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Players Championship, the fifth major? Nah. The PGA Tour’s own moves have hurt the claim

March 13, 2019

If the Players Championship were a prizefighter, Larry Holmes would get the part without an audition. A dominant heavyweight but rarely thought of as one of boxing’s all-time greats, Holmes fought far past his prime in pursuit of love and respect and was still taking punches into his 50s.

No golf tournament is promoted more tirelessly or jabbed at more frequently than the Players, which turns 45 this week and has the granite chin to prove it. Best field in the game. Biggest purse. Course wired for thrills and spills. That “fifth major” claim dates to Deane Beman’s days as PGA Tour commissioner, a hollow boast in that golf’s most important events need not and cannot anoint themselves.

Besides, if the Players is such a big deal, why was it moved from March to May in 2007, then back to March this year? (Also, why has Phil Mickelson waited until the 11th hour to commit? You’d never see him pulling those shenanigans at Augusta.) It’s an obvious accommodation to the FedEx Cup playoffs, which now finish in August to avoid competing with the almighty NFL for television viewers. Big picture? The shift makes a bunch of sense. Especially for the PGA of America, which eagerly migrated its own major to the vacant May slot in search of stronger TV ratings and better course conditions.

The iconic 17th hole at the Stadium Course, home of the Players Championship.
The iconic 17th hole at the Stadium Course, home of the Players Championship.

As for Camp Ponte Vedra, the shuffle reflects a juggling of priorities. The FedEx postseason derby, not the Players, has become the tour’s crown jewel. Three weeks beats one, but you don’t need logic as a referee to see how wanna-be majors can’t take a step backward.

The self-appointed fifth major painted a target on its own back in its formative years, although most purists have preferred to pop it in the nose, sticking with the premise that the Players is a nice tournament held on an over-designed course. A Pete Dye original if ever there was one, TPC Sawgrass has been tweaked several times over the years, resulting in a layout that rewards a conservative, connect-the-dots style of play.

Those 12 years in May had little effect on the event’s competitive character or prestige; the late-spring dates certainly didn’t propel the Players to a so-called higher level. Other than when Tiger Woods won in 2013, final-round TV ratings remained flat (low to mid 3s) during the first half of that stretch, then fell off dramatically before climbing to 3.6 in 2018. Guess who returned to action and briefly contended on that Saturday?

Although some folks would like to declare every tournament Woods enters as a major, current commissioner Jay Monahan seems to have the vision and pragmatic sensibilities needed for the tour to strengthen itself through its other properties. Twenty years after their inception, the World Golf Championships have taken on a global disposition befitting of their title. The participation of many top-tier pros in the 2016 Summer Olympics might eventually produce a wider breadth of international growth, a business opportunity the tour takes seriously.

None of this is to say that Monahan and Co. do not continue to treasure the Players — and the notion of golf’s power brokers officially granting it major status isn’t actually that far fetched, especially if the Tour can convince enough influential players to buy in.

The self-appointed fifth major painted a target on its own back in its formative years, although most purists have preferred to pop it in the nose.

“The public and the press have fully embraced five majors for the ladies,” Beman reminded me the other day, referring to the LPGA bestowing major-hood on the Evian Masters in 2013. “Same thing for the [Champions] Tour, correct?”

Beman is 80, a quarter of a century removed from his tenure as commish, but he remains stiletto-sharp and full of strong takes. “If the players themselves insisted that it’s a major and embraced their own championship, they’d be playing for an additional $50 million a year,” he said. “As it is, they’re leaving all that money on the table. It makes no sense to me.”

It’s hard to imagine purses rising another $50 million without some form of outcry from corporate sponsors and other financial backers who have remained loyal to the Tour over the years. But that’s not the point. Too many players just don’t think the Players should be a major. Why alter what you feel in your heart for the sake of more cash and the risk of backlash? It’s not like these guys are standing in breadlines.

As for the notion that you add a fifth major because the LPGA and the seniors did it, well, Beman is a smart man, but he’s also a company man. He’s the reason the Players Championship exists, a big reason the Tour he once governed has evolved into a money-making machine for the men fortunate enough to play the game at its highest level.

There is no fifth major because the game has done pretty damn well with four. Never will that be more evident than on Sunday evening, when the grinning champion is handed a check for a cool $2.25 million.