This is not yet the time to proclaim the Players as a major championship, although the PGA Championship (the obvious No. 4 of the four majors) should be nervously checking its rear-view mirror. Objects may be closer than they appear.
This is the time to send bouquets, however. May isn’t normally an awards month but the truth is, the Players is golf’s Most Improved Tournament. Moving the Players from its traditional date in March, two weeks before the Masters, to early May was as much a gamble as it was an experiment. This week will be the event’s third post-Kentucky Derby May appearance. Our verdict? A tournament that was already very good and very important is now bigger and better than ever.
One significant crack in the wall of tradition came during last year’s Players, when respected British journalist Derek Lawrenson wrote in the Daily Mail, “High on the list of comments I never thought I’d make is the opinion that the Players Championship is now better than the Masters.” He has a point. The 144-man field at the Players has twice as many serious contenders as the 90-plus-man Masters field, which is bloated by aging past champions.
“The Players probably has the strongest field of the year,” says Steve Stricker. “You get 100 of the top 100 players, don’t you?”
Not quite. Last year 73 of the top 100 in the World Ranking teed it up at Sawgrass, second only to — surprise! — the PGA Championship, which had 93. Check out this recipe, though. Start with a strong field and a TV-friendly but scary course. “It used to be 6,900 yards and a heart attack a minute,” said Tour veteran Joe Ogilvie. Add controversy. Count Tiger Woods among those who think the famed island-green 17th is too gimmicky. Stir in a firmer, faster and better-conditioned course because of the new date and the lack of having to overseed the Stadium course’s bermuda grass for a March event. Bingo, you have some kind of modern classic.
“You have the four majors and the Players, but there are only four really good dates and one that’s not so good,” says Ogilvie. “No one ever says this, but we have one of the good dates now.”
With apologies to the FedEx Cup (O.K., not really), golf interest has already peaked before the PGA in August. There are baseball pennant races, the National Football League coming out of hibernation and the last few weeks of summer vacation. In the long run, standing alone as the king of May will solidify the Players as a significant event (if not the M-word).
“In March the Players was just another stop in Florida,” said Paul Goydos, last year’s runnerup. “Ninety-five percent of what we did then was watch the NCAA basketball tournament. Guys would be on the 17th tee asking, ‘What time is the game tonight?’ Moving to May changed that.”
In its May debut in ’07, the Players seemed oddly quiet and as out of place as a pair of brown shoes in a roomful of tuxedos. Last year, the event began again without measurable buzz. “Tiger wasn’t there; I wasn’t either,” says Ogilvie, laughing. Woods didn’t play because he was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.
There was buzz at the finish, however. When the tournament ended in a tie, Sergio Garcia and Goydos went to a sudden-death playoff that began on the par-3 17th hole. Some purists deemed that less than a legit way to determine a champion. Goydos hit first but a gust of wind knocked his shot into the water. Garcia hit a superb shot onto the green and that was that. It was made-for-TV drama — tense, photogenic and oh-so fast.
Even though he lost, Goydos supported a playoff starting on golf’s most iconic hole. “It is called sudden death, not slow, excruciating death, and we pretty much defined the term,” Goydos says. “If there’s a hole on our Tour that eliminates all advantage that any player would have, it’s the 17th. It’s a nine-iron or wedge for everyone. If I give my mom a few lessons, she could hit that green and she’s 80. If I had my choice to a playoff hole, I’d pick 17.”
Give the Players bonus points for originality and guts. A playoff at the 17th is a way for the tournament to set itself apart and, as marketers would say, create branding. Consider this: Of the four majors, who has the most exciting playoff format? The U.S. Open has 18 extra holes. That’s thrilling when it’s Tiger Woods versus some mortal, not so much so when it’s Mark Brooks versus Retief Goosen. The British Open has a three-hole format. Do you honestly remember anything about the Todd Hamilton-Ernie Els duel in 2004 The Masters begins sudden death at the 18th hole, one of the least interesting holes on a fabulous back nine. And the PGA — well, who cares?