Q&A with Mackenzie Hughes on his PLAYERS debut

Mackenzie Hughes finished tied for 16th in his first appearance at THE PLAYERS Championship last week at TPC Sawgrass. He chatted with theScore via phone on Friday morning to discuss his experience, the changes to the par-4 12th, and much more.

Adam Sarson: It was your first time at the PLAYERS last week, and you finished tied for 16th. You had a share of the first round lead with William McGirt after you shot 67. How would you assess your week overall?

Mackenzie Hughes: Overall, I would say it was a successful week. It’s hard. If you had asked me after each day what I thought my expectations were, they would have been different before the first round and they would have been different after the first round. Once I started the tournament so well, my expectation or hope was that I could contend a bit more for winning and have a slightly better chance come Sunday afternoon, but to be quite honest, I think I held my own pretty well. I just made a few silly mistakes over the weekend, but if you take those out, I’m right there with a chance to win. Anytime you’re that close to having a chance to win, it’s a positive week. I would have liked to maybe finished a little bit better, but overall, I would call it a very good week.

AS: It seemed like conditions were pretty tough with all of the wind that was out there. Pete Dye designs are usually pretty difficult to begin with, so how much of an effect did the wind have when you were out there?

MH: I kept saying to people that the golf course is already difficult as it is without the wind. When you have the wind blowing 15-20 mph, that’s a very big impact, especially on a golf course that’s not very forgiving. On other golf courses where maybe you have more room, or less water hazards, or less trouble, the wind can be a little less of a factor. It’s always going to be a factor, but when you get on a course like Sawgrass, it just magnifies how hard those conditions are going to be. Plus, with it being firm and the greens being exceptionally firm, that wind continues to make that place harder and harder. I enjoyed it. I would love for it to always play that hard. I know a lot of guys wouldn’t, but for me, that’s my style of golf where par is a good score and you sprinkle in the odd birdie. I find it refreshing, and I really enjoyed the challenge of it, but yeah, the wind made it a very good test of golf.

AS: Just curious about the birdie you made on 1 (in the opening round). Historically, only 15 percent of players have made birdie on that hole since 2003, and pretty much all of them have been from the fairway. From what I saw on the course, it looked like you had to hit a pretty great recovery from the trees to even have a look. You hit it to about 14, 15 feet.

MH: Yeah, it wasn’t a great drive on the first hole. I was fortunate to still have a little bit of a shot toward the green, and it was one of those shots if I could have gotten the ball onto the green to about 30 or 40 feet, it would have been a great shot. I hit a great shot combined with a little bit of good fortune. Anytime you hit a shot like that, there’s a bit of guesswork involved as to how it’s going to react as it runs up to the green. I managed to judge that pretty well, but to hit it where I did, you couldn’t have asked for a better result from the fairway almost. For me to hit it from the trees and the pine straw to get that close, it was a nice way to kind of settle me down on the very first hole and to roll that putt in and make birdie. It kind of eased me into it a little bit and I guess it was a little preview of what was to come that day.

AS: When we spoke Wednesday, you mentioned that even though you’d never played in the tournament before that you’ve watched it so much on TV that you felt like you knew the place pretty well already. Did anything surprise you from the week?

MH: I think what was amazing to me was some of the greens and the areas you had to hit certain shots, a lot of those areas you have to hit to are really, really small. On TV, you don’t always get that appreciation for how small landing areas are. Some of the green surfaces are very, very small. You look at a hole like number nine, and it’s a very small, very awkward green. If you’re coming from anywhere other than the fairway, it’s a very difficult shot, and so I think that was probably what caught me the most by surprise, and not in a bad way. You get there and you’re learning the golf course and you’re realizing how hard these greens are to hit, and how important it is to be in the fairway. If you’re playing that golf course from the rough, you really don’t have much chance at all. You’re playing very defensive, so that was probably the biggest thing: the importance of being in the fairway, and the difficulty of some of the approaches into the greens.

AS: So, there was a lot of talk coming into the week about the 12th and the changes they made. You laid up three times and tried to drive the green on Saturday, and you were 2-under for the week on the 12th. What went into that decision? Was it the conditions or something else?

