky than anything else. I’ve actually played that hole very well in the past. I don’t remember too many times being in that water, I can only recall once.
Scott: The 17th hole, while a gimmick, it has become an iconic hole in the game of golf.
Norman: I like No. 17, and to be honest there would not be a player who does not feel the anxiousness in his stomach when he steps up to that that tee shot, especially when in contention to win on the final day. It certainly makes for some good TV. But we have to give the credit on that hole to Alice, not Pete. The island green at 17 was really her idea and it’s become one of the most famous par 3s in all of golf.
Kite: I think Pete may have gone over the edge on No. 17. Originally, the plan was not to make it an island. It was supposed to be a peninsula. But they found that the best sand on the course was on that spot, so the lake grew and grew. Eventually, they just made it an island. The way it turned out, it’s one of the most recognizable holes in golf. It does produce a lot of excitement, but it’s a little too black-and-white for me. I would have liked to see more room to bail out.
McCumber: I’ve gone around and around on that in my head and even had this discussion with Pete. At one time, I felt if I had built a course, say in Scottsdale, and I designed a 145-yard hole and put an out-of-bounds white line around the green and let everyone play it, it would be the same as playing No. 17 at TPC. Would that be a gimmick? Is that the way you want to design a hole? I’ve gone through periods where I think maybe it is gimmicky, but after all these years, I don’t think so. It’s just one of those holes where you can’t wait to get there.
5. Do you like Pete Dye designs and where does the Stadium Course rank against his other layouts?
Kite: I love Pete’s work. He’s by far the most innovative architect in the game. He’s able to produce golf courses that allow players to play to their strengths, while still demanding great shots. There are so many options on each hole. You have to play the angles. Has he gone over the edge? Yes. But when your goal is to challenge the best players in the world, you need to take it to the edge. In a major tournament, you need to push guys. Nobody wants to see 20- or 22-under win it. That’s not what tournament golf’s about. It’s about determining who the best player is in a given week, and Pete understands that.
Ames: I would definitely put it in the top of the class. That and Harbour Town. But at Harbour Town, he had Nicklaus helping him. Being a TPC and being where the Tour’s headquarters is, they’ve refined it over the years. They’ve softened it up, made it a lot easier and much more playable over the years. If it was left as it was, it probably was one of the worst. The grass is different now. It used to be overseeded, but now it’s all bermuda. I think it’s better now to be honest. It was so unpredictable in March. We played it and it was wet. I remember a couple of mud balls I got screwed on. But that’s going to happen. This time playing in May, maybe not this year, but in general, it’s going to be in great condition. And that’s why they moved it to May.
Hayes: Pete’s a fun guy to be around. He’s a comic figure—he thinks he knows everything. But I think sometimes he overdoes it, especially on the greens. He gets carried away with contours, tries to get too penal. For one, he hates the USGA and rails against the USGA’s green specs. But the problem is the greens don’t hold up. I live at Oak Tree in Oklahoma. There are five Dye courses here, and they’ve had to renovate all of them. When I got into course design, I asked someone in the business how long Dye’s greens last. He said, “They need to be renovated every 10 years.” Sometimes, Pete just throws stuff together, but he doesn’t like to be told what to do.
Norman: Pete is a master at his craft and the TPC at Sawgrass is right up there with some of his best work. Pete really makes you think your way around the golf course and use all 14 clubs in your bag. I am not ashamed to admit, I am a huge fan of Pete personally, along with his design work. I have collaborated with Pete on two projects, and they were both great learning experiences for me.
Floyd: In general, yes. I’m very in favor of Pete Dye, and all the work he did. Well, I always like Harbour Town the best. I thought that was a very good golf course. But Pete has done so many really, really good golf courses it’s hard to give them an order. I love the Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican. That’s terrific as well. He’s done so many good things, it’s hard to pick one against another.
Wadkins: I found it was an awkward course to play. You’re always hitting shots over trouble on these odd angles, which Pete Dye does on purpose. Generally, I like Pete’s courses. But anyone who has been as prolific as he has, or, say, Jack Nicklaus has—some courses will fit your eye, and others will just feel awkward, like Sawgrass did for me. With Pete, I like how he gets creative. That gives you a lot of options as a player. But in general, I don’t think there is a “typical course” on the PGA Tour, like some people say. They don’t just throw some holes in a field and send us after it. The quality is incredible. The only thing you know you’ll see week-to-week on Tour are greens running at 11.
Leonard: I look forward to Sawgrass. There’s a lot of strategy involved. It’s not all about putting the ball in the fairway. If you can get it to certain sides of the fairway, you give yourself more angles. Usually off the tee, the side that has more trouble on it, tends to have a better line into the green. So sometimes you have to take on those bunkers off the tee in order to give yourself a little better angle on your approach. I enjoy it. There were days and years when the rough was so deep that I felt like it worked against how the golf course was designed. But now that we play it in May and there is no overseed, we play the golf course more as it was intended to play.
Choi: I would say the Stadium Course is my favorite layout of out the Pete Dye courses. His layouts are always challenging, and you need to be able to control the ball and be very precise with your shots.
McCumber: He is a renaissance designer to me. He has built target golf. I think this is a perfect course for why it was built. It wasn’t built for the beginner to learn how to play. It was built for the greatest players in the world to test them. Pete is kind of the mad genius on knowing how to test players. It’s not unfair at all. He likes to mentally scare you. I think it’s one of the best products he’s put out among a prolific amount of designs. Also, I say that because I know how difficult the property was. There was no natural elevation change, it was very dense and he had to dry the site. It was quite an accomplishment. We had the construction contract to build the TPC. We worked on it for months and started constructing some of the moats around it. Then I got my card, and we ended up turning it over to one of our very qualified sub-contractors. I thought that I was a player, and I didn’t want to manage a construction job for the Tour while playing the Tour. They obviously did a great job with Pete’s direction.
Stenson: I played my first Players back in 2006 and really fell in love with the course. I guess that is also why I have had great results there. It is all there in front of you, and the "risk-reward” theme is something I really appreciate. As a player, you chose how aggressive or defensive you want to be and you will either pay the price for it or get the reward. More courses like that, please!