For most of it’s existence, The Players signaled the beginning of the golf season for many fans. While the Masters was a sign that spring is here, The Players in March is where golf fans started to focus on the season and the sport. Many of the top players skipped the California swing (private jets and 24 hour communication services were not a part of PGA Tour life yet) and started their season in Florida. Stops in Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Miami and here provided easy travel, similar conditions and usually warm weather to get the season started. (Although The Players was originally scheduled for the first week of March, it eventually moved to the final week of the month and, of course, to May in 2007).
What’s different about this year is that The Players is nowhere near the beginning of the season. In fact, it’s the 26th event of the Tour’s “wraparound” season, with just 15 tournaments remaining in this “year.” That means a win here can go a long way in the end of season FedEx Cup standings and qualifications for the Ryder Cup, the Tour Championship playoffs and extra cash.
“It’s my favorite week of the year,” Ben Crane said yesterday, echoing the sentiment of just about every player we talked to. “It’s our championship, the field is great, the golf course is a tough test. It’s a Major in my mind.” You also hear that a lot from the current participants. While the first generation of players in this tournament were almost unanimous in their disdain for calling this tournament anything but a “bigger” competition, (some of that coming from a general animosity for then Commissioner Deane Beaman) the current players have no such bias. When Adam Scott won in 2004, he said it felt like a major to him because he grew up in Australia watching this tournament on television and imagining winning it one day. While the Tour increased the payout for winning The Players exponentially every year, getting the attention if not the respect of the players involved from the beginning, comments like Lee Trevino’s “It’s hard to read dirt,” and Jack Nicklaus’ “I don’t think you’re supposed to be able to hit 4-iron to the hood of a car and stop it,” ensured that The Players would stay stuck in a slightly elevated status but never up for “Major” consideration.
A little historical perspective is important when you look at The Players development. Beman’s dream of the Tour having their own championship grew out of his belief that “the Super Bowl, the playoffs and the World Series of our sport were owned by somebody else.” While the USGA, the R&A, Augusta National and the PGA owned the four major championships; the PGA Tour ran the week to week competition that brought the names and faces of the Tour into fans living rooms. As a former player, Deane had some history with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as well as the rest of his contemporaries. He won the US Amateur; he won on Tour and was a rival, albeit mostly friendly to the guys out there playing.
Remember as well that Jack had started the Memorial and Arnold his tournament in Orlando, each with the idea that it would be the next “significant” tournament. Nicklaus never tried to tamp down the idea that the Memorial could be on track to be the next Major. And both of them, along with Gary Player as the Big Three, had expanded their reach in the game to building golf courses. All three expressed real reservations about the Tour getting into the golf course building business as their competitor. So if The Players was in essence, “Deane’s Tournament” it wasn’t going to get their approval as anything but the next stop on the Florida swing.
The media followed the Big Three’s lead, most turning their noses up at the idea there could be a “5th Major.” Legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins once wrote, “TPC sounds like something you sniff, not a golf tournament.” The Players represented the TOUR: fans, excitement, money and fun. It was a long way from the hushed locker rooms of The Country Club, Oakmont, Seminole and other tradition-laden clubs. The Tour itself couldn’t quite identify what The Players was supposed to be either. Was it “Augusta South?” For a while they tried to emulate the major championships and even shunned their home-town, stiff arming North Florida and South Georgia, insisting the byline for stories and television coverage be “Ponte Vedra” with no mention of Jacksonville (my friend Verne Lundquist admitted it took him two years to figure out how to pronounce the host town) Then The Players was marketed as an international destination, which it is becoming. But in recent years, they’ve embraced Jacksonville and North Florida, understanding that without the full support of the local community, they’d just be spinning their wheels.
I read an article the other day where the author said you could have put the Stadium course anywhere. I chuckled at his lack of historical knowledge, not knowing that the local support of the Greater Jacksonville Open through the volunteer force and the foresight of Beman, the Fletchers and others landed the PGA Tour headquarters and their showcase event in the right spot.