PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Not that anybody has been losing sleep over it, but I’ve been pretty hard on The Players Championship over the years. The whole fifth-major thing just doesn’t sit well in my tummy, and though the PGA Tour is careful to avoid branding it on such a designation, perception amounts to approximately 85 percent of reality.
Blame it on the cockeyed media, which tends to build stuff up so it can generate interest, and then tear it down to invite controversy. In this business, hype + conflict = recyclable copy. A vast majority of Tour pros certainly don’t consider The Players to be as important as the U.S. Open or PGA Championship. When someone such as Bubba Watson chooses to skip this tournament to spend more time with his family, you get the sense Camp Ponte Vedra could double its promotional onslaught of the event and it wouldn’t change a thing.
During my live chat on GolfChannel.com last Thursday, I asked those in attendance if The Players should be accorded “fifth-major” status. Seventy percent chose “absolutely not,” with just 10 percent deeming it worthy. Interestingly, not a single person who participated in the poll chose the option, “it’s getting there.”
So much for that move from March to May, but let’s step back and assess the product from a wide-angle perspective. The Players is an excellent golf tournament, enriched by stellar fields (despite recent no-shows) in a market that truly adores its high-end status on the golf calendar. The crowds this week will be large, the atmosphere festive. Northern Florida has a pretty bad NFL team and not much else when it comes to pro sports. No doubt, The Players warrants a lot of civic attention.
Anytime you get 48 or 49 of the game’s top 50 performers on the same piece of property, golf’s entire universe should take notice. In the last 15 years, however, the number of premium-field tournaments has basically doubled, thanks to the inception of the World Golf Championships (1999) and FedEx Cup playoffs (2007). Neither of those series has necessarily weakened The Players, but it has alerted the game’s hardcore fan base to the notion that you can manufacture “big events” with a massive pile of prize money and an irresistible set of competitive perks to the winner.
That said, the three WGCs and four postseason tilts are part of a pair of collective platforms, whereas the title-sponsorless Players stands alone. It is played on the same course every year – only the Masters can make that claim over an extended period among premium-field gatherings – which gives it a consistency and familiarity that only helps its identity.
A fair number of Tour pros aren’t terribly fond of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, but only in rare instances has that led to them not showing up. I honestly think Tiger Woods would skip The Players if not for a certain obligation to the Tour on which he is (by far) the most important member. Much to its credit, Camp Ponte Vedra has dutifully peddled the premise that this gathering is designed solely to showcase (and reward) all of the world’s best golfers.
“This is our tournament,” any given pro will tell you. Although I’m not entirely sure what that means, it has worked. The fact that Bubba’s withdrawal became news speaks highly of the constituency’s regard for this championship. Watson didn’t play last week in Charlotte, either, but nobody seemed to notice much.
We can talk all day and night about how good the course is, about the finishing stretch, where death looms just a few awry yards away. I think the ninth and 16th holes are two of the best par-5s on the planet. Relatively speaking, Sawgrass does not cater to long hitters nearly as much as many Tour venues. It is a complicated design characterized by numerous forms of trouble, making position off the tee almost essential to success.
Last year’s Players serves as a perfect example of Sawgrass’ control-friendly disposition: K.J. Choi over David Toms in a playoff, Paul Goydos and Luke Donald both two strokes back. Phil Mickelson eschewed his driver here in 2007 and won with a vintage performance; straight-hitting Sergio Garcia nudged Goydos in a playoff the following May. One gets the sense the Tour wants to give everyone a chance. Loosely translated, that means hitting it a long way the wrong way will earn you two off-days.
More than anything, however, it is the PGA Tour’s no-expense-spared devotion to this tournament that makes it special. It is a big-league ballpark with a clubhouse (pictured above) of gigantic proportions, a structure completed a little more than five years ago without an ounce of guilt or pretense. A stylish merger of opulence and decadence, the building seems to symbolize the Tour’s declaration of bigness – an utterly conspicuous sign of growth and prosperity regardless of the nation’s economy or the game’s television ratings.
Clothes don’t make the man and a clubhouse can’t make the golf tournament, but that doesn’t mean the PGA Tour shouldn’t try like hell to look good. For such a supreme effort overall, we should offer a tip of the cap and a nod.