CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It will be cooler. It may not necessarily be wetter. It should be windier.
And it will remain firm and fast.
Such is the likely weather impact on THE PLAYERS Championship moving from its current month of May to March starting in 2019. The co-announcement by the PGA TOUR and PGA of America that the PGA Championship also will move from August to May.
That means the PGA will become the second major of the season while THE PLAYERS will kick off the string of big events that define the bulk of the TOUR season.
It also moves THE PLAYERS back to its previous position on the calendar as part of the Florida Swing. The TOUR’s signature event at TPC Sawgrass had been held in March until 2007 when it moved to May.
“For us to have THE PLAYERS in March, trying really to create a large platform for our FedExCup and our overall season, it just creates an energy at an important time of the year,” PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan said after Tuesday’s announcement with PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua.
Added Jared Rice, tournament director for THE PLAYERS Championship: “The March date puts us in the best possible position to deliver the tournament at a high level for our players, our partners and our fans. Being in that March timeframe, we get the benefit of a great lead-in from the beginning of the year through March. We couldn’t be happier.”
Besides the schedule change, will the players feel a difference? Those who played TPC Sawgrass in March know what to expect: More wind. It should make an already challenging course even tougher.
“The course, although not quite as firm, plays more difficult in my opinion with more wind and faster bent greens,” said Luke Donald, who has made 15 starts at THE PLAYERS, the first four of those in March. “TPC Sawgrass has always been a great test, but the move back to March is only going to test one of the best fields in golf even more and showcase what a great event it is.”
Davis Love III is one of four players with multiple PLAYERS Championship wins at TPC Sawgrass during the month of March (Fred Couples, Steve Elkington and Hal Sutton are the others).
“I prefer THE PLAYERS Championship in March,” Love said. “I like the golf course better then, even though it tends to be a bit windier.
“The great thing about it is that we kind of lead off the season for the majors and other big tournaments. We, the players, feel very strongly about our signature event and we feel it should stand on its own. It fulfills that purpose much better in March than in the middle of the majors season.”
NBC Sports has broadcast THE PLAYERS Championship for the past 30 years. Longtime producer Tommy Roy said he welcomes the return of the event to March.
“From a broadcast standpoint, THE PLAYERS being contested in March provides some intriguing aspects, including that when the Stadium Course is over-seeded with emerald green Winter Rye, the imagery of this iconic venue will be beyond spectacular,” Roy said. “The course was designed to be the sternest and most compelling test in golf — and that will only be amplified now by the stronger March winds of North Florida.”
In the last five years of THE PLAYERS during its March date, temperatures were generally in the 60s-70s, with wind gusts usually exceeding 25 mph. In the ensuing five years after the switch to May, record-high temperatures of 92 degrees were recorded on multiple occasions. Strong winds existed for the first two years after the switch but have been relatively benign for most competition days.
Relief from the hotter weather will be welcomed by both players and fans. But will they also be more susceptible to rain?
The perception is that the previous March date left THE PLAYERS vulnerable to increased precipitation. Monahan, though, noted there was less an inch of rain in the Ponte Vedra Beach area for the entire month of March this year.
Besides, he said, the problem of the past wasn’t the amount of rain but the ability of TPC Sawgrass to handle it. Thanks to improvements with the fairways and greens, as well as the installation of a SubAir system and updates to the drainage system, the course is better equipped to handle a heavy amount of rain.
“We are in a position to deliver the same firm and fast conditions in March that we have been delivering in May,” Monahan said, “and that’s something we are going to hold ourselves accountable to because we want the standard of play to be at the same high level it is right now.”
Added Rice: “Looking back 11 years, the biggest difference between then and now is the investment the TOUR has put into the infrastructure of the golf course. Weather certainly was a factor previously (but) it was less about weather than how the golf course was really able to drain because of the weather. With all the new infrastructure we’ve put into the golf course, we’re in much better position to get it running firm and fast as quickly as possible.”
The schedule itself may feel firm and fast, too, since the last half of the season will offer a monthly showcase event – THE PLAYERS in March, the Masters in April, the PGA Championship in May, the U.S. Open in June, the Open Championship in July, ending with the FedExCup Playoffs (and, of course, The Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup on alternating years).
Early opinions indicate approval from the players.
“It’s great for the golf schedule,” Rory McIlroy said Tuesday. “… It just has a better flow to it.”
Dustin Johnson said the new schedule will “kind of space everything out a little bit more instead of it all being kind of crammed together. So it gives you a little bit more time to prepare.”
Bethpage Black will host the 2019 PGA Championship, and the host PGA courses are set through 2023. Beyond that, the switch to May could allow some venues that weren’t capable of hosting the tournament in August to now be in the mix – particularly in states such as Texas, which hasn’t hosted a major since 1969, or Florida, whose last major was the PGA Championship in 1987.
“It opens up other parts of the country,” Bevacqua said. “It’s more comfortable in the southeast. It’s more comfortable in Florida. It’s more comfortable in Texas.”
The PGA Championship has been played in nine different months in its first 99 years, including four times in May. The last time came in 1949 when Sam Snead won.
Since 1959 – except for one year – it has been the final major of the season. Starting in 2019, the final major will be The Open Championship.
“I think from our perspective I don’t really mind whether we’re the third major or the fourth major,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, when asked about the possibility a few weeks ago. “We try to do our very best with The Open Championship to make it as good as we possibly can do.
“I can absolutely understand some of the logic, and if it ends up as resulting in more people watching our game, then that’s a great outcome.”
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus — whose network televises 20 PGA TOUR events, including the PGA Championship and the first FedExCup Playoffs event — is a big proponent of the moves. He said golf in the second quarter of the year is more lucrative on TV than in the third quarter when the sports calendar is often dominated by the start of the NFL season.
“We love having the PGA Championship in August,” McManus said. “We’d love it even more having it in May, quite frankly.”
Said Bevacqua: “We certainly think it’s good for the PGA of America and the PGA Championship, but we are 100 percent comfortable it’s good for the game, as well.”
Jack Nicklaus, whose Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide will now slot in between the PGA and the U.S. Open, welcomed the schedule change.
“Collectively, these moves should be a good thing for the game of golf, and I am supportive of anything that benefits our game and at any level,” Nicklaus said. “I think this is a good move for the PGA of America, and hosting their Championship earlier in the year should bring greater recognition to the event. It’s also a logical move for THE PLAYERS. They have historically done very well when the event has been played in March, and there is no reason to believe it won’t continue to do well at that time. Kudos to both.”