INSIDE THE ROPES – THE PLAYERS
By Tom LaMarre The Sports Xchange
Inside the Ropes – The Players – The debate about whether the Players Championship actually should be the Fifth Major has raged for years and obviously will be discussed at length this week at TPC Sawgrass, when it celebrates its 40th playing. Bubba Watson weighed in the subject last year when he withdrew before the tournament following a whirlwind month after his victory in one of the four bona fide major championships, the Masters. Had it been as important as a major, he would have been at TPC Sawgrass, the flagship event of the PGA Tour. Lee Westwood, No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings at the time, and Rory McIlroy, on his way to becoming No. 1, passed on the tournament two years ago, with major input from their agent, Chubby Chandler. When Commissioner Tim Finchem of the PGA Tour moved the tournament from the run-up to the Masters to May in 2007, the idea was to give the Players a spot of its own and put a big tournament in five consecutive months on the schedule. He obviously was hoping by having the Masters in April, the Players in May, the U.S. Open in June, the Open Championship in July and the PGA Championship in August might finally give the flagship event of the PGA Tour major status. Even though it remains a big event, the plan might have backfired. “It just seems that it comes now in the season where there’s a lot of big tournaments, and it sort of just, I think before the Masters, it sort of stood out,” McIlroy said of the Players. “And now in the place where it is, it’s just one of a number of big tournaments coming up. “Chandler weighed in with this: “Moving it to the middle of May has made it about the 10th most important tournament in the world.” McIlroy left Chandler’s International Sports Management later in 2011, and he and Westwood returned with apologies of sorts to the Players Championship last year. But the damage had been done. “Some of the top-ranked European Tour players like Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy also missed the Players Championship last year, which delivered a big blow to the credibility of the event,” PGA Tour executive Ty Votaw admitted when Watson decided not to play last year. Westwood, who has made something of an about-face by rejoining the PGA Tour last year and moving his family from England to the United States before this season, also was talking down the Players. On his list, the event had fallen behind the World Golf Championships. “They have to go in now before the Players Championship,” Westy said of the WGC events. “So what is it, eighth on the list now?” As far back as 2003, Ernie Els said: “The four majors are the most important. Obviously the Players Championship is our championship. The tour runs it. … But it’s not a major. Never will be.” In recent years, Els has piled on by saying: “(The BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, flagship event of the European Tour) is definitely taking the place of the Players. I also feel we have a stronger field (at Wentworth) and a classic course. “That last part is an absurd statement because Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the rest of the Americans do not play in the BMW, while almost all the best players in the world make it to the Players, like it or not, every year. If nothing else, the Players has a major feel to it.
“We obviously have strong fields at the majors but, player-for-player, this is the best field we have all year, the biggest purse we have and one of the toughest tests of golf we have,” said Mickelson, who captured the Players in 2007. ” … This tournament has built a real credibility. We use the same course every year like Augusta (National). So you see history being made and shots being played that you can look back on.” Woods has dominated the World Golf Championships, with his victory in the WGC-Cadillac Championship earlier this year giving him 17 of those distinctive trophies. “I would say I think (the Players) is much bigger,” said Woods, whose only title at TPC Sawgrass came in 2001. “This field is so much deeper, and it’s played on a much more difficult golf course.” Oh yes, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. That could be one reason why you get so many varied comments when talking about the Players Championship, because it is played at Pete Dye’s dye-abolical masterpiece. From the beginning, the players have had a love-hate relationship with the place. Sometimes it’s hate-hate. McIlroy is only one of the latest to say he does not like the course, that it doesn’t suit his game, although last year he amended that to saying he hadn’t learned how to play it yet. Then Rory went out and missed the cut for the third time in as many appearances in the Players. “They ruined a perfectly good swamp,” J.C. Snead said when the Stadium Course became the permanent home of the Players Championship and hosted it for the first time in 1982. Of course, Jerry Pate didn’t feel that way after winning that first tournament played on the Stadium Course, taking a dive into the lake next to the 18th green along with Dye and then-Commissioner Deane Beman, the early driving force behind the Players Championship and TPC Sawgrass. While the Players might never be universally accepted as one of the Grand Slam events, it will undoubtedly continue to be a major topic of conversation.