The Players: Big Time, Hometown Fun

When to contest The Players has been a topic since the tournament was started in the ’70’s. Beginning in Atlanta on Labor Day in 1974 it 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 the year after it moved to the Stadium Course.

The move to March has gotten different reactions from the contestants. Former champ Phil Mickelson, who won the first year the tournament was moved to May, 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,” the 2007 champion said. “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 Fifth 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 sunshine as anything else in March and many 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 year 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.”  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 NCAA 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.

Using how Louisville claims the Kentucky Derby as it’s own as a model, the PGA Tour now embraces local restaurants, fans and revelers for The Players. It’s a national event with a local feel.  At the same time The Players holds a place among the most significant tournaments in competitors’ minds.  Current Players boss Jared Rice is charged with keeping that balance and growing the tournament on all fronts.

A winner four 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.”

Outside of the playing conditions, former 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”

Is it a Major?  No.  Will it be? Probably not anytime soon.  For years the Tour made it a significant tournament by ensuring the payday was the biggest of the year.  The tournament itself though through the years has grown in stature in players’ minds, and that’s most important.  The media has some say, but not that much influence any longer.  There’s so much coverage of the sport, the tournament and the personalities on so many platforms that you’re going to get every opinion possible. In the past, Grantland Rice, Herbert Warren Wind and O.B. Keeler were able to shape what readers thought.  They were the only outlets.  Today, it’s a different story.

When Tom Kite won in 1989, before his US Open victory, I asked him if the TPC was a ‘major.”  “It is to me!” he said on 18 holding the trophy.  Jason Day said because he won in The Players in 2016, “Oh, I might be able to sneak my way into the Hall of Fame one day.”

Any PGA Tour event is two things in one: The competition on the course and everything around it.  Beman was right declaring it “our championship” for the players.  But with more than 2,000 volunteers and tens of thousands of spectators each day supporting the tournament, the rest belongs to them. It’s a seven-day showcase of the best of North Florida.

Enjoy it!