I always laugh when I hear about some mid- or even low-handicapper who wants to "play the whole course, all the way back, like the Tour pros do." It’s one of the biggest conceits in golf, because your average golfer, no matter how much they’ve watched the PGA Tour on television or followed the majors, has no real idea how good those guys are: how far they really hit it, how consistently, and with what powers of recovery.
We can glean a statistical sense of that by comparing scoring data of pros and amateurs in tournament competition at the famed Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Two things stand out immediately: the scoring; and which holes are harder for which class of players.
The chart below compares hole-by-hole average scoring during the PGA Tour’s Players Championship 2003-2017 versus the results of the 2018 Golf Channel Am Tour's TPC Sawgrass Open, which was staged in January over two days and open to tour members of all handicap levels. (Each flight played one round on the Stadium and one on Dye's Valley.)
It’s not a perfect comparison. Weather, pins and fields all vary. The course was set up much tougher for the pros at an average of 7,215 yards while the amateurs’ distance for the par-72 layout ranged from 6,557 yards (Championship flight: under 4 index) down to 5,976 yards (Snead and Jones flights: 16+ index). The average distance the entire field played was 6,262 yards.
Here’s the surprise: The Tour pros averaged an 18-hole score of 72.69, or just over a half-shot over par per round. Your average amateur notched 98.74 on the Stadium, almost a shot and a half over par per hole. This on a course that averaged close to 1,000 yards shorter than the one hosting The Players.
Another insight: The pros ate up the four par 5s. In terms of relative difficulty, their par 5s were the four lowest holes in average scoring. The amateurs, by contrasts, ran into a lot more trouble on the par 5s, relatively speaking. Their par 5s ranked 2nd-6th-12th-13th in difficulty.
When it came to hitting a 4,200 square foot green surrounded by water with a short-iron in hand, the experience proved overwhelming to the Ams. The average amateur score on the layout’s iconic par-3 17th hole was 5.51.
Mind you, it’s likely that amateurs opting for such an event represent more competitively minded golfers than found on an average tee sheet on any given course. But as any architect can tell you, the difference between average golfers and plus-handicap golfers is greater than ever. That’s reflected in the scoring. And when it comes to testing your nerves, there probably aren’t many courses that come close to this one in spreading the field. Evidence for that can be found among the amateurs themselves: The low-index Championship flight averaged 88.7 while the high-index (20+) Snead flight averaged 116.6. (During the 2012 GC Am Tour National Championship staged in September, the Championship flight averaged 83.86 on the Stadium, while the Snead averaged 113.36.)
There are many take-home lessons here. Playing the back tees in the hopes of playing it like the pros do would be a futile if not absurd (and painfully slow) undertaking. For most golfers, the ball is not going too far. On the contrary, it isn’t going far enough, certainly not with enough regularity and control.
For those who are worried about defending par, I have some advice: watch an average group play an average hole and you’ll see par stands up pretty well. Then, if there’s any doubt, put them on a championship golf course with the kind of deflections, wacky features and looming threat of water found at the Stadium. Makes it all the more impressive what those guys can do with a golf ball. Which is why we should watch them, but not think we can emulate them.
How did your score compare to your handicap when you played TPC Sawgrass? Let us know in the comments below.