The Players Championship has evolved into an event unlike any other

The Players Championship has evolved into an event unlike any other

The move from March to May changed playing conditions at the Stadium course, which was firm and fast last week.
Fred Vuich/SI

Recite once in the morning and again at night: The Players Championship is not a major; the Players Championship is not a major.

Your confusion is understandable. After all, there was Johnny Miller in the NBC broadcast booth, in coat and tie all through the sweltering weekend, talking about the rock-hard greens that were turning brown before our eyes. He could have been at Southern Hills or Oakmont. And there was Tiger in a Saturday-night interview, smelling napalm and victory in the humid North Florida air and declaring, “This is like our fifth major.” Somewhere, Tim Finchem was doing a jig.

The whole five-major thing would fit nicely with our own duffing lives, right? The season is April through September, until football comes on TV and life as we otherwise know it grinds to a halt. For the spring and summer, the gents go one biggie per month for six straight months:

The Masters (April). The Players (May). The U.S. Open (June). The British Open (July). The PGA Championship (August). The Ryder Cup (even-year Septembers).

Everything else — your World Golf Championships, your FedEx Cup playoffs, your Fall Series tournaments —gets you from one place to the next, and sometimes not even that. You need those events, of course. You can’t have a Big Man on Campus without a whole worshipful student population to prop him up, right? Still, we know which ones count. Winning a Fall Series event doesn’t even get you a free trip to Augusta. But losing in the final of the U.S. Amateur does.

That’s where the major confusion begins, with the Masters, a tournament started as a little golfing get-together by Bobby Jones, the great amateur. The Masters became a major … when, exactly? You can’t put a date on it. Jones’s victories in the 1930 U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs became the Grand Slam after he completed them. Yet Jack Nicklaus’s career major total is, these days, always said to be 18, with his two U.S. Amateurs lopped off but his six Masters and five PGAs counting. Things change.

And none of this really means anything to Kevin Na, who was born in South Korea 25 years ago, skipped his senior year of high school to turn pro at 17 and finished in a tie for third last week at the Players, five shots behind the winner, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson. Na said, “I’ve shown I can compete in a major.” The fifth major. Hal Sutton never won the Masters, but he won the 2000 Players and once said he got more goose bumps driving down PGA Tour Boulevard than he did Magnolia Lane.

You’d think it’s an American thing, this whole fifth major business, but really it’s not. Ian Poulter of England, who finished in second place last week, said, “Everybody talks about this as the fifth major. And I think with the field, with the World Ranking points and the winners on that trophy, you have to respect that. I think it is.”

But can you have five majors? On the Champions tour five events are officially designated as majors, but even the players find those designations laughable. (Tom Watson likes to say, “You can’t have a pro-am and be a major.” Three of the five senior majors have pro-ams.) You don’t have five majors in anything. Not in tennis (four there). Not in horse racing (three). Not in U.S. political parties (two).

Of course, it could be that the Players is some sort of hybrid, not a major but not a routine Tour stop, either. Jim Furyk said last week that the Players got a big upgrade when it moved from March to May three years ago and that now it is something else. “In my heart it’s the fifth biggest event,” said Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open winner. “And that’s why I call it a championship.”

The move to May means that TPC Sawgrass plays much firmer and faster than it did in March, much more like — this will sound like heresy to some —a British Open course. And yet the Pete Dye design, built out of a drained swamp, is nothing like any British Open course, with its many ponds and coarse bermuda rough and the par-3 17th played to an island green. (Number 17: gimmick hole or genius? Both!) The Stadium course is the quintessential American target golf course: hit something high in the air (and Stenson hits it as high as anyone since Nicklaus) and get it to stop, first on a fairway, later on a green.

So what you have now at the Players, or at least as it played on Saturday and Sunday, is a strange combination of target golf and bump-and-run golf —as if you moved a Florida resort course with bermuda grass to the east coast of Scotland. Playing a majorish championship on bermuda grass, David Toms noted, is another distinguishing feature of the Players and a reminder that many majors, most particularly the Masters before 1981, were played on bermuda greens.

In tennis the four majors are played on distinct surfaces, and you could certainly say the same of the first four biggies of the men’s golf season. Augusta makes you switch gears, between extreme power and extreme finesse, from one shot to the next. U.S. Open rough and baked greens will turn your head to mush. The British Open will make you play low, boring shots that defy the heavy sea wind. The Players mixes elements of all three, really. In its own way, it’s one of a kind.

“It’s weird,” somebody said on Sunday night to Ty Votaw, one of the PGA Tour’s executive vice presidents.

“Weird in what way?” Votaw asked.

“Weird cool,” came the answer.

“Weird cool, we’re fine with that,” Votaw said. “The PGA Tour has never claimed that the Players is the fifth major. What we’re trying to do is make the tournament better every year than it was the year before, and in the 36 years of the event, we’ve done that.”

Zach Johnson, winner of the 2007 Masters, was paired with Furyk on Sunday. Two winners of majors paired together on a Sunday in a big tournament. After Furyk made his third birdie on the back nine, Johnson started to wonder if he was playing with “the guy who would win the tournament.” About the only time you’ll hear players talk like that is when they feel as if they might be witness to a little golf history.

But how historic — how significant, how memorable, how emotional — is a win in the Players? That’s really the question. Have you ever seen a player cry after winning the Players? Jeff Rude, a senior writer for Golfweek and a Hall of Fame voter, says he gives a win in the Players more weight than an ordinary Tour event when sizing up a player’s career, but that doesn’t mean the Players is a major, or close to it. “It’s a 21st-century golf tournament,” Rude says. It’s the new kid on the block. A peculiar, hybrid May event, the Players is still a toddler. And 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, for one, feels the Players lost something by moving from March to May.

That’s significant because players, more than sportswriters or marketing campaigns or anything else, really say in the end what is and what isn’t a major. They know. Furyk didn’t say that deep in his heart the Players is a major championship — he said it was a championship. Tiger didn’t say the Players was the fifth major. He said it was like a fifth major, and he is a man precise in all things.

And then there’s Phil Mickelson, winner of three majors and the 2007 Players Championship. You likely know the Potter Stewart quote about pornography, in which the Supreme Court justice says it’s hard to define “but I know it when I see it.” Mickelson, in his own way, has a litmus test for majors. When he’s done playing in a major, he’s so worn out, physically and mentally, that he spends the following week in bed. After finishing 55th at the Players, Mickelson said he’s not going to spend this week in bed. Nope. He’ll be on the range getting ready for the second major of the year, the U.S. Open at Bethpage.