We return to the scene of the crime this week, where Rickie Fowler stole the Players Championship a year ago with a scintillating stretch of orange-tinted golf. Fowler carved out a memorable finish on the Stadium course canvas in what may have been the tournament’s finest hour since the day in 1982 when Jerry Pate “persuaded” Deane Beman and Pete Dye to join him for a celebratory swim in a gator pond.
Yes, 2015 was a very good year at Sawgrass.
It’s that time again, and thanks to Fowler, there won’t be a harder act to follow than Jordan Spieth’s Grand Slam chase that ended last July at St. Andrews.
Correction, there is a harder act to follow: the Masters.
That’s why even though the Players may be near its all-time high in prestige and is the PGA Tour’s flagship event, it’s never going to be golf’s fifth major championship. And that’s O.K.
For starters, golf doesn’t need a fifth major. Second, batting behind the Masters is like being the next on the podium after Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. When the Players was held in March, it stood in a large shadow cast by the Masters but was still able to tap into that anticipatory springtime buzz. Since the Players moved to a May date in 2007, it’s largely been a placeholder between the Masters and the U.S. Open.
The good news for PGA Tour officialdom is that the Players has reached a point where it is included in the fifth-major conversation. Not bad. Pretty good, in fact. And that challenging closing three-hole stretch always seems to deliver.
But the Players is not, nor will it ever be, a major championship. Let’s list the reasons why:
- It’s Masters week or Open week or Ryder Cup week. But Players week? The latter hasn’t caught on and unlike the Masters or the Opens, the Players never gets circled on the calendar when the Tour rolls out its schedule every year.
- Rory McIlroy, a four-time major champion, has already plotted out his Players preparation. He’ll turn up on Wednesday and perhaps play nine holes. That’s not how you prep for a major. McIlroy’s past Players issues aside, you are not a major if the players themselves don’t consider you a major.
- Nobody comes in early to check out the course. Oh, but you argue, they play it every year and they already know it so there’s no reason to. Funny, they play Augusta National every year yet players drop in repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the tournament. In contrast, pros stroll into Ponte Vedra the week of.
- Spieth, the reigning U.S. Open champion, always gears up for the majors. His edge has been in outpreparing his opponents. Well, his idea of gearing up for the Players has been to not tee it up once since the Masters. In fact, Spieth spent part of last week preparing for the Players by making his first visit to Oakmont, this year’s U.S. Open site. He shot something in the mid-70s in his first look. So if the No. 2 player in the world sneaks in a practice round at another course instead of yours the week before your tournament, you’re definitely not a major.
- There is no Players favorite. Every major championship has a marquee player (or two) who is the man to beat that week. The Players never has one (not counting Tiger Woods, who spent 15 years being the favorite at every event he played). TPC Sawgrass does not seem to favor any specific type of player. It has been won by big hitters, short hitters, great players, one-hit wonders, so-so putters and everything in between. Journeyman Paul Goydos nearly won a Players. Fred Funk never won a major, but he won a Players. Craig Perks never won anything but a Players. The list of champions includes Tiger, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and Greg Norman. Does the diversity of winners and contenders mean that Pete Dye’s design is democratically fair or that it has such sharp edges and outsized penalties that it negates talent?
- Name a major championship venue that has an island green. If you said the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium course because it held a U.S. Amateur famously won by a young Tiger Woods, you’d get bonus points for trying. But you’d still be wrong. No national amateur championship has been considered a major since the days of Munsingwear, spoons and golf shoes with kilties.
- Nobody cares how many FedEx Cup points a player gets when he wins a major. PGA Tour officials and broadcasters cram that statistic down your throat the moment a winner is crowned at the Players.
- Finally, the greats play the game for trophies, not money. Which is easy to say when you nonetheless pocket a lot of money for winning the trophy. The Players champion wins $1.8 million, by the way. In the age of the $10 million FedEx Cup champion, that may not sound like such a big stack of bills as it used to. So check out this factoid about the most lucrative purse on the PGA Tour: The runner-up pockets $1.08 million. Tiger once said that “second place sucks.” Not at Sawgrass. Majors, on the other hand, are all about the spoils.
Major or not (not, as previously outlined!), enjoy this week with all the big studs together for the first time since Augusta. And please, don’t feed the gators.