The Players Championship: On the Outside Looking in to the Majors

The Players Championship comes again this year in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Again, as in most years, the organizers of the tournament tout the fact that “The Players” has the toughest and deepest field of all the tournaments played throughout the year. Begun in 1974 by the PGA Tour, it was hoped from the beginning that the event would grow in prestige and eventually be considered a 5th Major. For reasons we’re going to explore in the article, it hasn’t, but it does have its niche as the most important tournament of the year outside the Majors (Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open, and the Open Championship).

The first tournament was played in September of 1974 and was then known as “The Tournament Players Championship”. The PGA Tour was trying to emphasize that it was run by and for the players on the PGA Tour, not the members of PGA of America, which is the governing body of the PGA Teaching Pros who run the PGA Championship, two different organizations.

For the first three years the tournament was held at different venues in different parts of the country. 1974’s event was held at  Atlanta Country Club in Atlanta, Georgia. 1975 saw it move to Colonial Country Club in Ft. Worth, Texas in late August and 1976 it was moved to late February and went to Inverrary Golf and Country Club in Southern Florida.

In 1978 it moved to its permanent home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida at the Sawgrass Country Club where it would be played between 1977 and 1981 while awaiting the completion of the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course that was built and owned by the PGA Players themselves. This is the course the tournament has been held on since 1982. One of the first courses to be designed in a stadium mode to the benefit of the fans in attendance. This is a great spectator venue for golf.

The tournament itself had a spectacular beginning. The “Golden Bear”, Jack Nicklaus, himself, won the first event, coming from three strokes back entering the Final Round to beat J.C. Snead by two strokes. Year 2 produced another quality winner, when former PGA Champion Al Geiberger won by three. 1976 saw Jack Nicklaus win it for the second time, again defeating J.C. Snead, this time by three strokes with a Final Round 65. Nicklaus would win again in 1978, meaning that the “Golden Bear” would win three of the first five Players Championships held. This brings to mind Tom Weiskopf famous line about competing against Jack, “Jack knew he was going to beat you. You knew Jack was going to beat you. And Jack knew you knew that he was going to beat you.” Jack’s success translated into instant credibility for the event.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL – MARCH 13: Jack Nicklaus with the THE PLAYERS Championship trophy in the locker room prior to THE PLAYERS Championship on THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 13, 2019, in Ponte Vedra Beach . (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

The Players was off to a fantastic beginning. The first 14 years contested the tournament was won by 12 players that would win Major Championships. Besides Nicklaus and Geiberger the list would include Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Lanny Wadkins, Jerry Pate and Fred Couples. In the 44 tournaments played so far, only 12 times did a player win who did not have a Major Championship during their career. A fantastic pedigree. The toughest field of the year (this year the top 50 players in the world are scheduled to compete), a deep field, with one of the largest purses on tour. So what prevents it from being classified a “Major”.

It’s first problem is it does not have the history to compete with the 4 Majors. It started in 1974. Jack Nicklaus was 34 when he won his first Players Title. Arnold Palmer was 44, Gary Player 39, when they teed it up for the first time in The Players Championship. Sam Snead and Ben Hogan never competed in the tournament. The Masters was the last of the current Majors to be founded and was started in 1934. That is 40 years difference. The first Open Championship was in 1860, The U.S. Open began in 1895 and the PGA in 1916 filling the 4 current Majors with more history and legacy. Jack may have given it credibility, but he had already won 12 of his 18 Major Titles prior to the debut of the Players. The Players just hasn’t been around very long.

The biggest problem though is the course they play. None of the four courses used by the Players are ranked in the top 50 in the world. The current venue, the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course is the highest rated, and it’s ranked 58th by Golf Magazine. Compare that to the courses for the four current Majors this year. The Masters is at Augusta National, which is ranked 3rd, The PGA is at Bethpage Black, which is 36th, The U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach, which ranks 7th, and the Open Championship is at Royal Portrush, which is 15th. Sure, sometimes the Majors go to so-so courses for their championships such as Erin Hills, Valhalla, Hoylake, etc. But the classic courses are always just around the corner. The Players is permanently fought out at the Stadium Course at Sawgrass. It just does not have the prestige to compete with the courses the Majors play at.

Let’s close with a quote from Greg Norman’s agent. After Norman won the Players in 1994, he withdrew from The Players Championship in 1998 and his agent summed up our thoughts perfectly, “Greg is very disappointed. He was hoping to use this event as a really good warm-up for the Masters.”

It’s not a Major, but it is the fifth most important tournament of the year. Watch it with that in mind.

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