May 16, 2014

Loran Smith: The Players Championship is major fun


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The Player’s Championship, with the biggest purse and the deepest field in professional golf, is about as much fun as a tournament can be. Formerly played in March, the weather since a 2007 switch to a May date has proven to be golf-attire comfortable. There are fewer weather delays — this past Sunday’s thunderstorm notwithstanding — and that has delivered record attendance and high-fives all around the PGA Tour headquarters.

It’s not the Masters, which has such a preeminence and mystique that the demand for tickets would be overwhelming even if regulars at a driving range provided the competition. It is not the U.S. Open, with a magnitude whose presence is simply overpowering — after all, it is the national championship. It’s not the British Open, which has such rich tradition and history that an accomplished golfer without a silver chalice in his trophy case is tantamount to being a man without a country. It’s not even the PGA Championship, which his its own storied history, tradition and a field to match.

The Players is the youngest of the big tournaments, having started in 1974. In time, it may have a more exalted status when compared to the four majors. With seasoning, there’s no telling what its popularity will become.

If it’s not important on the national stage at this point in time, it is at least without question the darling of the gallery in shorts and sundresses on Florida’s “First Coast.” They turn out here with a passion that is as keen as it is at the majors. The Tour doesn’t release attendance figures, but all indications are that ticket sales are a chest-bumping positive.

If you take note of the pattern that exists here, half of the crowd seems to find its way to the 17th hole, the island green that has captured so much attention since the stadium course was first used for competition in 1982. In fact, the Tour would like to find a way to move more fans to other parts of the golf course.

Television ratings have been troublesome throughout the tournament’s history, though. They were lacking in the old days, when it was positioned against the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Now the NFL draft has moved in, and the ratings revealed there were more spectators following the draft than golf.

While the tournament turned out to have a tense finish, it was not a classic ending with someone getting hot and taking the lead and birdying his way to victory. It was a matter of survival for Germany’s Martin Kaymer who, except for a near-miraculous par putt at No. 17 (when double-bogey looked more likely), appeared to have played himself out of the tournament.

Jordan Spieth, a young player with limitless potential, was paired in the final group but faded with a 74. The only excitement came when Ponte Vedra resident Jim Furyk closed with a 66 and Kaymer, following a 90-minute rain delay, appeared to be headed for self-destruction.

Kaymer, who opened the tournament with a blistering 63, closed with a 71 that included a double-bogey that put him in jeopardy. He only escaped by making that memorable par-saving putt at No. 17.  

This was the 40th anniversary of the playing of The Player’s Championship, which began at the Atlanta Country Club in 1974 and was won by Jack Nicklaus. The event was centered around the ambitious declaration by Deane Beman — the PGA Tour commissioner at the time — that the tournament should become golf’s fifth major.

That view has not subsided for many, but we are no closer to the possibility today than 40 years ago.

It remains, however, one of golf’s premier events.



Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.