Players Championship has major appeal

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Rory McIlroy plays a shot during his practice round
  • Post published:March 9, 2022

Even without ‘Major’ status, there’s little doubt that the first big event on the men’s calendar – and the richest single tournament – has caught the eye of golfers.

They haven’t given up on the fight to have The Players Championship added to the men’s roster as a fifth Major, in alignment with the number on the LPGA Tour, but the noise isn’t quite so loud. It is what it is and it’s unlikely to change for now.

The Players, held annually at TPC Sawgrass in Florida – a venue ranked No 68 in’s annual list of top golf courses – is the PGA Tour’s flagship event. It boasts the strongest field in golf, the most money for a single tournament, a stunning, fan-friendly layout on the purpose-built Stadium Course, and unsurpassed hospitality for the players.

Still, while it has major appeal, it is no ‘Major’. However, the players still feel it deserves its spot alongside The Masters,  the US Open, The Open Championship and The PGA Championship as one of the ‘Big Five’.

‘It’s a huge championship, very special,’ last year’s winner, Justin Thomas, said. ‘It’s a tournament I’ve wanted to win, one I truly did feel like I was going to win at some point, and hopefully multiple times. I love the golf course. The greens are so good. The fairways are perfect. The rough is long. Just a great test of golf. I mean, that’s why it’s a Players Championship.’

This year Thomas will be returning for a dip at the $20-million purse, with $2.7m of it going to the winner. How does the money compare with the existing four Majors? The US Open leads the race for second with a winner’s purse of $2.25m, followed by The PGA ($2.1m) and then The Masters and The Open with $2m.

The field of 144 always attracts the top golfers in the world. Included are the top 50 golfers on the World Ranking, winners of PGA Tour events since the previous Players, the top 125 from the previous season’s FedExCup points list, as well as Players champions and Major championship winners from the past five years. Those arguing that you want the best against the best at a Major have ammunition when you consider that the first Major of the year, The Masters, invites a field of 88 golfers, which is reduced to 54 after the Friday cut.

Outspoken golf analyst Brandel Chamblee remains in the camp of those who believe The Players should be added to the men’s list and make it a full house of five.

‘I’ve argued for a long, long time that The Players should be a Major. It’s just a logical conclusion.’

However, the die-hards point to history as being the biggest argument against The Players receiving Major recognition. The tournament has been held only since 1974, 40 years after The Masters came into existence. The other three Majors are more than a century old.

Another factor is the difficulty, or for golfers at this level, the lack of difficulty, of TPC Sawgrass, the course Pete Dye constructed in a Florida swamp. The famous par-three 17th aside, the rest of the course isn’t an arduous experience for those who are in contention come Sunday afternoon.

It’s been 14 years since the winning score at The Players was within single digits of par – Sergio Garcia’s five under in 2008 – not exactly up there with the mental and physical tests often presented at courses hosting the US Open. When South Africa’s Tim Clark triumphed in 2010, he finished on 16 under to hold off Australia’s Robert Allenby by one stroke.

One interesting fact is that no golfer has won back-to-back at The Players. ‘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,’ 2019 champion Rory McIlroy said before his defence which was held over to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘The tournament has definitely grown on me over the years. It separates itself from a regular Tour stop for sure.’

However, it is undeniable that the 17th hole helps make The Players such car-crash TV. Webb Simpson led by seven shots in 2018 when he came to the Island Green on the Sunday and later said 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- 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. Even in 2018 when I had a big lead, I really didn’t feel comfortable until I hit it on the green on 17.’

He went on to win by four shots, with Charl Schwartzel, Xander Schauffele and Jimmy Walker doing the chasing in second.

Jerry Rice, the chief executive of The Players Championship, feels there’s still time to have the ‘fifth Major’ debate.

‘From a move-to-March perspective, being the first in a series of Major events over the course of five months kicking off the “Season of Championships” is well positioned for how we’re growing nationally and internationally,’ he says. 

– This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images