The Florida Masters: Unlocking the Players Championship’s true identity

March 12, 2019

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Over the years, the term “Fifth Beatle” has been used to describe people not named Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or Starr who touched the band’s orbit in some meaningful way. But of course, once the group settled into its identity, there were four Beatles. Exactly four. In short, if you’re a fifth Beatle, you are not, in fact, a Beatle. That’s the whole point of the term.

Over the years, the Players Championship has similarly been designated golf’s “fifth major,” a title that, in my mind at least, has always clearly meant it is not a part of the game’s Fab Four. Like the Beatles, the Ghostbusters or professional tennis, golf has four majors. But that’s a tired debate. Instead, let’s stop defining the Players by what it isn’t and shift our attention to what it is. The Players is one of the game’s premier events and returns to the same memorable course every year, fires up golf fans everywhere for the start of their own golf season and now even has its own theme song. In short, it’s the Masters — just Florida-fied. The Florida Masters holds a crucially important position in golf’s hierarchy, and by allowing that it belongs in its own category — not a major, not a fifth major, but the Florida Masters — we can set it free.

There was no "fifth Beatle" on the cover of Abbey Road.

You might be thinking, “Oh yeah? What’s Masters-y about it? What’s so Florida-y about it?” Well, I am delighted that you asked. Let’s break it down!

THE LOCATION

It’s Masters-y… It’s behind a gate, and you’d better have a tee time or a good reason for that gateman to let you in.

…but Floridafied. It’s expensive as hell to play, but there are no good-ol’-boy Southern connections needed to gain entry here. In a nod to Florida’s consumerist culture, money alone will gain you entrance. TPC Sawgrass is a public course that you yourself can play next week for the low price of $550! Bonus points for essentially being located in a retirement community.

THE GOLF COURSE

It’s Masters-y… There are only so many tournaments on the schedule that are certain to remain at the same course for the foreseeable future, but this is definitely one of them. Moreover, golf fans have gotten to know and love a bunch of this course, especially the finishing stretch. Like Augusta, Sawgrass spreads risk-reward par-5s throughout the course and features do-or-die par 3s down the stretch. If the average golf fan can name 10 actual holes on the Tour schedule, there’s a good chance five of those are on Augusta or Sawgrass.

…but Floridafied. What defines Florida Golf better than a flat piece of property juiced up with man-made features and big-time water hazards that weaves through condo complexes? Don’t hold your breath waiting around for subtlety. If Augusta is a comprehensive final exam, TPC Sawgrass is a multiple choice test — albeit an intriguing, entertaining one. Most holes at Sawgrass demand a single correct shot to hit; either you execute that shot or you don’t. Last year, winner Webb Simpson masterfully navigated TPC, leading the field in fairways hit despite finishing literally last in driving distance, keeping it in play and making a bunch of putts. TPC Sawgrass is the pinnacle of a particular style of penal target golf that defines play in the Sunshine State. “It’s a very simple formula,” Tiger Woods said Tuesday. “Hit it good.”

Pete Dye may have achieved the pinnacle of Florida Golf at TPC Sawgrass, where the misses are particularly penal.
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THE SIGNATURE HOLE

It’s Masters-y… Like Augusta’s 12th (we can have the what’s-Augusta’s-signature-hole debate another time, bear with me) the signature hole at TPC Sawgrass is a par-3 with a famous water hazard that demands precision off the tee.

…but Floridafied. Because at this point No. 17 at the Players is a show of its own, built within a massive stadium, a shot with binary results — dry or wet. The island green is a symbol of Florida Golf, manufactured and dug out of the ground, and it’s great fun — but it’s hard to imagine at Augusta.

No 12 at Augusta and No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass are both fan favorites.
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THE CLUBHOUSE

It’s Masters-y… It’s large, iconic and looms in the background of the 18th green.

…but Floridafied. In place of Augusta’s understated, secretive elegance, the Players boasts a literal, actual palace for a clubhouse. I mean, look at that behemoth! But it feels appropriate for Florida’s crowning event, paying homage to the in-your-face garish opulence of big-money Florida, calling to mind some combination of DisneyWorld and Mar-a-Lago.

Once you have turrets, you're a palace.
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THE THEME SONG

It’s Masters-y… This one’s easy: It’s a golf tournament with a theme song. How many of those are there?

…but Floridafied. That theme song? It was released on social media with a behind-the-scenes showing of its construction. It’s a lot more modern than the soothing, minimalist piano keys of the Masters, and it’s clear a ton of production went into it. But still, I don’t mind it at all.

THE FAN EXPERIENCE

It’s Masters-y… Sort of. It’s a bucket-list course, the food is good and not terribly expensive, and you’d better get there early if you want to stake out a good spot.

…but Floridafied. Jacksonville is just far enough north in Florida to almost feel like it’s a part of the actual South, and there’s nothing that better defines the fan experience than Tuesday night’s country concert around the lake by 17 green. Can you imagine fans sitting in the azaleas behind No. 12 at Augusta while Jake Owen rocks out on the fairway? Plus, there’s the cell phone thing: banned at Augusta, strongly encouraged at the Players — but please, for the love of God, hashtag your Instagrams #LiveUnderPar!

THE LOCAL LEADERSHIP

It’s Masters-y… In that one of golf’s big-time forces resides in town. Augusta National is a serious player in the way the game is run. But there’s an even bigger force in Ponte Vedra Beach — TPC Sawgrass abuts PGA Tour HQ.

…but Floridafied. Because this is the biggest event run by the Tour, the full weight of its hefty marketing has gotten thrown behind it. That means a well-planned, top-notch fan experience. It also means no great surprise that graphics like the one below are being thrown around as a result, or that the “fifth major” talk has ratcheted up. Count Patton Kizzire, Charley Hoffman and Billy Horschel among the ranks of the converted. But Phil Mickelson has led the resistance, threatening to not play as recently as this weekend. Who would show up to a major not sure whether or not they wanted to play?

THE TIME OF YEAR

It’s Masters-y… Especially in this new (old) March slot on the schedule, the Players is serving this mid-March role of getting golfers across the country fired up for their first rounds of the year. There might not be cherry blossoms, but there’s green grass (extra-green this year, after some overseed and rain) and a familiar course. Time will tell if the Players theme song has Pavlovian effects the same way the Masters tinkling piano does too.

…but Floridafied. In a state that hosts 15 MLB teams in February and March, this is very much golf’s last spring training. The King of the Florida Swing! It’s important for this state to have a marquee event; it’s part of why we love the Players and its new spot on the schedule. Plus, March in Jacksonville means we can get some Florida Cold, the type of weather that’ll make the course play tougher, especially that finishing stretch.

The greatest gift the Players provides is hope, and the promise that golf season is on the way.

So even if you’re in a cold-weather climate, you have no access to an island green and you’ve never seen a golf course anything remotely resembling TPC Sawgrass, the Players dials up golf’s most important emotion: hope. Spring is on the way, and green grass is, too, and a full season of golf is ahead. Plus, there are the four majors to look forward to. In the meantime, enjoy the Florida Masters. It’s a great way to get started.