MH: There were a few different factors. I would say the pin location was the number one factor, so when the pin was on the right side of the green, I didn’t like going for the green. To add to that, the wind was off the left for the first two days and the pin was right, so if you’re thinking about that shot, water down the left and the pin is on the right, and the wind is off the left. Chances are you’re going to miss the green to the right, and with a right pin, you’re not going to have a lot of green to work with. That influenced my decision on the first two days to lay up. The third day, the pin was back left and the wind was a little bit off the left, but not as bad as it was the first two days, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to get it up by the green. If I am right of the green, I’ve got plenty of green to work with when I chip across the green,’ so I went for it on Saturday. Then on Sunday, it was back into the wind pretty hard and it wasn’t really reachable, so I just hit down the right and tried to pitch one across, so I laid up a little further down the right side.

It was mainly due to the pin locations. Guys generally had the same thought about the hole, which was that it was a bit too severe down the left side. I think you’ll see some changes there before next year’s tournament just to soften up that left-hand side a little bit. Certainly you still need to punish a bad shot. The water is there, and if you hit a bad shot, it should probably go in the water, but if you hit a shot that rolls across the left side of the green and just trickles off the left side of the green and it goes in the water, it’s just a bit too much. I think a lot of guys have the same feeling there. It’s tough when you design a hole and you’ve never played it in competition, so they’re kind of doing a little test run there. I don’t know that it would have been a success by their standards, but they can make some adjustments and hopefully make that hole a little more exciting next year and make a few more guys take it on. A lot of guys, I don’t think, really even thought about it the first couple of days. They thought, ‘You know what, it doesn’t make much sense. I’m just going to lay up and take my chances with a wedge.’ I think the idea on a hole like that is to get more guys thinking about it, and they didn’t really accomplish that to what they were hoping, I think, this week.

AS: Is it just the left side that you think they should be changing, or would there be anything else with the bunker as well?

MH: I think the green and the area just left of the green were the main concern, but I think at the same time, if you’re going to make the green complex a little bit more forgiving, I think you need to make the layup off the tee that much harder. Where that bunker is on the left-hand side right now, they should almost make that fairway, but take it all the way over to the water and then make that bunker on the right-hand side of the hole. Now, you have to lay it up down the left side down by the water, but if you bail out on your layup to the right, now you’re in the bunker and you’ve got a pretty hard shot from 100 yards out of a fairway bunker.

To me, that’s a harder shot because if you have the wind off the left and even if you’re hitting a 5-iron, it’s going to make you think about that layup and you’ll see guys bail out into that bunker. That’s a really hard shot from 100 yards out of a fairway bunker … and so, I think that would make the layup a bit tougher. No matter how they do it, if they’re going to make the green more forgiving, you need to make the layup more difficult. It would make you think. If the layup is hard, maybe you think about going for it a bit more, and I think that’s kind of what they’re hoping for is more guys going for the green.

AS: On Wednesday when we chatted, you thought the 17th was more of a mental thing than anything else. What was it like to experience it in a competitive round for the first time?

MH: I still stand by that comment. I think it’s more of a mental test than anything else. I mean, at the end of the day, if you’re hitting that shot and the green is not surrounded by water, you don’t think twice about it, really. It would just be a normal shot with a 9-iron or wedge; pick a nice target, try and hit it close. But as soon as the island green comes into your mind, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Well, I just really want to hit it into the middle of the green and take my two putts and move on.’ If you make a two, it’s a bonus, but as you can see from this week, it’s an easy hole to make a five, six, seven, eight on. There was numerous big scores, so I just think that for me, my theory there is always kind of just hitting it to the fat part of the green and two putt, make my three and move on. I think that will serve you well over the years. Some guys might think that they can go at every pin on that green and they might make two birdies, but they might make a double as well. I just think you’re trying to play as low stress of golf as possible at Sawgrass, and for me on that hole, that was playing to the middle of the green.

Hughes will resume his PGA Tour season next week at Colonial, followed by the Memorial Tournament and U.S. Open qualifying.

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