BEST PLACES TO STAY
It's a sad sign of our current economy that a week before the Players spare rooms can be had at the host Sawgrass Marriott (904-285-7777, sawgrassmarriott.com). Your stay will set you back five Franklins a night, but as part of its Players Package, the hotel throws in two tickets a day and unlimited Vijay sightings, among other perks. A week later rooms plummet to $165. Cocktailing at V. Kelly's or at the Lobby Bar and civilized dining at the Augustine Grille are highlights.
Now that the beloved, if tattered, Sea Turtle Inn in Atlantic Beach has morphed into the pricier, more pretentious One Ocean Hotel Resort & Spa, the runaway winner in the region's value department is the new Holiday Inn Express Jacksonville Beach (904-435-3000, hiejacksonvillebeach.com). It's less than a mile from the Atlantic, only seven miles from the TPC, offers wireless Internet, flat-screen TVs, a free hot breakfast, fresh cookies at happy hour and it's asking $145 a night during the tournament.
Call ahead, because in the last few months alone, longtime favorites Cafe Carmon, Dolphin Depot and Plaza III Steakhouse have closed their doors. Local boy Jim Furyk recommends Dwight's Bistro (904-241-4496, dwightsbistro.com), a tiny eatery hidden in a Jacksonville Beach strip mall that serves memorable crab cakes with a wine list to match. For steaks that sizzle, Furyk likes Ruth's Chris (904-285-0014, ruthschris.com) right outside the Sawgrass gates. (Of course, Furyk used to be sponsored by the chain.)
Budget-minded fans of smoked meats lacquered with tangy, mustard-based sauces will find their tastes satisfied at any of the area's Bono's Pit Bar-B-Q locations (bonosbarbq.com). If you're down St. Augustine way and have a hankering for old-Florida atmosphere, Saltwater Cowboys (904-471-2332, saltwatercowboys.com) is drenched in it. Housed in an old fish camp, this local legend is Big Easy meets the Everglades, ladling out portions of alligator tail, frog legs and jambalaya in a wooden-floor, rusted- tinroof setting along the Intercoastal Waterway.
BEST ALTERNATIVE AIRPORT
None. Jacksonville International Airport is 35 miles north of TPC Sawgrass, offers cheap, nonstop flights from New York LaGuardia (Delta, from $199 round trip) and from Chicago O'Hare (United, from $199) and has reasonably priced rental cars (Budget, from $212 for four days). If you're driving, Jacksonville is impossible to miss, bisected as it is by two of the nation's megahighways, I-10 and I-95. From I-95 south, two easy turns onto State Route 202 East and A1A puts you in PGA Tour town.
BEST ESCAPE FROM THE GOLF
America's oldest surviving city (1565) is St. Augustine, 25 miles south of Ponte Vedra Beach, and it's chockfull of "oldest" tourist stops, such as oldest house, oldest Wooden Schoolhouse and oldest Jail. You might find Gary Player here as well. The narrow streets take you past Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, a 330-year-old walled Spanish fort that overlooks Matanzas Bay. Nearby is Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, where apparently Kenny Perry has been sipping the same water that Ponce de Leon imbibed in 1513.
BEST RAINY-DAY ACTIVITY
"If you love golf, you've got to go" to the World Golf Hall of Fame at St. Augustine's World Golf Village (904-940-4000, wgv.com). Though you might not be able to get Ben Crenshaw's nasally twang out of your head, you can't help but feel the same love Gentle Ben and other history buffs profess when you partake of the treasures here. Sampling ancient clubs and balls, stepping across a replica of Swilcan Burn Bridge and playing a virtual round at St. Andrews are among the interactive exhibits, though the true fan could spend all day simply perusing the records and legacies of the game's greats. A Bob Hope exhibit, Shanks for the Memory, is special for 2009.
BEST DAY TO ATTEND THE PLAYERS
It's tempting to say Friday, so that you're guaranteed to see every player in golf's strongest field before the cut. Personally, I'd pick the windiest day in the forecast just to watch the carnival of horrors at the island-green 17th. In truth, though, if you have a ticket for Sunday, use it. There's no gut-check in golf as daunting as the final trio of holes at TPC Sawgrass. Whether it's Woods versus Mickelson or O'Hair versus Mattiace, it doesn't really matter: As long as it's close, the drama is unbeatable.