It’s so cliché. No, it’s BEYOND cliché. Every year we hear this debate on Golf Channel and from the golf writers we read. It’s as likely to happen as a ball finding the water on the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass: “Is The Players the FIFTH MAJOR?”
Well, no. Of course it’s not. There are four majors in golf, The Masters, the US Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship. Always has been always will be, right? Well, no.
Anyone with a cursory understanding of the history of golf knows that each of the four majors came about at different times. In 1930, Bobby Jones was said to have won the Grand Slam because he won all four majors in a calendar year. Jones won both the aforementioned Opens along with the US Amateur and the British Amateur. Four majors, even if the names were different.
When The Masters came on the scene in 1934 it was called the Augusta National Invitational Tournament and was not at all the grand event we know today. Over time it developed into its current place in golf as a major championship because of the quality of the field, the quality of the winners, the reward for winning and the iconic course itself.
It wasn’t until 1960, when Arnold Palmer won The Masters and US Open, that the idea of the four professional majors we know today was first articulated. It was written that for Palmer to match the feat of Jones 30 years earlier, he would have to win the Open Championship and the PGA.
Now that we have established that Moses did not come down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and the Four Majors we can come to an understanding.
The Players Championship IS the fifth major.
Don’t believe me? Disagree? Still adamant that golf has four majors and that’s it?
If it quacks like a duck…or rather, if the field says it’s a major, the purse says it’s a major and the course plays like it’s a major, then it’s probably a major.
Let’s examine the field. This year, 46 of the top 50 in the world are at TPC Sawgrass, including all of the top 30. Additionally, each PGA Tour winner since last year’s Players Championship qualified. The top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings are in as well as the participants from the 2012 Tour Championship. Every FedEx Cup champion ever is in the field (I know, it’s only five guys who were already otherwise qualified). All but two of the major champions since 2006 are in the field.
Certainly there are player whom no one would expect to win the tournament. But unlike each of the four majors, every player in this field is a touring professional, meaning they all play tournament golf for a living.
The Masters has a long tradition of amateur invitees: including the US Amateur champion and runner-up, and the winners of the British Amateur, US Mid-Amateur and Asia-Pacific Amateur. The Masters also allows former champions to play, many of whom are 20-30 years removed from their victories and while they may play tournament golf for a living on the Champions Tour, they are hardly playing at the highest level in the world.
Both the US and British Opens have a similar amount of amateur players in the field. And since these are both OPEN championships there are qualifiers in the field too. Some are elite level amateur players who will one day be on the PGA Tour, some are club professionals, still more might be professional players who have yet to make it to the top tour, while others are “average golfers” (not in skill level, rather they survived the qualifying process and their victory is just making it to whichever Open they qualified for).
The PGA Championship, like The Players, boasts a field made up entirely of professionals. However, 20 of the competitors are club professionals, members of the PGA of America. Like the amateurs and qualifiers from the other majors, these players have no chance to win and are just happy to be in the championship.
The Players is the championship for touring professionals; the best players in the world. Why would the championship for these golfers not be a major? If the structure of professional golf were being created today, wouldn’t the tournament specifically for the touring players have to be considered a major championship?
Still not convinced, huh?
We need to examine the winners of The Players then.
When then-PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman created the Tournament Players Championship in the 1970s, he could not have asked for a better winner the first year, none other than the Tour’s leading player, Jack Nicklaus. He went on to win three of the first five Players Championships. Nicklaus’ victories were followed by Al Geiberger, Lanny Wadkins, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Jerry Pate in the first decade of The Players. Each was already a major champion at the time of his Players victory.
In fact, 20 of the first 39 Players Championships were won by players with a major championship already on their résumé. 17 of the first 39 were won by players who would go on to win a major after winning The Players (this includes players who had already won a major and won subsequent majors after their Players win). 29* times the winner has qualified for his next available international team (Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup). The * represents Tim Clark who won in 2010; he qualified for the International Presidents Cup but did not play due to injury, instead serving as an assistant captain. Only three winners of The Players have never qualified for a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team: Jodie Mudd, Craig Perks and Stephen Ames.
