Amateur players struggle with Pete Dye's infamous Sawgrass design far more than pros.  (Getty Images)

Here's how much tougher the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is for amateurs

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.

More: Browse the full major championship schedule for Golf Channel Am Tour

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.

May 08, 2018

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Tom's avatar
Tom wrote at 2018-05-10 18:58:37+00:00:

My wife and I played it in March. She's a 20 handicap and played the forward tees. Needless to say she beat me by a stroke with a 95. My 12.8 index could not withstand the number of penalties. Carded a 5 on 17. Played the Dye course too and it was just as challenging. Absolutely beautiful setting!

T Buzzy's avatar
T Buzzy wrote at 2018-05-10 12:57:38+00:00:

Played the course in 1980 before it actually opened. No one on the course that day which was at the end of a one lane dirt road. The delay was because the Tour Players had a fit and said it was too hard. Anyway, it was tough! Green contours and forced carries were much more dramatic on this original version that very few people ever got to see. A herd of goats roamed the native areas. Never forget my first sight of #17. It was like Star Wars Golf as the world had never seen anything like it before. A new era of golf was born.

A J  LaCourse's avatar
A J LaCourse wrote at 2018-05-10 03:11:51+00:00:

Played Sawgrass 20+ Springs ago when I still had a semblance of game. I actually hit the ball well and still shot 100. Played the Valley course after lunch and eased in with an eighty ( mentioned for comparison). Stadium course plays long, tight, and with very few safe outs. I seemed to locate more water than you would imagine watching TV coverage. Toughest course I've played ( Cog # 4 is not to far behind).

Doug's avatar
Doug wrote at 2018-05-09 22:16:00+00:00:

Playing the Stadium in January is just brutal. Difficult turf, cold and much wind is the norm. The stats of the January vs Sept point that out mostly. Either which way I have to agree though that the Ams have no idea really how good these guys are. Good stuff as usual Brad.

sorenj's avatar
sorenj wrote at 2018-05-09 21:11:29+00:00:

The stats on par 5's I found kind of interesting. I played Cog Hill #4 from the tourney tees last year. I currently carry a 7.7, as low as 3.9 at the end of last year, and shot 90 I was satisfied with. Where I struggled the most, though, was with the longer par 4's. While I can make up distance with a third mid/long iron on par 5's, I just don't have any answers for 460-480 par 4's. They are simply par 5's for me. This has been true of all of the longer courses I've played, so it's interesting to me that the stats seem to say am's have more trouble with the 5's.

Similarly, I've played the island green in Coeur d'Alene a couple times now (and participated in a closest to the pin contest where I hit three more shots) which, I think, is as intimidating as 17. However, ever that wasn't as tough a test, from a golf standpoint, as those long long par 4's.

Other than that, this all makes a lot of sense to me. Those guys are good.

Rick's avatar
Rick wrote at 2018-05-09 02:54:47+00:00:

Bogeyed it 2 times, par once double bogey once. This year 1st time in water. Hit drop zone shot to 3 feet then bogey. Senior Snead flight AM Tour.

Tim's avatar
Tim wrote at 2018-05-09 19:54:19+00:00:

Hey Rick, no one cares how you played. Especially your wife. She hates you but enjoys spending your money.

Cory T's avatar
Cory T wrote at 2018-05-08 22:04:22+00:00:

Having played Sawgrass' Stadium Course, since the most recent renovation, 12 times, I can tell you a few things. First, the weather is January and it's conditions are far from ideal (wind, cold, grass) compared to that of May. Heck, when the tourney moves to March, they are going to contest with wind, cold and wet weather which should make for an interesting four days. Second, for most amateur golfers, Sawgrass is going to play more difficult than even courses like Kiawah's Ocean and Pebble Beach. Why, you ask? Because of the lack of ability to run shots onto the green combined with forces carries over sand and water and the severity of the slopes of Pete Dye's greens. Typical amateurs cannot produce the ball flight and spin needed to come into those greens properly. Add in, the fact that Sawgrass' fairways run at angles and then into pine straw, water and sand, makes amateur golfers struggles even more with distance control and accuracy. This is why the average round is 5-hours+ on the course even with a forecaddie (maybe the constant hitting of 2-6 extra balls on 17 and the endless amount of pictures being taken doesn't help either, but you get my point). I'm a legit 2-3 handicap and continue to shoot between 80-85 every time on the course. It's legit that hard, and not one hole I've found is an easy par. The hardest holes on the course for amateurs, I believe, are 5,7,14 & 15. The people I've been paired with in my rounds, should have played the up tees quite often, but I wasn't going to say anything since they are paying $500 for their round plus tip. 149 slope off the blue tees at 6,720 yards at sea level is not for the faint at heart!

JT's avatar
JT wrote at 2018-05-10 16:23:11+00:00:

Don't know about most amateur golfers, but one of the main reasons I enjoy the game is because of it's difficulty. The thing that keeps me playing the game is the real hope that I can improve and progress, be it ever so slowly, toward becoming a "good" golfer. I know how good the pros are a I'm awed every time I get to see them hit a ball in person. However, reminding amateurs how bad they suck does nothing to promote the game to the masses.

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Bradley S. Klein

Senior Writer

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects.