The Players

It’s that time of the year again. The Players Championship begins today and one question invariably gets asked: is this golf’s fifth major championship? No, it is not. It is a fabulous tournament played on an exciting golf course. It has a stellar field and offers the most lucrative purse on tour. It has a rich history. These attributes are not enough for the PGA Tour. They refused to tolerate the tournament’s elite status. They wanted something more. They believed this was golf’s fifth major. The tour propaganda machine began raising this question two decades ago and got others to debate this issue. They wanted to create history. They craved notoriety. They wanted to make a splash. They just caused a headache. By pushing the “fifth major” argument, the tour hit a brick wall of opposition. They continued pushing back. They still raise the question each year. The Players will never be a major championship but it is a wonderful event. Why doesn’t the Tour appreciate that?

Deane Beman, the PGA Tour commissioner from 1974-1994, was not one to appreciate tradition. He revolutionized the game. This began with a dream. He envisioned a tournament that rivaled golf’s four major championships (The Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship, and PGA Championship) and one that was played on a unique venue. He also wanted to create a brand for the game—more importantly, for the tour. He introduced stadium golf to the sport. That is, he built a golf course with huge mounds for spectators to clearly see the action. He needed a course designed to his specifications—that created “stadium golf.” In doing so, he built the Tour’s crown jewel: The Tournament Player’s Course (TPC) at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. He bought the marshy land for $1 and made preparations to move The Players Championship, which began as a revolving event in 1974 that moved from Atlanta Country Club (GA) to Colonial Country Club (TX), to Inverrary Country Club (FL) before moving to Sawgrass Country Club in 1977. This site hosted the event for five years while TPC Sawgrass was being built.

Pete Dye got a call from Dean Beman one day in the mid 1970s. The commissioner shared his dreams of “stadium golf” with Dye and asked the noted golf course architect to lay out the TPC Sawgrass. Dye agreed and designed the course with his wife, Alice. He designed a difficult trek. No two holes go in the same direction. This means that the competitors have to factor the wind on every shot. There is no prevailing wind. Bunkers and water hazard litter the course. High rough demands precision off the tee. And the 17th hole is always there, in the back of everyone’s mind. The island green makes it one of the most famous holes in the sport. After navigating through that devilish par three, players finish up at the treacherous par 4, 18th. Water extends along the entire left side of the hole. High rough and trees align the right side of the fairway. The competitor must make two fantastic shots to hit the green. The hole routinely plays as one of the most difficult on tour. Needless to say, the course got people’s attention.

The field always impresses golf fans. The Players has the best field in golf. That includes the major championships. The Masters has only ninety competitors. Many of these include past champions and amateurs who have no shot at winning the tournament. The US and British Open give out the majority of its spots to those who go through thirty-six hole qualifying. The US Open, this year for instance, has only sixty-three automatic qualifiers in a field of one hundred fifty-six. The PGA Championship has twenty club professionals (essentially pros that teach amateurs and manage golf clubs as opposed to a touring pro like Tiger Woods who plays tournaments each week) in its field of one hundred fifty-six. The Players Championship hands out none of these automatic spots. The field consists of the top competitors in the game…period.

These men have plenty of incentive to win. At $9.5 million, the Players offers the richest purse on Tour. While the tournament lacks “major” status, the champion will earn $1.7 million on Sunday.

The tournament has a rich history. Past champions include many of the sport’s great names. Jack Nicklaus (the game’s most decorated champion), Lee Trevino (six time major champion), Ray Floyd (four time major winner), Fred Couples (1992 Masters victor), Sandy Lyle (Open and Masters champ), Tom Kite (1992 US Open title and the game’s leading money winner until the Tiger era), Davis Love III (1997 PGA), Tiger Woods (fourteen time major champion), and Phil Mickelson (the Masters champion) all captured this title. They all talked about what a privilege it was to win this title. It is an honor; but, it is not a title they must have.

The PGA Tour wanted to create history. They insisted that the Players was the game’s fifth major. Bologna. You don’t “create” a major title. The public bestow that label on the game’s premier events. The Masters became a member of this fraternity because of its association with Bobby Jones and because Augusta National, one of the best courses in the world, hosted it each April. It dates back to 1934. The U.S. Open is America’s national championship (played since 1895) while the Open Championship is the games oldest event (played since 1860) while the PGA Championship is a tournament hosted by club professionals for professional golfers (since 1916) The Players came around in 1974 and has been at the TPC Sawgrass since 1982. It lacks the history of these other events.

