It’s a major championship in all but its designation.
It’s a major test.
It’s a major field.
Mostly, though, The Players Championship is major fun for fans as golf’s ultimate high-wire act on the late Pete Dye’s bedeviling TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course design.
If the Masters is a tradition unlike any other, The Players is a spectacle unlike any other.
We can thank Dye for that.
“I think of Pete like Picasso,” fellow golf course architect Arthur Hills once said. “He was so innovative in a profession that was so traditional.”
Dye passed in January at 94, but his spirit lives on in so many of his masterpieces, none more renowned than Sawgrass, home to this week’s PGA Tour stop.
There’s genius in the risk-and-reward formulas built into both Augusta National and the Stadium Course. There’s enchantment in the exam players undergo, which creates two of the most delightfully volatile leaderboards in golf.
The Masters and The Players consistently give you the wildest combination of bold charges and dramatic collapses.
That’s where the real fun is.
Yes, there will be yet more pain and suffering on the Florida Swing. They didn’t call Dye the Marquis de Sod for nothing. But if the Stadium Course is set up as the classic test we are accustomed to seeing in Ponte Vedra Beach, this won’t be the war of attrition we witnessed at the Honda Classic and Arnold Palmer Invitational these past two weeks.
This will be a fireworks show.
“It’s golf’s version of the Daytona 500,” Frank Nobilo once said. “Some people come for the racing, others come for the wrecks.”
The Ryder Cup might be the only other event in golf that makes you leap off your couch as often as the Masters and The Players Championship do, but there’s a real difference in how that works.
Augusta National’s risk-reward design leaves more room for recovery shots.
Yeah, there are thrills and spills at the 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th holes, but there are great escapes there, too.
There are memorably bold and creative recoveries from missed shots all around the Georgia pines there.
There was Tiger Woods holing out that circuitous chip shot at the 16th when he won in 2005.
There was Phil Mickelson’s derring-do threading of the narrow goal-post pines to reach the 13th green in two when he won in 2010.
There was Bubba Watson’s rope hook around the trees to the 10th green in the playoff he won in 2012.
You don’t see The Players defined by shots like that.
As Woods showed winning five times at Augusta National, he can get up and down from just about anywhere on the planet.
But he isn’t quite as skilled getting up and down from hell.
That’s what Dye created around so many of his greens.
Woods couldn’t erase as many mistakes on the Stadium Course, though he has won the Tour’s flagship event twice (2001, 2013).
If you don’t find the water with a miss at the Stadium Course, you might find yourself in even more daunting trouble around the greens, with all those infernal lies Dye created in grassy knobs and hollows and in awkward stances in the sand.
Houdini had an easier time extricating himself from handcuffs, leg irons and a crate at the bottom of New York’s East River than players do around the damnedest of dry lies around the Stadium Course greens.
“It’s like being inside a great, big pinball machine,” Tom Weiskopf once said.
The punishment for mistakes is consistently more severe on Dye’s Stadium Course, quintessentially embodied at the famed 17th island green.
There’s really no place to miss there.
“It’s like having a 3 o’clock appointment for a root canal,” Mark Calcavecchia once said. “You’re thinking about it all morning, and you feel bad all day. You know sooner or later, you’ve got to get to it.”
For the hottest ball strikers, Dye allowed for plenty of thrills.
But the range of success and failure is typically more extreme at The Players than anywhere else.
We saw one side of that in 2015, with Rickie Fowler trailing by five shots with six holes to go. He went birdie-par-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to force a playoff he went on to win.
And we saw the other side of that in 1998, with Len Mattiace stepping to the 17th tee one shot behind Justin Leonard in the final round. He hit two balls in the water on his way to a quintuple-bogey 8.
“It’s a real simple formula here,” Woods once said. “Hit it good.”
Or, as NBC’s Gary Koch once famously said, hit it “better than most.”