Over the years, the PLAYERS Championship has produced more memories than most golf tournaments. When Pete Dye designed TPC Sawgrass, he built it with drama in mind, especially on the closing stretch. Whether it's "better than most," "be the right club today," or all of the times that the tournament has been decided on the par-3 17th island green, the PLAYERS usually finds a way to deliver.
Mackenzie Hughes is bringing those memories and more with him this week in his debut at the event, but just because it's his first time at TPC Sawgrass doesn't mean that he's changing his approach.
“I think the most important thing to do is to treat it like it’s another tournament," Hughes told theScore on Wednesday at TPC Sawgrass. "I have a routine and a way of going about my business. I don’t think about the way that I prepare for a tournament, but I know that there are certain things that I need to do. I’ve just developed those little routines and habits. I’m just trying to get a feel for the course, trying to figure out a strategy. Lots of thinking involved out here. I think the course suits my game very well and I’m excited to be here.”
It's a strategy that's served him pretty well in his first season on the PGA Tour. In 19 starts so far this season, Hughes has made 12 cuts and has finished in the top 25 on five occasions, including a win at the RSM Classic in October. Entering the PLAYERS Championship, Hughes is one of three rookies who rank inside the top 20 in the FedEx Cup standings, which is impressive considering the lack of course knowledge the rookies tend to have when compared to the players who have been doing this on the PGA Tour for at least a few seasons.
One of the tough things rookies have to deal with is managing their schedules. With that win back in October, Hughes became exempt on the PGA Tour for the next two years, but even though that's the case, there's still a balancing act that needs to take place. For rookies who haven't played these courses, they need to figure out how much they can play without burning themselves out, while also trying to get a handle on what courses give them the best possible chance for success. It's something that Hughes admits is not an easy thing to get a handle on.
“I think you just have to make tough decisions and skip great tournaments, which you never want to do, but you know you have to do it. I think later in the summer when you get into that big stretch run of the British Open, the Canadian Open, Bridgestone in Akron, and then you’ve got the PGA Championship and two weeks later, you’re going into the playoff events. You’re trying to save up energy for that stretch run, those two months, so that’s something that you have to keep in the back of your mind and even now, you’re thinking two or three months down the road and that’s hard to do. You think, ‘Oh, I’ll have time to rest. I’ll be fine,’ but it’s a long year and you really have to try and pace yourself."
The PLAYERS is one of the PGA Tour's marquee events, and despite the fact that he hasn't played at TPC Sawgrass in a competitive setting, Hughes feels confident that all of those memories he has of watching the event on television has made him uniquely ready to tackle the course.
“You remember Tiger making the putt from the back of the green, and the ‘better than most.’ When Freddie Couples hit that shot and got a really good break on 16 and I think he also made par on 17 when he re-teed and just knocked it into the hole, stuff like that. Hal Sutton’s “be the right club today,” all of those things are really cool and I mean, it’s weird coming here thinking, 'well, I haven’t played here before,' but I know the course fairly well because I’ve watched it a lot on TV. Similar to Augusta because it comes back to this venue every year. There’s tons of memories, and you feel a bit more familiar with it because of that reason.”
And how does Hughes feel about the iconic par-3 17th?
“It’s more of a mental thing. I think a lot of these holes out here are more of a mental thing than anything else. Pete Dye is all about visual intimidation. If you had that shot on the golf course and there was no water around the green, it would be an easy shot, right? But because it’s surrounded by water, it’s a totally different mentality. I think you just go out there, and try to hit a good shot right into the middle of the green, and if you make a long putt, great. But if you make three there every day, you’ll be doing alright.”
Hughes is set to tee off on Thursday at 2:03 p.m. alongside Jim Herman and K.J. Choi.