It sounded like a good idea at the time: Move The Players Championship from late March to mid-May so it wouldn’t have to compete with the NCAA basketball tournament for TV ratings or media attention. Those in Ponte Vedra wanted to create a ‘once a month’ mentality when it came to important golf events starting with the Masters in April by slipping The Players into May, prior to the U.S. Open in June, the British Open in July and the PGA Championship in August.
It was a good idea on paper, the same way the Chicago Cubs so often look good on paper in February.
In reality, it was a bad idea. It was another attempt by the PGA Tour to create major championship aura around what is its premiere (or at least most lucrative) event. Well, that just isn’t going to happen. Not now, not ever.
The fact that The Players is not a major has been a thorn in the side of some who work in the offices down the road from the fancy new TPC Sawgrass clubhouse since Deane Beman first took up residence there more than 30 years ago. Beman was a brilliant commissioner and he understood from Day 1 that he had a serious problem when it came to negotiating TV rights and convincing people that the organization he was running was important: He didn’t control one of golf’s major events.
The Masters is run by the membership of Augusta National Golf Club, the U.S. Open is run by the U.S. Golf Association, the British Open is run by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and the PGA Championship is run by the PGA of America. Even the Ryder Cup, which became an important event while Beman was commissioner, is run by the PGA of America.
All five events needed Beman’s players. Sadly for Beman, his players needed the four majors – and later the Ryder Cup – more than the tournaments needed the players. And so he was left to negotiate TV deals that highlighted Pebble Beach, Bob Hope, Houston, Hartford and Hawaii. All were fine golf tournaments at nice places with good people in charge, but no one ever made history winning at Doral or in Denver.
And so Beman decided that his tournament would be the crown jewel, the one that would be different than all other tournaments. Pete Dye built a golf course that was unique and the event became known as The Players. The prize money was huge and the TV partners were instructed to never call it a tournament, but rather a championship.
For a good long while the Tour pushed the notion that The Players was the fifth major. No one bought it. If there is a fifth major in golf it is either the Ryder Cup or Q-School. It is not The Players.
“There’s a reason why the Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s has four items and not five,” Jeff Sluman, the 1988 PGA champion said year’s ago. “A Grand Slam is four. There’s no such thing as a five-run homer either.”
Nowadays, comissioner Tim Finchem and his staff are careful not to publicly push the fifth major idea. They do it in more subtle ways. If you open up a PGA Tour media guide, in each player’s bio is a “top tournament” summary. A “top tournament,” according to the Tour includes the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship, The Players and then all WGC events and playoff events.
This is, of course, ludicrous. Does anyone put The Barclays or the Deutsche Bank Championship in the same sentence, paragraph or book as a major? The PGA Tour does.
The last straw for the Tour with the March date may have come several years ago when Greg Norman, who still holds the course record at the TPC Sawgrass for 72 holes, was forced to withdraw. In his statement announcing that his client couldn’t tee it up, Norman’s agent Bart Collins said: “Greg truly regrets not being able to play. He has always looked forward to The Players as a great warm-up for the Masters.”
One can almost see Finchem throwing the press release across the room: “Warm-up! Warm-up! He called The Players a warm-up! Get thee to May!”
Okay, here’s why May is a bad idea. First, the weather is almost always hot and humid in north Florida in May and that’s the weather report for this week. The crowds last year looked sparse compared with the old days in March when snowbirds were still around and others came down to combine spring training trips with a couple days of watching golf.
Sure, Phil Mickelson won in 2007, the first year the tournament was played in May. Since then? Sergio Garcia won in 2008 and hasn’t won on Tour since. Henrik Stenson won in 2009 and hasn’t broken an egg since then. Tim Clark got his breakthrough win a year ago and nothing since then. At this rate The Players is going to become to the Tour what the Masters Par-3 Tournament is to the Masters. Guys will be three-putting 18 on purpose to try to finish second.
Hyperbole? Of course. But the March date was better. Sure, it rained sometimes, but overall it was cooler and more comfortable for everyone. It fit right in at the end of the Florida Swing on Tour. Maybe it was a warm-up for the Masters but now, well, it’s an early warm-up for the U.S. Open. The always politically correct Phil Mickelson slipped for a second Sunday afternoon on TV when he said he was trying to make progress, “going forward towards the Open,” before catching himself and saying, “and of course The Players next week.”
More and more of the NCAA basketball tournament is played at night these days so there is less TV competition from basketball and in May there are still the NBA playoffs to deal with; baseball in full swing and good weather in most of the country that has people outdoors on the weekend.
The Players should move back to March. It still won’t be a major but it will be a better golf tournament. That should matter.