Lastly, of the 33 men who have won The Players, 10 are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. When you include Tiger Woods (who has a penthouse reserved at the Hall) and Davis Love III, who is also on his way, you have 12 of 33 winners, with six of the most recent champions not already in or surely going to the Hall, still in the primes of their careers (Scott, Garcia, Stenson, Clark, Choi, Kuchar).
Not buying it?
Major championships are also set apart by the rewards a player receives for winning. We’ll start with the cash. The Players has the richest purse in all of golf, $9.5 million since 2008 with the winner receiving $1.71 million. The Masters, US Open and PGA Championship each have an $8 million purse with the winner receiving $1.44 million. The British Open has a £5 million purse (roughly $7.75 million) with £900,000 ($ 1.39 million) to the winner. For winning any of the four current major championships a player is given a five year exemption on the PGA Tour, The Players Champion receives the same exemption (although it used to be 10 years).The Players winner also receives three year exemptions into The Masters, US Open and British Open and an exemption into that year’s PGA Championship. While these are not the five year invites that current major champions receive, it is close and could easily be adjusted. A five year exemption into The Players is also included. For PGA Tour players, there are 600 FedEx Cup points available for a victory, the same amount as the majors, 50 more than a WGC and 100 more than a regular tour event. The World Golf Rankings allocate a fixed 100 points to major winners while a Players Champion receives 80 and a WGC winner receives about 70. Again, not as many points, but it is close and adjustments can be made, especially since this is the only major tournament with a field entirely comprised of touring professionals.
So far The Players has a field like a major, winners like a major and rewards like a major. Do you not see where this is going?
I suppose my last resort is to explain that the course where The Players is played, the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass, is a course worthy of a major.
One of the reasons why we all love The Masters is the familiarity with the venue, Augusta National Golf Club. We see it year after year in all its stunning beauty. We remember the great shots and colossal meltdowns on each hole. The Open Championship returns to The Old Course at St. Andrews every five years, and uses a rota of nine courses that fans have become quite familiar with. The US Open also uses an “unofficial” rotation that includes Pebble Beach, Oakmont and Pinehurst #2 among others. Even though it is about once a decade that a US Open is played at a particular venue, there is still familiarity for the fans. The Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass (geez, that’s a long name, I’ll just say TPC Sawgrass from here on) gives us those same memories. It has been 30 years since The Players moved to TPC Sawgrass. Over these three decades, our memories and bond with the course have grown and each year weaves a new memory into the tapestry of The Players.
From the opening tee shot we can see that course architect Pete Dye has given the players a stern test of golf, one that is visually intimidating. From pinched tee shots with trouble seemingly on both sides to looming water hazards and massive, never-ending waste bunkers, there is no shortage of distractions for the eye. But TPC Sawgrass is not a course that ONLY beats up the best players. There are scoring opportunities on the course, as well.
We know that Augusta National is difficult, but we also love the “Back Second Nine on Sunday” where players can come charging to the lead because of the opportunities to on the par 5s.
Dye has done the same with the par 5s at TPC Sawgrass. Numbers 2, 11 and 16 are reachable for nearly every player in the field. While the ninth, can be hit in 2 by the longer players. The fourth hole’s traditional Sunday hole location has been known to yield hole-out eagles in the past. The 12th hole is a short par 4 that usually plays as the easiest on the golf course.
But it is a sense of risk-reward that captivates viewers when watching The Players. 2, 11 and 16 have water in play; the latter two holes have water to contend with on the second shot. Like number 4, the par 3 13th features a hole location in a bowl of the green that allows players to get close to the flag, if not in the hole. Both 4 and 13 also have water to contend with and many players have seen their ambitions of a kick-in birdie rinsed away by an errant water ball.
In addition to the scoring opportunities there are holes which require the players to grind out a par. The 5th, 14th and 18th are generally among the most difficult par 4s on the course. Also, the monstrous 240-yard par 3 8th is where every player would take a par and sprint to the ninth tee.