Ahead of The Players’ Championship, analysis shows how the wind helps Sawgrass bare its teeth

The shake-up of the PGA Tour schedule means that the fledgling golf season will truly burst into life in Florida this weekend.

The Players’ Championship, known as the ‘fifth major’, has always carried the prestige of the biggest normal tour event in the calendar. But this year, TPC Sawgrass is hosting what now feels like the first major as the season begins in earnest and the build-up to next month’s Masters gets underway.

Sawgrass is an iconic course in itself, providing more than enough drama to justify its billing as the curtain raiser for the main action of a golf season which now feels joined-up and action packed. The 17th hole’s ‘Island Green’ is one of the most recognisable in golf: surrounded by shimmering water, you can see why amateur golfers might quake in their spikes, but on a calm day you’d expect most professionals to find the heart of the green on a par-3 measuring just 137 yards.

But when the wind blows, it’s a different story.

NBC’s Golf Channel chatted to golfer Jason Day about the hole ahead of the 2017 edition of the tournament. The Australian talked about how strange the wind is on the 17th; for such a short hole, is manages to possess a bite, and it’s the elements that help the Island Green bare its teeth.

“The wind should be coming this way, but it’s actually coming the other way, it’s freaking me out a bit,”£ says Day in the Golf Channel clip below. “Luckily there’s a crane over there [behind the green] with a flag, so you can tell where it’s going. We golfers are feel-players. If we stand over it and feel a left-to-right, we think ‘Ok, we need to draw this back into it, or start a little bit further left.’”

But shouldn’t golfers be used to reading wind direction? Why, then, does the wind confuse the those standing on the tee at Sawgrass’s 17th?

To answer this question, the UK Computational Fluid Dynamics team at engineering consultancy WSP, have modelled the wind effects around the famous hole. Aidan McLoughlin, an engineer from the team, said, “We do a lot of wind modelling – how the built environment affects wind flow patterns – using computational fluid dynamics (CFD).”

“CFD is a general name for the simulation of fluid flow using computational numerical methods. This involved creating a 3D model of the hole and the surrounding area, analysing wind statistics for the area to identify key wind directions and running CFD simulations to solve equations which describe the flow.”

“In the case of the 17th at Sawgrass, the grandstands and hospitality boxes interact quite significantly with the prevailing south-westerly wind to create interesting flow conditions. The first aerial image of the 17th hole has wind streamlines overlaid, showing how some south-westerly, head-height wind strikes the grandstands and accelerates over the top.”

Background image: Google Earth Pro 2018.
Wind streamlines and vectors showing the chaotic wind flow at ground level on the 17th
Courtesy of WSP

“Some of this wind is also diverted around the structures creating swirl-like vortices near ground-level. This matches what Jason Day, and others, have said: that when you’re standing down in the bowl that is the 17th, it can feel like the wind is swirling around you. For this particular prevailing wind direction, players standing on the teebox would feel exactly this, whereas the freestream flow above them is the usual left-to-right wind (the second aerial image). So that’s why it’s such a tricky shot. Of course, the additional challenge for the players is that the wind can change direction fairly quickly.”

There’s pressure, too, of course. This year’s Players’ might feel like the first major but, like Sawgrass, it also packs a punch: the $12.5m prize purse on offer is the most lucrative single event in golf history. Going down the 17th on the final day in contention can never be easy, but this year expect pressure to play a pivotal role, too.

For us at home, that’s great news. But as the broadcast experience gets better all the time, the temptations of social media and mobile phones are still there for viewers wanting to get more insight into what’s happening. To be able to incorporate accurate information for wind direction on the 17th, to show the impact it has on players in such a pressure cooker environment – not to mention on one of the most iconic holes in golf – should be an interesting concept. Especially with majors coming up.

Background image: Google Earth Pro 2018.
Wind streamlines and vectors showing the high-level freestream wind flow on the 17th
Courtesy of WSP

The explanation that it’s actually the grandstands that play such a vital role in what happens on the tee-box shows us that competing in the Players’ Championship has yet another added edge compared to playing the course outside of tournament time when the baying crowds, the packed grandstands and the crushing pressure are all absent.

“Wind plays a major role in club and shot selection for a lot of holes, however the visuals provided to both players and viewers are usually quite basic,” McLoughlin adds. “There is the potential to run multi-directional simulations and then animated results from our CFD simulations could be overlaid onto live TV coverage to give viewers a better idea of what’s really happening to the wind flow, depending on the current wind direction.”

“These simulations are especially useful for marquee holes where wind is key factor, such as this one and around Amen Corner at Augusta. This sort of visualisation could also be applied to other stadium sports where wind can affect play, for example, a penalty in rugby.”

Golf is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. The top of the leaderboard is stacked with big names every week, and innovations are taking place both in tournament structure and digital engagement across the European Tour and R&A as well as the PGA in the US. It’s an exciting time for sport, and technology is playing a key role in heightening the drama for fans.

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About author

Chris McMullan
Chris McMullan 813 posts

Chris is a sports journalist and editor of Digital Sport - follow him on Twitter @CJMcMullan_

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