With this year’s Players Championship done, it’s time to start planning next year’s 50th birthday party

With the close of the final round of The Players Championship on Sunday, the clock began ticking for the 2024 tournament.

That’s when the PGA Tour’s crown jewel event will be associated with another kind of precious metal: gold.

The Players will turn 50 years old next year. Had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the 2020 tournament, this year would have been the 50th Players.

That means the Gold Man Trophy for winning what the Tour markets as “Our Gold Standard” will be awarded next year during the Golden Anniversary.

That’s a lot of AU going on at the same time.

“It’s hard to believe that we are just shy of the event’s 50th anniversary,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said to open his news conference last week at The Players media center. “It is remarkable, absolutely remarkable to reflect on the tournament’s history and continued growth … including a world-class field that is consistently amongst the strongest in golf. I think it’s going to be an awesome year, moment in time, to reflect on the rich history and tradition of this championship, of our champions, of the uniqueness of this golf course, the democratic nature of it, the advancements that we’ve made through The Players Championship, for our Tour and the game.”

More (from the Florida Times-Union): A hole-by-hole guide to the home of TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course

Tournament rotated at first

The Players was launched in 1974 as the Tournament Players Championship. The Tour’s first commissioner, Joe Dey, and his successor, Deane Beman, believed the PGA Tour should have its own major championship, with the four accepted majors at the time run by other organizations: the Masters by the Augusta National Golf Club, the U.S. Open by the United States Golf Association, the PGA Championship by the PGA of America and the British Open by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.

The first Players rotated for three years, starting at the Atlanta Country Club when Jack Nicklaus won the first of his record three Players Championships with a final-round 67, rallying from three shots behind J.C. Snead.

The first Players rotated for three years, starting at the Atlanta Country Club when Jack Nicklaus won the first of his record three Players Championships with a final-round 67, rallying from three shots behind J.C. Snead.

Nicklaus would go on to win every two years through 1978, at Inverrary in Fort Lauderdale in 1976 and then at the Sawgrass Country Club in 1978, after the tournament was moved to the First Coast on a permanent basis.

With other World Golf Hall of Fame members such as Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins and Raymond Floyd winning at Sawgrass, the tournament had considerable cachet when it moved to the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in 1982. It’s been at Pete Dye’s design ever since, with the golf course, purses, strength of field, local support and international attention increasing every year.

PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman is thrown into the pond adjacent to the 18th fairway of the Players Stadium Course by Jerry Pate, after Pate won the 1982 Players Championship. (File photo)

The Players takes root

Beman said very early in his tenure as commissioner he wanted to adopt the Augusta National model of having the tournament anchored to one iconic golf course.

“I was very familiar with and had played in all of the major championships before I became commissioner,” Beman said. “At the beginning, Joe Dey’s concept was to move it around as a reward to our local tournaments, to give them something special … move it like the U.S. Open and the PGA. But I felt the best way to make it a very special and unique event was to have it at one location.”

And the result, in Beman’s view?

“It has matured but in a sense, it’s still in its infancy,” Beman said. “It keeps developing every year, getting better and better and I’m very proud of what [former Tour commissioner] Tim Finchem and Jay have done to improve it.”

Mark McCumber, who played in 27 tournaments and won in 1988, went even further.

“I think it’s surpassed everything you could have imagined,” he said. “Who would have thought it would continue to have the best field every year, but on a course where no one style of play would ever be favored. It’s been won by bombers like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and guys like Fred Funk and Tom Kite, and everyone in between.”

Stewart Cink, whose 23 Players starts is the most of anyone in the 2023 field, said the PGA Tour has worked overtime to ensure a quality experience for the competitors and fans alike.

“It’s always been on a great golf course … that hasn’t really changed that much,” he said. “The tournament has changed a lot. The attention to detail, the spectator experience, the clubhouse, it really has increased its relevance in golf. The debate on whether it’s a major is going to be endless, but it’s a pretty major tournament.”

