PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – As administrations have changed at the PGA Tour over the last 40 years, the focus of The Players has changed as well. The tournament founder and then-Commissioner Deane Beman wanted it to be the first significant tournament of the year. And in truth, wanted it to become the fifth major. Beman was visionary when it came to what The Players could be, but in some cases was a lone voice, albeit an important voice for what he always called “Our Championship.”
Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus both had tournaments in Florida and Ohio and also wanted their tournaments to be something more than just another tour spot. Nicklaus had visions of Augusta at Murifield Village outside of Columbus. Both he and Palmer considered Beman a rival when it came to building golf courses, they didn’t think the PGA Tour should be in that business, so neither were big proponents of The Players in the early years.
Nobody at the Tour was ever happy when a lot of the talk during this week was about The Masters. Falling just two weeks before the first “major” many players of the era talked about using The Players as a run-up to Augusta.
So over time, and a new commissioner in Tim Finchem, the Tour did everything they could to make The Players the best on every level they could: Biggest prize money, best practice facility, magnificent clubhouse and on and on. But even as the tournament grew in stature and became a tournament that players wanted to win, (Adam Scott in 2004 was the first to say “I grew up dreaming of winning this tournament”) it still lived in the shadow of The Masters.
In 2007, after years of studying the weather and agronomy, The Players moved to May, four weeks after the Masters and a month before the US Open. While the tournament stands alone and is now a significant international sporting event. There is a sentiment among the PGA Tour staff, under new commissioner Jay Monahan and among current PGA Tour players that the tournament should move back to March. Former champion David Duval is a big proponent of the move, saying “the golf course plays in March the way it was designed.” Johnny Miller echoed his thought noting that, “in March, you occasionally get a north wind which makes 17 and 18 play very differently. In May, it’s just a flip wedge for these guys.”
Current players say it’s big enough to stand on it’s own, not as a run up to Augusta. The golf course would be more predictable, as in hard, and it would do two things to the schedule: reinstate the ‘Florida Swing” with three tournaments in the state leading up to The Players and if as the PGA of America has talked about, the PGA Championship moves to May, it would have five big tournaments, one a month, starting in March. Plus the FedEx playoffs (they signed a new 10-year sponsorship extension today) would end around Labor Day, keeping the “Championship” from competing with college football and the NFL.
Predictably, Monahan had a very political answer to the question of moving the tournament when asked on Tuesday.
“Well, it's in May, and right now we don't have any plans on moving it back to March,” he said flatly. “That's certainly been part of the consideration set. But until we make a decision or at the point in time we make a decision to make any change, I would be happy to answer that question and answer that question directly, but right now we're focused on making THE PLAYERS the best it can possibly be in May.”
Stars in the golf world don’t seem to feel strongly one way or another. Former world #1 Rory McIlroy understands the argument but thinks it’s a long way off.
”I can definitely see why it would move back to March,” he said. “I can definitely see the reasons for it. And, yeah, if it did go that way, it would obviously take a few different courses off the PGA rotation, the places up north that wouldn't quite be ready. But I can definitely see why it would happen, but I think there's a lot of things to cover until we get to that point.”
As the defending champion, World number 3 and former number 1, Jason Day, considers the playability of the golf course and how it would change how it’s played.
“Yeah. Firstly, there's a lot of history behind this golf course with regards to the champions that have played here,” he explained. “I think it's very, very difficult golf course. Once again, we do have a little bit of weather here every now and then, but for the most part it's a very difficult golf course at this time, especially with the Bermudagrass and with the current position of them actually thinking about changing the date, that will change the way the grass plays and everything else, so that may change the way that I view the golf course.”
Perhaps the new commissioner gave us some clues into what he’s thinking and whether the tournament is just fine where it is.
“It's our showcase of excellence,” he explained. “We continue to do everything we can to enhance every facet of this event. And we do that so that you all and our fans can talk about its significance. All we can do is control everything that we have here on property, and we're very proud of how this event evolves.”
As far as where The Players is in the pantheon of “significant tournaments and whether it’ll ever be considered a “Major,” Monahan admitted that’s not up to him.
“I think this championship's in a great place,” he added. “And I think if that's where -- if that's how it's described and it is being described as that by some today, whether it's the media or players, that's something we're very comfortable with because we think that description is befitting of the work that's been done over 40 plus years to build this championship.”
“And it's The Players Championship,” he continued. “They come here, it's their tournament and it's unique and different and they're obviously playing the same course year in and year out. This course is phenomenal in terms of the way it's democratic and it really defines the best playing, the best player at that point in time, and hence the great list of champions we have.”