The tournament also lacks the special quality of these majors. Augusta National has the green jacket. The US Open travels around to the great courses of America and has the most brutal test in all golf. The Open Championship takes place on links courses in Britain. The PGA has always been the weak link of the majors, but over the last twenty years, has provided the most riveting drama in the sport. The championship committee makes scoring conditions slightly easier, rewarding shots and giving the game’s best plenty of scoring opportunities. When it concludes in August, the golfing calendar effectively ends. No significant tournament will occur until the pros gather the next April in Augusta.

The PGA Tour wanted a better date on the golfing calendar to become part of the “major” season. For thirty-three years, the tournament occurred in March. Many players used it to prepare for the Masters—and said so publicly, causing embarrassment for Beman and the tour hierarchy who insisted this title was equal to Augusta. The event capped off the Florida swing (when the tour traveled up North in the Sunshine State beginning in Miami, making its way to Palm Beach, then up to Orlando, and finally arriving at Ponte Vedra). The March spot also created a headache on further two levels. The course often played softly and easier than the tour wanted. Warm temperatures—that arrived in Northern Florida at the end of April—made the course play firm and fast and baked the greens. This provides a stiffer test for the player. In March, the tournament also coincided on the sport’s calendar with college basketball’s March Madness. The hoops tournament deflected attention away from this golfing event. In 2007, the Players moved to its current May date. It also mirrored the US Open (which ends every Father’s Day) and finished the event on Mother’s Day.

The tour also wanted to make a splash. In 2006, the tour upgraded the clubhouse at the TPC Sawgrass. It is a celebration of excess. The course website proclaims it is “the very best, a world of indulgence.” Indeed it is. The 77,000 square feet Mediterranean looking clubhouse is huge. It highlights largesse as opposed to emphasizing subtlety. It is perfect for professional golf in the Tiger era; it is big, bold, powerful looking. It commands attention. It reeks of the revolutionary flavor Beman brought to the tour in the mid 1970s.It is post-modern and against the norm. Augusta National has the most famous clubhouse in golf. It is simple, understated, and elegant. The tour put a finger in the eye of tradition. It built the clubhouse at its home course to demonstrate the strength and economic might of professional golf in the Tiger era. They succeeded. Just as Tiger Woods awed golf fans with his towering drives, the clubhouse grabbed the eyes of visiting patrons. One cannot look away.

Neither can one miss The Players Championship. The tour won’t allow it. For years, the commissioner (at first, Beman and then his successor Tim Finchem) argued that this was the best tournament on the planet. They’re right—in part. It has the top field in the game. The TPC Sawgrass offers a stern test. It is must see television—especially with all the fireworks possible at 17 and 18. They’re also wrong. This announcement comes from the same propaganda machine that says players’ dream of capturing the Fed Ex Cup. That invention, created in 2007, spices up the Fall Season and gets the top players together to play in four playoff events in September. Players love the $10 million first place prize, but come on now. They couldn’t care less about wining the Fed Ex Title. The Players is much the same way. Many look down on the event because the PGA Tour insists (repeatedly) that is the 5th major. It isn’t. While it lacks this status, it is still a title competitors want to have. Winning it garners respect. Major champions get to put another feather in their cap when they grab this tournament. Non-major winners demonstrate their ability to handle back nine pressure on one of golf’s great stages.

This event has a special place in golf. It takes place at a venue where anything can happen. Decorated winners adorn the trophy which Commissioner Tim Finchem will present to the winner on Sunday night. The low scorer knows that he’s conquered the top field in the game. He knows he has what it takes to win at golf’s top level. It comes during this best stretch in golf—from April to August—when the game’s best tournaments occur. It is the best of the rest. The tour should appreciate what the event is, as opposed to what they want it to be.

It is the best of the rest. Come Thursday morning, it is that time of year. The Players begins. Let’s end this silly debate and admire the great competitors who will tee off at Sawgrass. Let’s appreciate stadium golf. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. This is a unique tournament.

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