Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Players, Bigger, Better

Everybody’s got an opinion about The Players. It’s always been that way for some reason. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer always downplayed its significance. Both wanted their tournaments to be the next “big” thing and didn’t like how then Commissioner Deane Beman was going about promoting the “TPC.”

Nicklaus once said he didn’t think it was right to have to “hit a 4-iron into the hood of a car,” when asked about the Stadium course. Lee Trevino once said, “it’s hard to read dirt,” during one of his numerous complaining conferences about the golf course. “Somebody’s making birdies out there,” was the usual response when the negative comments were brought up.

Since the tournament was moved to the Stadium Course, the winning score has always been under par. Not so at Sawgrass country club when twice the winner was at one over. They’ve moved the championship several times on the calendar. It started the first week of March and eventually settled on the third week. The first week was just too windy and unpredictable when it came to the weather. Even though it was far enough away from the Masters, it just wasn’t the right spot either in the month or geographically.

It moved around the country before settling on north Florida. Ft. Lauderdale, Texas and Atlanta all hosted the “Tournament Players Championship” the flagship tournament of the PGA Tour. But it wasn’t until it moved to its permanent home that it really started to take a beating. That’s because it was something different than just a regular Tour stop.

Beman had bigger plans. He wanted it to be a Major. “Don’t call it the TPC anymore,” one Tour staffer told me about 20 years ago. “Dan Jenkins says TPC sounds like something teenagers snort and Deane doesn’t like that,” was the reason given. I just shrugged my shoulders and complied. Their tournament, they can call it what they want.

As the Tour got further into golf course building and designing and running the tournament, The Players Championship came under more and more criticism. Some of it was valid; some of it was just about animosity aimed at Beman. So he retired and Tim Finchem stepped in. Finchem has presided over the Tiger era, so it has been hard for him to do anything wrong. The Tour has seen unprecedented growth and their flagship tournament has gone along with it.

Two years ago they made another big leap, moved the tournament to May, changing the name (again) changing the golf course, building a new clubhouse and upping the prize money. All in one year. Having been around this thing for more than 25 years it was obvious the Tour was taking the next step. And not a small one. Massive electronic scoreboards, actually giant televisions were placed on every hole. Information about every golfer on every shot was easily accessible. You never had to leave your spot. And the corporate hospitality tents started to multiply and become more lavish. They started popping up everywhere. Not just along 18 and on 17. They were on nine. Next to sixteen. The Benefactor Pavilion behind the 17th tee looked like a cruise ship had parked there.

It was becoming real stadium golf. With a bunch of skyboxes. Ever been to a skybox for a football game? It’s a lot of socializing mixed in with watching the game. Some live, some on TV. And that’s what watching this tournament as become as well. There was some thought that the crowds weren’t as big in 2008, maybe because Tiger wasn’t there.

Not true.

Look at who was on the fairways and greens. Mainly people who didn’t have access to some chalet somewhere. Or those who were making their way to one. There’s so much corporate hospitality that everybody’s in a skybox, in the air-conditioning, having a cool cocktail watching the golf, some live, some on TV. With 22 hours of coverage over the 4 days, you saw just about everything that was significant, no matter where or when it happened.

And that’s what the PGA Tour is about.

It’s a corporate entertainment venue. It’s a once a year appointment for sponsors and guest to get away from the office in a whole different environment. Go to any Tour stop and you see that on a smaller scale. At The Players, its super sized. And going to get bigger.

With Ron Cross leaving to join Augusta National, the new executive director of The Players will be charged with expanding the tournament on a national and global scale. Getting “Golf Dubai” and “Lufthansa” to use the Players as a hospitality destination will be more of the goal than getting “Bono’s” to buy a skybox. There still will be tickets to buy for the general public. And for now they’ll still be available at Publix.

But this tournament isn’t the GJO anymore. It’s not even the TPC. It’s the PGA Tour’s showcase event and the PGA Tour is an international organization. Even if they’re in our backyard, their market is the entire globe. And they’re going to take advantage of that. It’s different, and I think better.

The focus will be on Ponte Vedra and Jacksonville for the whole week. People from around the world will want to come visit and play that golf course. More luxury hotels and good restaurants. Better shopping and a real spot on the map. No, this isn’t the tournament with the “Swingers Tent,” on A1A. It’s bigger. And better.

Get used to it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Derby Wake Up

Obviously, I don’t know anything about thoroughbreds anymore. I had this amazing string of calling the winner of the Kentucky Derby of about 12 years starting with Unbridled and running through about 2002. Since then I haven’t been close.

I had the field covered in 2005 except for Giacamo who came in as a 50-1 winner. This year Tom McManus asked me on 1010 XL who I liked and I said, “anybody but the 3-1 favorite Big Brown. I’ll take the field.” Of course, Big Brown won going away.

His trainer had predicted it amid snickers in the barn from his competitors. But he backed it up winning by 4 ½ lengths and could be a contender for the Triple Crown. He looked like the class of the field and the race that give the winners fits, the Belmont Stakes, seems suited to his closing kick at 1-½ miles.

The race was marred by the breakdown of Eight Belles, the only filly in the race who had finished second. On the warm down, she broke both front ankles and had to be “euthanized” right there on the track. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote on Saturday night that horses breaking down and being killed on the track is happening at the rate of about 2 a day in the United States alone.

What’s going on there? Is it just better reporting? Maybe this has always happened but it just wasn’t reported. Or maybe the colts are just being bred so finely that they just can’t handle the stress of the pounding on their bodies. Whatever it is, it isn’t good.

One of the sport’s most celebrated champions, Barbaro, brought the brutality of the whole thing to light. Injured at the start of the Preakness he was saved by the jockey and the on-track vet. After months of rehab they finally put him “to sleep” ending a sad chapter in horse racing’s annals.

If you’ve ever seen a racehorse, a thoroughbred in person, you know they don’t look like a regular horse. Perfectly muscled and developed, the rippled physique looks like it’s been carved out of a stone. Much like our awareness of human performance and the drugs that have augmented many athletes abilities, is that a part of the “sport of kings?” I do know that there are plenty of drugs that are illegal for racehorses to take. Most, I thought, are anti-inflammatory.

Is there compassion among the trainers and owners? It certainly seems that the bond between the horses and the people around them is something different than anything else. Like in “The Godfather” putting the horse’s head in the film director’s bed was the nastiest thing they could do. He called the horse, “my pride and joy.” They are beautiful things to look at but are we killing them through drugs, training and breeding? Two-a-day seems like a lot to be scraping off the track and going onto the next race.

Is the sport big enough outside of the Triple Crown for anybody to care? Obviously tracks have been in trouble and are closing and the sport is mainly fueled by off track betting these days. But is their enough to make anybody stand up and ask the questions? Hopefully there are answers and not just more questions.