It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what The Players Championship is because it’s actually so many things at once.
It’s a premier golf tournament that the best players in the world want to win. Adam Scott said so when he won in 2004. Rory McIlroy reiterated that saying, “I don’t think my career would be complete without winning The Players.”
For golf fans, especially those from North Florida, it might be the best party, and probably the best social opportunity of the year. Just ask anybody who’s been to the tournament on a sunny Friday afternoon.
If those fans are serious about watching golf, it’s the best venue to see live golf, and the best field of players assembled, just about anywhere in the world. The Stadium Course was built as just that, a ‘Stadium’ to provide the best sight lines for fans.
For corporations, local, national and international, it’s the best client entertainment opportunity anywhere. There aren’t many places where you can treat your clients to a breakfast on the beach and a surf lesson in the morning and head across the street to watch the best players in the world the same afternoon.
And for North Florida, Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra and just about everywhere else nearby, images sent all over the world of what we have here you just can’t buy. The St. Johns, the beaches, boating, golf courses, natural spaces and everything else are showcased like no other event can.
The Players is all of those things and strives to be the best at all of those at once. And usually succeeds.
“I didn’t envision all of those things at the very beginning,” former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, who developed the concept of The Players Championship, said this week from his home in Ponte Vedra. “When I was a player on the policy board, (then-Commissioner) Joe Dey asked if I thought we should have a special tournament. I thought the Tour should have a very special event that represented the organization.”
Beman succeeded Dey as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1974 and said creating the TPC became one of his ‘chores.’
“As of March 1st, the tournament had been scheduled for Atlanta, but the whole schedule hadn’t been made yet,” he explained. “We wanted to make it something that was more than ‘just another event in Atlanta.’”
“All we could do was make it the best of everything it could be,” he continued. “The best prize money, the best field, the best competition and the best community support. When it started, Joe’s concept was to move it around like the US Open and the PGA. But I became convinced after Ft. Worth (site of the second TPC) that the tournament needed to be in one place. It would have the best chance to be the best of what we could make it if it was played in the same place.”
Much has been written about Beman’s quest to find a home for The Players and the one dollar deal he made with the Fletcher brothers for the property as a home for the PGA Tour headquarters and the new Stadium Course. Originally, Beman contacted the owners of Bay Hill in Orlando, but Arnold Palmer was looking there as well and eventually acquired the club.
“We just happened on Sawgrass,” Beman said of Sawgrass Country Club, the tournament’s home from 1977-1981. “My son was out of school on spring vacation, and I took him with me when I visited a couple of events as Commissioner. I was at Deerwood at the GJO and asked if there was a place we could go play. They said, ‘Go to Sawgrass nobody plays there.’ After nine holes we quit because I told him we had found the place and we needed to play our tournament there.”
He didn’t waste any time making the decision.
“I drove right back to Deerwood and met with John Tucker and said, “How about we do a deal?” he said.
It didn’t take long for Tucker and the other Red Coats, the past volunteer chairmen of the Greater Jacksonville Open, to say yes. The Tour, through Beman, said they could increase the charity contributions to over $100,000 if the GJO expanded their scope and embraced he TPC as a national event.
“He was talking about an international event that would compete with the Majors,” Tucker recalled this week. “He was very expressive and wanted something beyond what anybody else had.”
Beman tried to buy Sawgrass for the Tour and even looked at property off of Hecksher Drive and on the Northside. But the deal with the Fletchers proved to be the right one to get things started.
“I don’t know of any other business enterprise that has gotten things going like that for nothing,” Beman said with a laugh. “And I mean for nothing.”
Tucker and company took what they had learned by running the GJO and expanded it for the new TPC.
“It’s the highest performance in the world by the best players in the world,” John explained. “We tried to match the people in attendance with the level of play. We raised the level of watching the tournament in interest and convenience. We had provided childcare for the players at the GJO and did the same at the TPC. We arranged shopping trips for the wives. The GJO gave the top 60 players a courtesy car. We gave all 144 players cars for the TPC.”
Tucker and Beman were on the same page when it came to their vision of the new Tournament Players Championship.
“How can we make this better,” they both told me on separate occasions.
