The Players Championship: Tiger and Company Have Major Goals in Mind

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

PONTE VEDRA, FL - For years NBC has been touting The Players Championship as "The Fifth Major," and they've almost got everyone believing it.

The pros gear up for The Players as much as they do for any of the four acknowledged majors and until they win one of the official biggies, hoisting the crystal trapezoid is the next best thing. If there is one non-major tournament that fans most look forward to it's this, if for no other reason than to watch the world's best dump balls in the lake at the island green 17th.

The field each year is typically the most competitive and highly rated of the season. In any given year the majority of the world's top players arrive in humid Ponte Vedra, twenty minutes southeast of Jacksonville, to shoot it out with the fabled Stadium Course. Defending champion Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Jacksonville native David Duval, Sergio Garcia, and Vijay Singh will highlight this year's field, along with U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and PGA champion David Toms.

The first Players competition was held in 1974 when it was known as the Tournament Players Championship. The inaugural event, played then at the nearby Sawgrass Country Club, was won by Jack Nicklaus (who saw victory in three of the first six events). Since then the winners' list is a veritable who's who of professional golf from the last quarter century. In addition to Nicklaus, the names of Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins, Ray Floyd, Hal Sutton (twice), Fred Couples (twice), Davis Love III, Nick Price, Greg Norman, David Duval and Woods are all etched on the trophy.

The Stadium Course normally provides entertaining viewing if not grueling conditions. The victor seems to either blitz the field and make the course look soft (Davis Love III in 1992, Price in 1993, Norman in 1994, Couples in 1996, Steve Elkington in 1997), or the tournament comes down to the wire with the gut-wrenching 17th and the brutish 18th figuring prominently.

In 1999 Duval bravely held off all comers in firm and windy conditions not seen since the early days of the event. The 2000 Players saw Hal Sutton out duel Tiger Woods in one of his most memorable victories, and the following year Woods did the same to a game Vijay Singh. This year Woods, who last week became the first player to win at Bay Hill three straight years, will try to become the first player in this tournament's history to successfully defend his title.

The Course

As long as the Players Championship is played at its current location the course will be as much a part of the storyline as the tournament itself.

When the tournament moved across the highway to the new TPC Stadium Course in 1982 the path of American golf course architecture changed along with the venue. It's not a stretch to say the Stadium Course was ushered into this country in the era of "target golf" and steroid golf design. Throughout the 1980's, seemingly every architect tried to copy the severe, knee-knocking nature of the Stadium Course and every owner wanted an island green.

It all started in 1978 as the brainchild of former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, who wanted a "home" course for the tour and an exalted stage for its primary tournament. Beman hired Pete Dye to transform the wet and severely disadvantaged site near Highway A1A into a course that would identify the Tour's best players and provide unfettered viewing perspectives for tournament spectators.

As the early results proved, the Stadium was wildly successful at both. Many contestants found the new layout too punishing and unpredictable for their pampered games while audiences raved about the thrilling play and vantage points the elevated mounding provided.

Never before had a tournament golf course of such extreme character been manufactured, and the pros hated it. Narrow fairways (only 30 acres of mown grass in 1982), abundant water, severe unkempt rough, and what some complained were impossibly contoured greens wreaked havoc on the nerves of the pros. J.C. Snead summed up the players' feelings about the Stadium course when he said, "It's 90% horse manure and 10% luck," and, "They messed up a perfectly good swamp."

To say that Beman, and the pros as well, got more than they initially bargained for is an understatement. History shows that Dye delivered a course that ultimately turned golf architecture (and the collective angst of the pros) on its ear. While the course was a marvel of engineering and a personal glimpse into the mind of a genius, the long-term dubious influence of the Stadium Course on modern design and subsequent lesser architects is to this day being overcome.

Vocal criticism from the players caused the Tour to revise and soften the course in 1983 under the reluctant supervision of Bobby Weed. Now, after years of mollifying adjustments, the Stadium Course is a shadow of Dye's original house of horror and no longer scares the pros the way it did 20 years ago. True, it's lost much of its uniqueness, but it nevertheless remains one of the more popular tournament venues for players and fans alike as well as one of the country's most desirable golf destinations.

You Can Play It

The Stadium Course is operated by the Marriott Sawgrass Resort in Ponte Vedra. Although it is one of the more pricey rounds of golf in the country, it's also one of the most alluring. No American player's golf experience would be complete without at least one round at the Stadium Course and a shot at the 17th green.

Dye's other course at the Marriott Sawgrass Resort is the Valley Course, which offers excellent golf in its own right, just not at the world-class level of the Stadium Course. The two courses offer a spectacular one-two punch and the complex as a whole offers every amenity and practice opportunity a player could want (indeed it's not uncommon to find a PGA Tour pro banging balls somewhere on the vast range). The Marriott is just a couple of drivers from some of the most beautiful beaches in Florida and offers top-notch lodging and entertainment accommodations. For more information call 1-904-285-7777.

Ticket Information

Daily tickets are $45 and packages begin at $135. For ticket information call 1-904-285-PUTT.

Records

Course record: 63 (Fred Couples 1992; Greg Norman 1994)
Tournament record: 264 (Greg Norman, 1994)
Highest winning score:
Sawgrass Golf Club: 289 (Mark Hayes, 1977; Jack Nicklaus, 1978)
TPC Stadium Course: 285 (David Duval, 1999)
First winner: Jack Nicklaus in 1974
Repeat winners: None
Margin of Victory: 7 (Steve Elkington, 1997).

2002 Players Championship Preview: The Tour Comes to the Swamp

When: March 18-24, 2002
Where: Marriott Sawgrass Resort, Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass Stadium Course, Ponte Vedra, FL
Vitals: 7,093 yards, par 72
At Stake: $6 million in prize money, $1,080,000 to the winner
Defending Champion: Tiger Woods (274)
Runner Up: Vijay Singh (275)

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.


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