Without the old burden of achieving status as the “Fifth Major” gone, you knew it was only a matter of time before The Players moved back to March. Earlier in the year, the PGA of America announced that the PGA Championship will be moving to May with the PGA Tour moving the Players back to it’s March timeframe. Moving the PGA Championship is not unprecedented and although there’s a concern that the early date on the golf calendar might eliminate some traditional northern courses as venues, May opens the door for courses in the Southeast, Florida, Texas and even Southern California.
Moving The Players has been a topic since the tournament was started in the ’70’s. It started in Atlanta on Labor Day in 1974, moved to Ft. Worth the next year in August and then to Ft. Lauderdale the following February. When it moved to Ponte Vedra and Sawgrass Country Club it was played in mid-March before settling on the last week of March in 1983.
Moving to March has gotten different reactions from the players involved. Former champ Phil Mickelson says the course was designed to play in March weather.
“There’s a lot of holes like that where we’ve got to fly it on and stop it,” Phil said on Tuesday. “I think the way it played in March, I kind of preferred over the firm, fast. I don’t think when it was designed, it was designed to be firm, fast the way it has played the last few years.”
Three factors worked against The Players in March in the Tour’s quest to make it the 5th Major. Weather could always be a factor, but as anybody who lives in North Florida knows, we’re as likely to have a week of perfect weather as anything else and much of the memories of the Players in March include perfect weather. There were a couple of Monday finishes, but for the most part, delays in the competition were minor. In it’s quest for a spot on the overall sports calendar as a significant sporting event, the tournament switched from CBS to NBC once CBS made a commitment to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Nobody’s going to forget about March Madness because the Players is happening, and at times that was a sticking point for the decision-makers at the Tour. And finally, the last week of March also happens to be two weeks before the first full week of April and that’s always The Masters.
When contested in March, there wasn’t a tournament that went by without many of the storylines focused on the contestants preparing for Augusta. The Players creator, then-Commissioner Deane Beman, didn’t like any talk about the Masters, wanting his tournament to gain “Major” status as a true “players championship.” Despite his protests, Beman had one eye on what they were doing at Augusta National as he developed The Players. His competitive nature would not allow otherwise.
“This is our championship,” he was fond of saying. Deane had a prickly nature about him when it came to competing with Augusta and the Masters and didn’t like it when the basketball tournament was on television in the hospitality suites, the clubhouse and the media center. When he could control what people were watching, he did. (We couldn’t watch the basketball in the media center more than once.)
A winner two years ago, Rickie Fowler says it’s about adapting.
“Luckily it’s still the same golf course, still the same look, but just make that adjustment as far as wind direction,” he explained. “I mean, I feel like we do that on a day-to-day basis when it comes to a place like the Open Championship overseas.
When he took over as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1994, Tim Finchem had many of the same thoughts about The Players and even more about it’s relationship with Jacksonville. Under Finchem, the Tour tried to separate the tournament once known as the “GJO” from the city entirely, stressing to the assembled media, “the dateline is Ponte Vedra.” There was no reference to it being one of the beaches associated with Jacksonville in any of the promotional material regarding the tournament nor on the national telecast. The dis-association with the city was strongest when Finchem and the Tour decided that The Players should be an international destination for fans and that the local flavor and support of the tournament was holding it back from it’s rightful place in the pantheon of professional golf competition.
They came to their senses a few years ago when Matt Rapp took over as the Executive Director and they refocused on the local community, it’s support, fan base, and the tournament’s reputation as a “must attend” event (and party) in North Florida. Current Players boss Jared Rice seems to have the same charge from new Commissioner Jay Monahan.
Outside of the playing conditions, PGA Champion Justin Thomas said the Players deserves more respect and will probably get it in March.
“Yeah, it’ll be exciting. It’ll be cool just because I think all of us on the TOUR feel that this event can stand on its own,” he said. “It’s not like it’s another event, and it’s no disrespect to the other events, but this is our championship, this is THE PLAYERS Championship. This has a very major-like field, has a very major-like feel, air to it. The roars are very similar. So it’ll be cool to kind of have a major tournament, one a month there, starting in March”