“Every staff member at the time, and it was much smaller than now,” Beman said. “They were dedicated to make this the best event in the world. How it was run, the spectators, the charity money, how to accommodate the players, the commercial interests, all of it.”
“We put packages together. We had client entertainment, sky chalets, offered visitors to play golf at various courses around the area,” Tucker, who became the Tournament Director in 1983 said. “They looked at our tournament as a model of what all the other tournaments should be.”
John made a reference to the old GJO days that some of you will remember and sums up the growth of the tournament outside the ropes.
“As much funs as it was, we didn’t want a Swingers Tent any longer,” he said in between laughs. “There are a lot of companies that their first view of the Jacksonville was the golf tournament, so I got the chamber involved. We were looking to offer the entertainment level high enough and commensurate with the quality of the golf.”
“These assets in our community that we know so well are things we want to promote,” current Players Executive Director Jared Rice said this week. “They are big contributors to how we promote this championship nationally and internationally. For that week, we’re the concierge for everybody who comes to visit the tournament.”
Beman points to four things that pushed The Players forward during his tenure that are part of the historical lore of the tournament that couldn’t have been planned.
“The first Players Championship was won by Jack Nicklaus,” he said of the best player in the world reigning as The Players champion. “He was the super, world-class player at that moment, and he won the tournament. Then we went to Sawgrass, and we had horrendous weather the second year we played. That was disruptive but gave the tournament notoriety.”
When the tournament moved to Sawgrass Country Club in 1977, the windy weather in the second round that year led to a tournament record eleven over par as the cut for the first thirty-six holes. The next year, Nicklaus won for the third time in five years of the ‘TPC’ posting a one-over score after a 75 in the final round.
“When we came over to the Players Club,” he continued.” The fact that the golf course was too difficult gave it more notoriety. The greens were on the other side of unfair. There was a huge controversy about it.”
While the greens and the course have been softened a bit, the golf course itself and the ‘Stadium’ concept became a celebrity.
“Just the brand name of ‘Stadium Golf,” Beman added. “That was new to golf, nobody had ever even thought of that. And the public interest in the 17th hole was different. A simple hole, a little shot, just a wedge or a nine iron, and all the of the sudden this simple shot became the toughest shot in the world. All of that helped it become a unique and special tournament.”
“One of the greatest things was Deane’s concept that it would always be played on one course,” Tucker added. It’s was a course built just for spectator golf. It was a course that didn’t offer any relief for two or three holes for the players. It was a real championship golf course.”
Tucker continued, “What he said he wanted was, ‘A community that wants us, where our players feel at home and the GJO has all of those prerequisites. The players come here because they love how they’re treated here. They love coming here.’ And everybody admired what had been accomplished here. Plus the acceptance by the R and A and the USGA, they all admired what Deane had done.”
“It’s one of one,” Rice answered when I asked about the uniqueness of the current Players Championship. “Our guests and fans can be out here for business development or just to see friends. They can be sports fans and want to see a big sporting event.
Rice agreed when I said I thought The Players has separated itself in the pantheon of sporting events, not just golf tournaments.
“Our expectation is to deliver it for our players, fans and volunteers at the highest level, if not perfectly,” he said. “As we go forward, it’s the signature event within our community and in our sport. We want to use our event to showcase how great our community is to live work and play and show how Northeast Florida is supportive of this event. We want people from around the world to come here and see how great this community is.”
Noting that no other tournament has been played in one place longer than the Players except the Masters, Rice added, “Our community is a big part of what our tournament is about. We want to promote the tournament nationally and internationally to have people to see how great the restaurants are here, that there are great places to rent or buy on the beach. To see the active lifestyle we have. It’s all the things we know are great that we want to promote.”
When I asked Beman if The Players is now everything he envisioned, he said it would be impossible to have seen what it has become.
“It’s hard to answer whether this was my vision because nobody could think of all the things that were done to make it what it is today,” he explained. “From day one I was dedicated to make it the best tournament in the world. But I didn’t do it alone, the people around me did the work. Everybody on my staff, the volunteers, the tournament chairmen, they came up with the individual ideas that make it what it is today. I was personally dedicated to making this the finest tournament in the world, whatever the big and the small things were that needed to get done to do that. They all were dedicated to the same thing. And they’ve done it.”