Should the Players Championship become a major?
What makes a major? The question arises because it is becoming harder to find reasons why this week’s Players Championship will not eventually evolve to that elevated level.
The four men’s majors are the benchmark of the game.
The Open Championship is the world’s oldest and most prestigious event, the Masters has become the game’s most glamorous tournament, the US Open is America’s national championship and the PGA? Well, it is the PGA.
Chronologically it is last of the big four and is regarded as such in significance – this despite always boasting the top 100 players in the world, which is more than the other three majors are able to do.
Gaining major status only genuinely happens when there is universal agreement that a tournament deserves such status.
The stature of the US Open has never been in doubt while on these shores, The Open’s lustre only wobbled when American professionals became reluctant to travel in the 1950s.
Arnold Palmer’s continued support of The Open ensured its elite status was preserved and never again ignored by any of the world’s leading stars.
The Masters only truly acquired its major standing in the post-Second World War years and the US PGA Championship needed to switch from its original matchplay format in 1958 to maintain its relevance.
It is also the preserve of the PGA of America, one of the most powerful bodies in the sport and the organisation that runs the US Ryder Cup team.
All majors have in common a place in sporting history, large prize funds, deep fields populated with players desperate to win, a resonance that stretches beyond the golfing village and the ability to identify the best players in the world.
History built year on year
And this neatly brings us to the 44th Players Championship, which will be played at TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida from Thursday.
Which of those boxes is not ticked by the Players?
Its history has built year on year. This is the 36th time it will be played on Pete Dye’s famous Stadium Course, relaid and refined this year, and the closing stretch of holes including the famous island-green 17th have become as familiar as any on the golf calendar.
In financial terms it is every bit as lucrative as any other tournament on the planet. This year it is worth $10.5m (£8.1m) and it is little surprise that it attracts the PGA Tour’s strongest field of the season.
And it resonates. The fact that it returns to the same course every year helps and it generates memories that stick with us.
Remember Hal Sutton’s “be the right club, be the right club, today” as he fired his tournament-winning approach to the 72nd green to hold off Tiger Woods in 2000? Or Fred Funk slamming his cap into the green upon completing his 2005 victory?
Sandy Lyle has been Britain’s only winner, and his victory is still fondly remembered even though it was achieved 30 years ago. More recently the nerveless play-off wins by Sergio Garcia (2008) and Rickie Fowler (2015) are easier to recall than many a decisive moment in, say, the PGA Championship.
And there can be little argument over the pedigree of its champions. The Players is rarely won by anyone other than the highest calibre of golfer.
Jack Nicklaus triumphed three times, including the inaugural tournament in 1974, and the roster of champions includes; Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Fred Couples, David Duval, Adam Scott, Martin Kaymer and last year’s winner Jason Day – all world number ones.
Sawgrass messes with golfers heads. It demands precision and the correct angles of attack. “It tests basically everything from a mechanical and hitting standpoint, as well as to a mental approach,” said Duval, the champion in 1999.
Relaid and refined course
For this year’s event the course has been relaid with new grasses and several greens have been altered.
The 12h hole now becomes a driveable par-four to provide a kickstart to the fireworks that inevitably occur on the water dominated par-five 16th, short 17th and dramatic par-four closing hole.
Until 2007, the tournament occupied a March date and was recognised as the first genuine gathering of the world’s best golfers before the Masters. Then came the move to its current timing in May.
Many have debated the wisdom of the schedule change. “I don’t believe the golf course has quite lived up to how they have wanted it since the move to May, with the condition of it,” Duval said.
“It should go back to March,” he added, saying such a move is more likely to yield firmer and faster playing conditions. “It’s been a bit of struggle and so I hope it does go back.”
|Recent Players Championship winners|
|2016: Jason Day (Aus) -15|
|2015: Rickie Fowler (US) -12 (won after play-off)|
|2014: Martin Kaymer (Ger) -13|
|2013: Tiger Woods (US) -13|
|2012: Matt Kuchar (US) -13|
|2011: KJ Choi (Kor) -13|
Duval may well get his wish. The proposed restructuring of the golfing calendar would see the PGA shift from its August date to take the Players Championship slot in May, as it moves back to the original pre-Masters timing.
Tellingly, the Players is at the heart of the conversation on finding the most attractive schedule for the men’s game. It, therefore, is already sitting at golf’s top table.
And, while the sport might not need another major – and certainly not another in the United States – it feels more and more as though we are arriving at a tipping point.
Right now it is “the four majors and the Players” when we discuss the most prized events in the game, but for how much longer might this distinction be drawn?