The Players Championship begins today at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, home of the PGA Tour. You know the Players Championship, of course. It is famously golf’s ‘fifth major’. It has been that way since its inception as the Tournament Players Championship in Atlanta in August 1974. The winner of that inaugural event was the man who the then PGA Tour commissioner, Deane Beman, would have wanted – Jack Nicklaus, the best golfer in the world. But back then he was having none of its lofty aspirations.
“It is restricted to players on the US tour,” Nicklaus said. ”Foreign players are not invited. It’s scope is too narrow to gain the status of a major championship.” Beman responded with: “We don’t have a hundred years to wait, like the British Open…it isn’t for me to say that this is a major tournament, but to try to make it one.” Foreign players were invited in due course and in 1987 Sandy Lyle became the first of them to win it. Asked to describe the difference between what he had just won and the Open Championship he’d won at Sandwich in 1985, he memorably replied: “About 125 years.” Beman responded to that by dropping the word ‘Tournament’ from the title.
The tournament was shifted to a new permanent venue at the Sawgrass Country Club in 1977, which lasted for five years until it moved to the famous layout it now calls home. It has mostly had March dates since, although between 2007-2018 it was staged in May. It’s now back in March because the USPGA Championship (the ‘fourth major’, if you like) has been switched from August to May.
There have been 14 foreign winners since Sandy Lyle, one of whom, Steve Elkington, won it twice. Although Nicklaus won three of the first five, he never successfully defended the title. No one ever has. Going into this year’s renewal, I guess you get to choose who you regard as the defending champion: Rory McIlroy, who won in 2019, or Covid-19, which got the tournament stopped after just one round last year.
McIlroy was ranked the world’s No.1 golfer this time last year. He is now ranked 11th. Last week at Bay Hill he was four shots off the pace with a round to play but closed with a 76, hence tumbling out of the top-10. He has had six top-10s in 19 starts since tournament golf resumed after lockdown, but no wins. His last one of those was in the WGC/HSBC Champions tournament in China on November 3, 2019.
We shall see what transpires this week. It will do well to beat the excitement of the Bryson DeChambeau/Lee Westwood tussle at Bay Hill last week – although I doubt that would have attracted the interest of Andrea Agnelli, chairman of Juventus and prime mover in the efforts to get the Champions League football expanded to 36 teams. He spoke last week about the idea of making the last 15 minutes of certain games only available by subscription. He added: “If you take golf, if it’s interesting at all, it’s only the last six holes.” So that’s one Italian not too fussed about the 2023 Ryder Cup being held in Rome.
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