Maintenance workers at TPC Sawgrass head out for afternoon rounds March 12 in advance of The Players, which will be contested March 14-17. A police escort was already on-site because of heavy spectator traffic. Photo by Scott Hollister
TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., has played host to The Players Championship every year since 1982 — 37 tournaments in all. The senior management team in the club’s agronomy department — director of golf course operations Jeff Plotts, assistant director of golf course operations Lucas Andrews, and Stadium Course superintendent Kyle Elliott — has years of combined experience at the north Florida layout and in preparing for professional events.
Yet as preparations for the 2019 edition of The Players began in earnest, all three will tell you that, in many ways, it felt like they were starting from scratch.
Attribute that sentiment to the change in the event’s dates. The previous 11 Players were held in mid-May on bermudagrass playing surfaces. To accommodate broader adjustments to golf’s tournament calendar that are debuting this year, the 2019 Players was moved to mid-March, with Sawgrass showcasing wall-to-wall overseeded playing surfaces (a Poa trivialis/velvet bentgrass blend on greens, and Champion fine ryegrass on fairways, roughs and tees).
Learn more about TPC Sawgrass and go behind the scenes of prep for The Players with GCSAA TV:
Contesting The Players in March isn’t exactly a new idea — the tournament had been played in March for 24 years until it was moved to May in 2007. And it’s not like the aforementioned trio hasn’t managed this property in the month of March with overseeded surfaces before. They didn’t come into tournament week completely blind.
But it is new, it is slightly uncomfortable, and a lot of past experiences and lessons simply don’t apply this time around. As a result, this week’s Players might be one of the most obsessively measured and recorded professional golf events ever, at least from a maintenance perspective.
“We’re really recording and tracking just about everything,” says Andrews, an eight-year GCSAA member. “We’re all carrying notebooks, using our phones to document things we liked, things we didn’t like, things we didn’t think would work but did, and things we thought for sure would work that just didn’t.
“I can guarantee you that this year’s tournament is going to be great, but next year will be that much better. And we’ll just keep improving year after year as we learn more.”
Elliott, a two-year GCSAA member, says the process of tracking and analyzing what the maintenance team has been doing actually began last March. “A lot of our focus at this time last year was on evaluating what it was going to be like during overseed, how that would impact tournament prep, how it differed from our usual day-to-day prep at this time of year,” he says. “We had a pretty big event last year at about this time, and we took really detailed notes to help get us started as we headed into this year’s Players.
“We didn’t want to miss anything, to forget anything as we head into the future. The conditions you see out there now are because we did this work in advance, we paid attention, and we learned things.”
Take a look inside maintenance facility operations at TPC Sawgrass leading up to this year’s Players Championship:
Mowing heights, clipping rates, moisture levels, firmness, green speeds — heck, even how much debris the trees and flowering plants around the course are producing — are all being tracked with an eye on how best to refine them going forward.
The biggest focus might be on the roughs, both for the future and for this week. Overseeded rough presents completely different challenges than bermudagrass does, from both a maintenance and a playing standpoint. Because of that, Andrews says all rough areas were mowed last weekend — some 50 acres in all — and that in-play rough areas will likely get one more cut prior to the start of play on Thursday.
“From the day the overseed went down until the final putt drops on Sunday, we’re going to be measuring and evaluating things so we can make sure that in the future, we have everything right where we want it to be,” Andrews says.
Scott Hollister is GCM’s editor-in-chief.