Players Championship names Lee Smith new executive director

Former PGA Tour pro will start new position in June

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Lee Smith has played golf, taught golf and helped the PGA Tour run tournaments across the country.

Now, he’s in charge of the crown jewel of the Tour’s stable of tournaments as the new executive director of The Players Championship.

Smith was announced as The Players’ new executive director on Tuesday morning, stepping into a position previously held by Jared Rice. The role has been a visible one in the community, with Rice serving as the public face of the event and its charitable work since he took over in 2016.

Coming from the general manager role at Liberty National Golf Club, Smith has a unique vantage point entering the position. He’s a PGA Tour professional who knows what it’s like to grind on the course. He’s also well established in the golf management side of things. At Liberty National, Smith oversees 150 employees and more than 300 club members.

He’s familiar with the PGA Tour’s operations and also has a few ties to the Jaguars.

He’s never been to a Jaguars game, but knows both owner Shad Khan and his son, Tony. Smith said that his first job out of high school was at Urbana Country Club in Illinois where Khan was a member. Smith was tasked with teaching Tony golf lessons.

“Look forward to reconnecting with them,” Smith said. “And obviously getting my teal on and learning how to say Duval correctly.”

Much has changed since then for both Smith and the Khans.

Khan now owns that country club, the Jaguars and the English soccer club, Fulham. Tony is the face of the wrestling promotion, AEW. Smith has gone from an assistant teaching pro to one of the most recognizable spots in leadership for the PGA Tour. Next year’s Players (March 12-17) will be the 50th anniversary of the event.

Smith’s background is different than that of Rice, who is moving into a role as senior vice president of sales and market development for championship management. Rice had been leading The Players since 2016 and guided the event to include more corporate stakeholders, a switch from May to March and more robust charitable giving. The executive director role of The Players has been a launching point for growth in the PGA Tour.

Jay Monahan started in that position in 2008. He’s now the commissioner of the PGA Tour. Matt Rapp followed Monahan and now he’s the senior vice president of championship management for the Tour.

“Having experience at the properties I’ve been at, I have hosted 17 tour events. So, certainly familiar with the charitable aspect, and community involvement. I’m excited about embedding myself in the Jacksonville community and becoming a part of this community,” Smith said. “The charitable contributions that this tour event has made, over 300 recipients, over $100 million. … So we’re excited about continuing to help those recipients and make larger charitable contributions going forward.”

Smith started as an assistant and teaching pro, played golf in college at Southeast Missouri State and then earned a master’s degree in sports law and business at Arizona State. He was the head golf pro at TPC Sugarloaf and has served as the general manager at TPC Sumerlin. Smith has been the general manager at Liberty National for the past five years.

He’s helped the PGA Tour put on the Northern Trust event in 2019 and 2021 and also brought the LPGA’s Mizuho Americas Open there. Smith, who will start his new position in June, is thrilled to be in the market.

“We’ve been in the [Tour headquarters] building and it’s just it’s just awesome,” Smith said. “And being 100 yards from the most famous hole in golf, how does it get any better than that?”

Rapp said Smith is the ideal person to lead the tournament.

“We are delighted for Lee to transition into his new role as Executive Director of The Players Championship, where he will be a tremendous leader for our tournament team as well as the Northeast Florida community,” Rapp said in a statement. “His vast years of experience leading TPC properties through championship events, while initiating future growth opportunities, made him a perfect selection for this vital role at the PGA Tour.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.