Greg Norman holds up his trophy after winning the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., on Sunday, March 27, 1994. He won with a record-breaking 24-under-par.

Past champions should be involved

So what might the 50th Players look like?

In a sense, just like the first 49:

The stars of golf will come out, chasing a huge purse that has increased from $250,000 overall and $50,000 to the winner in 1974, to $25 million this year and $4.5 to the winner.
The tournament will be aired in 226 countries.
More than 200,000 fans will descend on TPC Sawgrass for another festive week in which golf is the centerpiece but the annual Military Appreciation Day, a concert and food and drink will be important activities.

The PGA Tour never minds throwing a good party and while there are no specifics, the expectation is that the Golden Anniversary will be appropriately celebrated.

“I think when we come back here next year, we’re going to have an incredible field, and we’ll be celebrating this year’s champion, and we’ll be telling the story of what makes this event so special and why we’re so proud of it,” Monahan said.

Whatever happens, there are those who hope past champions, 12 of whom are in the World Golf Hall of Fame, will be on-site and be a huge part of the week.

The last the time Tour brought back the past Players champions on a formal basis was a formal banquet in 2007 to commemorate the opening of the new TPC Sawgrass Clubhouse and the move of the tournament from March to May.

While past champions are honored by naming the entry gates after the five multiple winners, a club from each winner on display in the clubhouse and banners along the road entering the course the week of the tournament, there are calls for their involvement to be more extensive — not only in 2024 but going forward.

“Bring them all back, have them on site and identify their history in a very special way,” Beman said.

That might require a temporary truce: past champions include LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman and LIV players currently under PGA Tour suspension such as Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer.

McCumber said the tournament should return to a past champions banquet, which was held years ago.

“Honor Jack for winning three of these,” he said. “Honor Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd, Tiger Woods … the more you create a rich tradition and honor that, the more depth the tournament has. Now that it’s 50, you need to do even more.”

Davis Love III and fans celebrate when Love’s ball drops into the hole after he chipped from the gallery behind the eighth green for birdie and the lead during the final day of The Players Championship in 1992. He would go on to win with a final-round 67. (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union)

The major debate

Then there’s the eternal issue of whether The Players should be considered a major championship. The current four accepted majors owe their status to history that dates back more than 100 years in the case of The Masters and British Open.

Each has its own governing bodies. The Tour provides the bulk of the players to those tournaments so an argument has been made that it would be within its rights to simply recognize five major championships, with The Players being one of them.

It’s largely up to the professionals playing the game. The current majors were elevated by the emphasis Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods put on them.

A new generation of Tour players has embraced The Players more in recent years. Stars such as Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm have spoken glowingly of the tournament and its place in the world.

“I think the younger players are going to be more open-minded,” Beman said. “From a financial standpoint, if the leading players in the past had embraced The Players as a major, it would have a tremendous financial impact on their careers and put millions in their pockets.”

“Who’s to say what’s a major,” McCumber said. “I won two Western Opens and before the PGA came along the Western was considered a major. To me, a major is a great test on a great golf course, with the best field. If that doesn’t make The Players a major, what does?

Then there’s the school of thought that The Players should stand alone, with its own niche in golf.

“I don’t care if it’s considered a major or not,” Cink said. “It’s a great, wonderful event.”

Rahm also wondered if the tournament should even attempt to be lumped with four others.

“It’s a very unique tournament and a very unique championship … it is our championship,” he said. “So I think that’s what makes it different from some of the other events.”

The major championships at 50

Here’s what happened in the four major championships on their 50th playing:

1986 Masters: Jack Nicklaus won a record sixth green jacket at the age of 46.
1968 PGA: Julius Boros outdueled Arnold Palmer and Bob Charles by one shot in a battle of World Golf Hall of Famers.
1950 U.S. Open: Ben Hogan beat Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio in an 18-hole playoff at Merion.
1910 British Open: James Braid beat Sandy Herd by four shots at St. Andrews.

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