by John Huggan
Given its status as the biggest event on the world’s richest tour, it is perhaps not surprising that The Players Championship has always harboured huge ambitions. Almost from day one of the inaugural event in 1974 – back then it was the “Tournament Players Championship” – there was overblown talk of it being, or at least quickly evolving into, the “fifth Major.”
It hasn’t, of course. To the credit of those who have resisted the powerful combination of arrogance, financial clout and political influence contained within the PGA Tour, (male) golf’s Grand Slam continues to feature only four constituent parts. All of which means no place at the game’s top table for PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
Indeed, it is, one suspects, the topic of conversation that Finchem prefers to avoid most. While the diminutive former Washington lobbyist may be the “big white chief” at the game’s most lucrative circuit, when it comes to the five most important, interesting and exciting events in golf “wee Timmy” is in need of a ladder.
Without a big lift up, Finchem just can’t reach any of the chairs at golf’s top table, where sit the Augusta National Golf Club (The Masters), the United States Golf Association (US Open), The R&A (Open Championship) and the Professional Golfers Association of America (USPGA Championship). Throw in the biennial Ryder Cup matches between the United States and Europe, an event jointly run by the PGA of America and the European Tour, and “the commish’s” misery is surely complete.
“The ladies and the seniors don’t do themselves any favours when it comes to how many Majors they have,” points out former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.
“Constantly chopping and changing, adding and subtracting is absurd and totally devalues what should be the biggest events in the game. So the ‘is the Players Championship the fifth major?’ question is a non-starter, a non-argument – one barely worth discussing because it isn’t ever going to happen. Thank goodness.”
Still, it would be equally wrong to dismiss The Players as just another event on an increasingly crowded schedule. It is more than that, much more.
For one thing, the field is as good as it gets, consistently statistically stronger than almost all of the majors and containing almost every one of the game’s leading 100 practitioners. And for another, the TPC Sawgrass course, while far from perfect, has produced an extraordinary variety of champions. To its credit, Pete Dye’s much-tweaked design has shown itself to be playable by those of all shapes and sizes, strengths and weaknesses.
It is, for sure, a title worth having. A fair sprinkling of golf’s most famous names have finished first: Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Tom Kite, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Fred Couples, Steve Elkington, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Sergio García and Rickie Fowler, to name but a few. Then again, Fred Funk, Stephen Ames, Craig Perks and Jodie Mudd also have their names on the trophy. So nothing is perfect.
“The golf course is a hard one to categorise,” confirms Ogilvy. “While I’m not sure anyone would place it in their top 25 courses in the world, it does have an amazing capacity for identifying all sorts of winners. It is a layout that asks every player to hit a lot of different shots. For example, you need to draw the second shot to the 2nd. A fade is required off the 4th tee. There are holes where an iron off the tee is the best option. And there are others where you have to go with driver. Length gets its due reward. Yet there’s a par five – the 16th – that is easily in range for anyone hitting two good shots.
“So it’s a course that gives everyone a chance. Which is surely why no one has dominated the place on a regular basis. The list of winners is really diverse. And that is unusual.
“Almost every course we professionals play in the world, there are two,three or four guys who always seem to show up no matter what. Fred Couples at Riviera; Tiger and Phil at Augusta. Those guys can be relied upon to perform well on those courses. It just suits their eye or their game or both.
“But Sawgrass doesn’t do that. Every year the leaderboard looks almost nothing like the year before. Phil has popped up and won, but hasn’t done much apart from that. Tiger won in 2001 and 2013 but otherwise has barely been in contention.
Instead, every year six or seven new and different quality players are vying for the title on Sunday afternoon. Every year. And I have no idea why. It just seems to be the type of course that gives everyone a chance. It’s not crazy long. It’s not crazy narrow. You have to move the ball both ways.”
Two things have enhanced the stature of The Players, albeit to one rung short of where it would like to be. Back in 1974, the event was preceded by a pro-am. Big mistake – real majors don’t have pro-ams – one the then commissioner Deane Beman rectified in short order. Then there was the change of date in 2007, from late March to mid-May. Suddenly, there was space between The Players and The Masters, which tends to dominate the thoughts of golf fans during the first quarter of every year.
“Sawgrass went from a tough version of what we play every week – narrow, long rough, firm greens by Sunday – to something that is none of those things,” says Ogilvy.
“No other TPC course asks you to hit a bigger range of shots or be a more complete player. It asks a lot of the right questions. And that makes it ideal for identifying the best player. You can’t win there without playing very well. Which sounds silly. But, take it from me, there are courses on tour where you can win just by putting great. Or by getting up and down from everywhere. You can’t do just those things at Sawgrass and win. You have to do everything well. Maybe that’s why it is so hard to dominate. It’s rare for anyone to bring every part of his game to an event.”
Not at the Sawgrass course’s most famous hole though. The so-called “Island green” (which isn’t actually an island) at the par-three 17th calls for every player to dispense with any semblance of imagination and simply repeat the shot hit by every previous competitor. Shot-making it is not.
Still, on the upside, this gaudy sideshow of a hole has brought the event huge publicity and notoriety over the years. There is apparently nothing that the casual fan likes better than to see golf balls struck by well-known players disappearing under water. That, apparently is fun, akin to the multi-car smashes that seem to draw so many spectators to the otherwise mind-numbing spectacle of NASCAR racing or Formula One. Then again, throw in the raucous and more than mildly inebriated atmosphere that surrounds the hole and, from a purely golfing point of view, such a distasteful carnival has no place in an event with such lofty ambitions.
In truth, the presence of such a famously wicked and unforgiving hole has surely done much to hold back the hoped-for steady progress of the event towards major championship status.
Golf’s predominantly conservative core audience is less impressed by a hole where every player is asked to hit basically the same shot time after tedious time.
So it is that The Players has never been more than the stereotypical down-market tabloid or comic book of golf – blue bloods tend not to read red tops – while the Majors are the thought-provoking, erudite broadsheets.
Even more importantly, the very best players have never shown The Players Major-like levels of respect.
Back in the late 1980s – while still on the edge of contention – six-times Major champion Nick Faldo stood on the 16th tee in the final round and hit his drive with his left heel off the ground from address to follow-through. In other words, he was working on a swing drill in the middle of a competitive round. Or, to put it another way, he was preparing for the Masters in the middle of an event that he simply wasn’t that bothered about.
“I understand the date change,” said Woods at the time it was made. “The Players now has its own place in the schedule, which is good. Before, at least for me, it was more of a tune-up, my last tournament before Augusta.”
The last word, however, goes to the erudite Ogilvy: “For me, The Players won’t ever be a Major championship until the media anoints it as such, in the same way as The Masters was promoted maybe 75 years ago.”
Oh well. Never mind Tim. Maybe in 50 years or so golf will be ready for a “fifth Major.”
Then again, maybe not.