Lee Smith was born and raised in Illinois, went to college in Missouri and worked as a PGA professional and golf course general manager in his native state, as well as Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Jersey.
But accepting the challenge of becoming the next executive director of the Players Championship brings Smith full circle in a sense: in his first job as an assistant professional at the Urbana Country Club, about 10 minutes south on I-57 from his hometown in Rantoul, Illinois, one of the club’s members was Jaguars owner Shad Khan and Smith gave lessons to Khan’s son, Tony.
“A really cool connection,” the 47-year-old Smith said Monday on the back porch of the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, watching the sun set over the Players Stadium course. “I’m really happy for the success the Jaguars are having.”
When told the Jags have a corporate chalet overlooking the 17th hole Island Green, Smith was enthusiastic about the prospect of a reunion with the Khans.
“I’m looking forward to that,” he said.
That was around 25 years ago and much has changed.
For one thing, Khan now owns the Urbana Country Club.
For another, Smith takes over for Jared Rice in running the PGA Tour’s marquee tournament after a career of more than two decades as a club pro, course general manager and helping the Tour run FedEx Cup playoff events at Liberty National in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Rice, who has had a dual role as the Tour’s senior vice-president for Championship Management tournament revenue, will be the senior vice-president for sale and marketing for Championship Management, with a focus on the Players, the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the Tour Championship and the Presidents Cup.
Rice had been the Players executive director since November 2017, following Matthew Rapp (now senior vice-president of Championship Management) and Jay Monahan (now the PGA Tour commissioner).
Smith has been the general manager at Liberty National for five years and assisted the Tour in the running of the Northern Trust in 2019 and 2021 and brought the LPGA to Liberty National for June’s Mizuno Americas Open.
He oversaw a staff of nearly 150 employees at Liberty National and now will take the PGA Tour’s “Gold Standard” into its sixth decade.
“We will continue to have the strongest field in golf, at an iconic venue in the TPC Sawgrass,” Smith said. “And we want to continue to provide the ultimate experience for the players, partners and our fans — those tenets of our platform will not change.”
Smith in time for 50th Players
Smith takes over at a key time in tournament history: the 2024 tournament, which will be March 12-17, is the 50th anniversary of the Players Championship, and because the 2020 event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the 50th playing.
Since 2008, Smith has held positions within the TPC Network. He went from Sugarloaf to general manager at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas, and the regional director of operations for the TPC Network, a job he held at the same time as his position at Liberty National.
Smith lettered four years at the Southeast Missouri State golf team and graduated with a degree in sports management. He then earned a Masters in Sports Law and Business at Arizona State.
Smith is the first Players Championship director who is a PGA professional.
“We are delighted for Lee to transition into his new role, where he will be a tremendous leader for our tournament team as well as the Northeast Florida community,” Rapp said in a statement. “His vast years of experience leading TPC properties through championship events, while initiating future growth opportunities, made him a perfect selection for this vital role at the PGA Tour.”
Smith said having a club pro background will give him a unique perspective.
“There’s the relational part, of being a PGA professional, overseeing 150 employees and 340 members,” he said, referring to his staff and more than 2,000 Players volunteers. “I think the training and the interpersonal skills of being a PGA pro will help in the job.”
He said he also will reach out to Northern Chapter PGA professionals to connect with “core golfers” to support the Players.
“I think you automatically, as a PGA member, gain a little bit of respect and are able to walk into those clubs and hopefully get an audience with local golf professionals and their memberships,” he said.
Since Smith won’t officially take over from Rice until June, it’s too early to tell what his stamp will be on the Players.
But he said he’s open to any suggestions and ideas: such as re-opening Monday practice rounds to fans, having some kind of competition early in the week and a possible “Fan Fest” that will begin before tournament week.
“I’d love to work hard making the Players Championship longer than a week,” he said. “Having the weekend before that is more community-driven … in an effort to provide that ultimate fan experience, I wouldn’t say anything is off the table.”
Rice dealt with numerous challenges
Rice was the Players executive director during the transition from May back to its traditional March dates, guided the tournament through the 2020 cancellation due to COVID-19, the PGA Tour’s first event to host fans at scale in 2021 and managed last year’s event through days of torrential rain to finish Monday.
During his time, the Players doubled the number of national partners; and furthered the event’s long-standing charitable impact, including a $2 million gift last fall to fund the complete redesign and expansion of the Nemours Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders in Jacksonville.
“Jared’s tenure leading The Players has allowed the PGA Tour’s premier championship to grow into one of the elite global events in sports. Under his leadership, The Players produced a first-class experience for our players and fans, and we’re looking forward to his next chapter in growing the Championship Management part of our business,” said Rapp.
“It is a bittersweet moment for me, as it has been an honor to lead The Players Championship in our efforts to give this community and our players an event they can feel pride and ownership in,” said Rice in a statement. “I’m excited to focus my efforts on bringing new partners to our Championship Management events and building premium fan experiences in what are without doubt the premier tournaments on the PGA Tour.”
Matt Welch, the 2022 Players chairman, said the force of more than 2,000 volunteers had a friend in Rice.
“He was great to work with … I have nothing but positive things to say about Jared,” Welch said. “He was always willing to listen. In the end he would do what he felt was right, but he was always willing to listen. He knew what the issues were and got the whole team pulling in one direction every year.”
Rice, 47 and a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, worked for the Tour’s business development and global licensing department for four years before taking over at The Players. Previously he worked in marketing and sales for the Detroit Red Wings, and Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Los Angeles Angels.