Is the Players Championship a major? The debate begins anew every year and doesn’t seem likely to be settled anytime soon.
The beginning of Players Championship week at TPC Sawgrass brings with it a number of traditions: fawning over the beauty of the golf course, caddies taking their turn to try to hit the famous Island Green, and, finally, the incessant debate about whether it should count as a major.
The concept of what exactly is a major championship has evolved over time. The Western Open was once considered a major. Bobby Jones’ “Grand Slam” in 1930 consisted of the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur, two tournaments that have long since lost that prestige. The modern idea of the Grand Slam didn’t begin to take hold until 1960, when Arnold Palmer won the Masters and U.S. Open, then lost by one shot at the Open Championship.
The Players, though, has never been among them. The tournament has a number of things working in its favor. It is run by the PGA Tour itself, which isn’t responsible for any of the majors. It boasts one of the strongest fields on the golfing calendar, with 55 of the top 60 players in the world rankings teeing off on Thursday in Ponte Vedra Beach. There are no amateurs like at the Masters, no local qualifiers like at the two opens, and no field full of club pros like at the PGA Championship. And the prize pool is enormous: $15 million, with $2.7 million going to the winner. That’s nearly $3 million more than any of the majors, the U.S. Open bringing with it the biggest first prize of $2.25 million.
The (lower-case) players believe the tournament is prestigious, and the PGA Tour does everything it can to make them feel that way about their flagship event. The tournament awards the same number of FedEx Cup points as a major and counts the same as the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open, and Open Championship when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration.
But the tournament is still not a major, and here is why.
First is the history. The Players has only been held since 1974, 40 years after the Masters came into existence. The other three majors are more than a century old. There is no Amen Corner or Green Jacket, no Francis Ouimet or Bobby Jones, and no Old Tom Morris.
Then there is the difficulty of TPC Sawgrass itself, the course that Pete Dye constructed in a Florida swamp to host the tournament for the first time in 1982. It’s been 12 years since the winning score at The Players was within single digits of par, not exactly on par with the mental and physical tests often presented at courses hosting the U.S. Open. It’s most noteworthy feature is a gimmick, the par-three 17th Island Green surrounded by a man-made lake.
The intricacies of the course don’t particularly give any player an advantage, and here is another oddity of the tournament: no player has ever successfully defended his title. Rory McIlroy will get his chance this week and sees the challenge of winning back-to-back as a question of dealing with the course.
“It is an opportunity for sure. I don’t think you ever need extra motivation when you come to this golf tournament,” he said at his pre-tournament press conference this week. “But to be the first one to defend here would be pretty cool. This golf course can play so differently day to day based on wind direction, conditions. It’s such a cliche here, but it doesn’t really suit any one style of play or one type of player.”
Webb Simpson, a short hitter and as different a player from McIlroy as you could imagine, led by seven shots in 2018 when he came to the Island Green on Sunday and says he still wasn’t taking anything for granted playing it. “It’s one of those courses where you feel so uncomfortable and unconfident with a one-shot lead or two-shot lead even with a few (holes) to go. Compared to other places where you can kind of put it on cruise control,” he said. “Even in 2018 when I had a big lead, I really didn’t feel comfortable until I hit it on the green on 17.”
Earlier this week, Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee and award-winning author John Feinstein got into a heated debate about this topic in an article for Golf.com. It’s just one of many such debates that have been going on for years and likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
But one tournament has to hold the distinction of being the most prestigious non-major on the PGA Tour schedule. The Players should embrace that role instead of trying to force itself into the ranks of the majors.
The Players Championship is not a major championship, but that doesn’t mean it’s a tournament every golfer doesn’t want to win.