PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Players Championship moving into its permanent home at TPC Sawgrass. In 1982, Jerry Pate fired a final round 67 to beat Brad Bryant and Scott Simpson by two strokes, taking home $90,000 and a set of wet clothes after he dove into the water at 18 in celebration of his win.
A lot has changed since then (can you imagine Justin Thomas taking a header into the pond?). Back then, the event was most significant because Jack Nicklaus had won the tournament three times. But none of his wins came at TPC Sawgrass. Nicklaus won the inaugural tournament in 1974 at Atlanta Country Club, then two years later at Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Fla. and the 1978 tournament at Sawgrass Country Club across the street from TPC Sawgrass.
Since the move to the Stadium Course, the names of winners are a roster of legendary golfers. Lee Trevino, Fred Couples, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are among the Hall of Famers (or soon-to-be Hall of Famers), to have won.
And every year, the prestige of the tournament grows.
“You’ve got all these TVs in here, you’ve got 24/7 coverage of it,” said 2019 champion Rory McIlroy. “I think the changes to the golf course, the aesthetics of it, sort of the setup, the agronomy. Just the whole feel of the place. I mean, you drive in here and you have that big grand clubhouse, it feels special. It feels like a special event. It feels like a special week.”
Having the most recognizable hole in golf on the course doesn’t hurt either. Through the years, the island green at the 17th has been as much of a star as the golfers.
Those who have won this tournament hold it in high regard. A tournament’s strength can be measured by the list of winners. Of course, having one of the richest purses in golf doesn’t hurt either.
“A lot of people want to win this tournament, not just because there is a $20 million purse, but just because it’s considered our fifth major, and majors are sacred to us,” Xander Schauffele said Tuesday. “Every year we come here the stands seem to be bigger, everything seems to be bigger. Overall, you make big tournaments by just making everything more magnitude and more important. This is a very important week for us.”
Yes, it is The Players Championship, but with 40 years of history on this course, there have also been more than its fair share of moments that have made this tournament what it was. Fred Couples’ “hole in three” in 1999. Hal Sutton’s “be the right club today” shot to beat Tiger Woods in 2000. Woods’ “better than most” putt on 17 in 2001. Craig Perks amazing finish in 2002 with one putt on the final three holes. Rickie Fowler’s charge to win in a playoff in 2015. The list goes on and on.
It’s a fact not lost on the young golfers who have watched this tournament their whole lives.
“You always hear when you’re growing up, this is golf’s fifth major, but you don’t understand really what a major even is when you’re not a professional,” Collin Morikawa said. “When you show up to the rounds of a major championship, people breathe differently. People are so much more focused and so much -- they treat it way differently, and that’s not how I approach it.”
Winning The Players could be a career-defining win for some, or another bullet point on the resume of a legendary career. What it is for any golfer who wins, is a major accomplishment, even if it’s not a Major.
“When you show up, you can feel the weight of what The Players means to everyone,” Morikawa said. “This week…you just see more guys slowly taking their deep breaths because they understand what The Players means, and I think I’ve understood over the past couple of years what it would mean to me hopefully to hoist a trophy one day.”