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Sam commentary: GJO to THE PLAYERS is a long trip

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From John Tucker, Dick Stratton and a few others sitting at Silver’s Drug Store in Jax Beach talking about holding a golf tournament to the present day, the old GJO (Greater Jacksonville Open) has morphed into one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

It didn’t take long for the new Executive Director of The Players, Jared Rice to recite the statistics for this week’s tournament at the TPC at Sawgrass.

“Twenty-five countries, over a billion households, the tournament telecast is distributed in over 30 languages, this is one of the highest trafficked weeks of the year at Jacksonville International Airport, Hotel occupancy is at it’s highest,” he said on Monday.  “It really is a showcase of our region, we love this community, it’s a great place to live work and play, bring in out of town guests, business decision makers, it’s a great opportunity for us.”

If you’ve been out to the Stadium Course at all in the last four months you know they’ve made a lot of changes to the golf course and to the spectator experience.  And there’s always more work to do.

“It’s less than 24 hours away when we open the doors to the public,” Rice added.  “A little paint, some final nails, we are ready to go and look forward to seeing everyone out here tomorrow.”

For years The Players boasted of being the “best field in golf.”  This year, that’s just a fact. Only two of the top 50 aren’t here. Brandt Snedeker is injured and Belgian Thomas Pieters didn’t enter. Currently, 46 of the top 50 FedEx Cup will compete this week.  And as far as the actual strength of the field, there are 110 PGA Tour winners among Thursday’s starters with the players entered combining for 458 PGA Tour wins.

Two-time Arnold Palmer Invitational winner and Florida Gator Matt Every lives nearby but isn’t as familiar with the course or the changes as you might think.

“I don’t come here a lot,” he explained. “It’s pretty crowded during the year, kinda like a resort. My game’s all right, it’s good enough.  I’m not far off at all.”

And even with that, Every wasn’t convinced of his chances this week.

“I’m not playing super good right now so it would be shocking for me if I would win here,” knowing he missed the cut at Sawgrass two of the last three years.  “I know when it’s coming and when it’s not so if it happens great but if not, it’s OK.”

With the changes on the golf course, some players agree it will make it more difficult, favoring somebody who has some patience this week.

“These greens have always been firm.  It’s nice, they’re brand new greens and it’s nice that we’ll have them firm this year,” former FedEx Cup champ, local resident and Florida Gator Billy Horschel said after a practice round.

“I think aesthetically they did a real nice job of improving the course.  I think everyone’s raved about it,” he added. “They did a fairly decent job at 12.  I don’t think you’ll see a lot of guys go for it this year so they’ll come back and tweak it.”

Again this year, PGA Tour officials decided not to open the course to the public on Monday, giving players a lot of space to work on their games.  That’s probably why so many, including the defending champion Jason Day, were at the course early.

“It’s nice, it’s considered a fifth major and a lot of guys come out here and practice and do our own thing,” Horschel explained. “‘Bothered’ isn’t the right terminology but it’s nice to have a peaceful quiet day before all of the commotion gets going tomorrow.  They could have record breaking attendance too it would be awesome to see.”