A third ball hit the water and the crowds on the mounds, in the grandstands and luxury suites surrounding the 17th hole let out a collective groan as Russell Knox watched his Players Championship dreams sink slowly into the water surrounding the iconic island green.
While Jason Day fought through his challenges in the third round to complete his wire to wire win on Sunday, Knox’s misfortune was a classic moment in the tournament’s storied history that was witnessed by thousands at the stadium course’s most famous hole.
Started in 1974 and originally played at a variety of courses before settling into its home at TPC Sawgrass in 1982, the Players Championship has become such an important stop on the PGA tour it is often referred to as golf’s fifth major. A lot of factors go into that unofficial designation. First, it typically boasts the strongest field of any tournament in the world. Second, it offers the game’s largest purse. And third, TPC Sawgrass is a venue unlike any other – for both the players and the fans.
The tournament is the only one owned by the PGA tour players and as such, it feels as much a thank you to those who attend as a Battle Royale among the world’s top professional golfers. Right from the start the course was designed to be the most spectator friendly course ever built. Noted course architect Pete Dye’s vision was to create a course that challenged the players and provided huge viewing areas on key holes which included the 1st and 10th tees and at the 9th, 16th, 17th and 18th greens. As such he designed large mounds up to 30 feet high give fans unobstructed views of tournament play, almost as if you’re sitting in a stadium.
This fan-centric attitude continues today. Matt Rapp, Executive Director of the Players Championship told me “We’re trying to be the best venue in all of sports, not just golf. That includes the Super Bowl.” As such many improvements have been made in recent years including 30 new mounds to improve viewing around the 11th and 12th greens. And more are to come. The course is closed now as the greens will be rebuilt and the 12th hole will be shortened slightly to make it a drivable par four, increasing the risk/reward factor for the players and excitement for the fans.
The golf at the players is top notch thanks to the course and the 144 player field, which is limited to the previous year’s PGA tour tournament winners, the top 30 players in the FedEx points standings from the previous year, the top 125 players on the money list, major championship winners and Players Champions from the past five years, the top 10 in the current FedEx standings and a few other criteria. But if you only come to see exceptional golf, you’re missing much of what the Players Championship is all about. It’s actually a week-long celebration and charitable event that happens to have a golf tournament at the center. There are opportunities to connect with the players, concerts, games, shopping, dining and more.
This year’s Military Appreciation Day featured a concert by country music legend Toby Keith. The area to the left of the island green was converted to a stage for the event and fans from all over enjoyed a heartfelt show in support of the men and women of the United States armed forces. In addition, PGA pro Jeff Overton and Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles teamed up to host the 19th hole challenge. This was a fun table tennis tournament held inside the Grey Goose Oasis Lounge in-between the 9th and 18th fairways.
One activity not to be missed is the PWC First Tee Challenge. Located behind the 18th green close to the Clubhouse, fans can take two free shots at the island green on a replica of the 17th hole. You can also purchase an additional chance for a $5 donation and if you’re in a hurry, you can make a $20 donation or more for a “First Tee Fast Pass” to bypass the line, take five shots and receive a free sleeve of golf balls with The Players logo inscribed on them. All proceeds from this activity benefit The First Tee of North Florida. And if you’re wondering, yes two of my five shots found the water.
The food options at the Players are also different from so many tournaments I’ve attended where your choice is usually a cold turkey sandwich, mediocre hamburger or hot dog. Locale fare is featured at Taste of Jax, where this year area restaurants Candy Apple Café, Moji Kitchen, Pele’s Wood Fire and Trasca & Co Eatery showed off their chops at a Bacardi sponsored open air bar. Another not to be missed food option is Tacos on 12 where TacoLu prepares barbacoa, shrimp, fish and veggie tacos for you while you wait. On practice days players are known to make a detour just to grab a couple while they make their way around the course.
Finally, there’s Trucks on Ten, where food trucks are brought in to feed the masses. This year’s group included trucks specializing Italian, barbecue, soul food, Filipino cuisine, and melts. I opted for a great burger grilled fresh over an open flame from Pounder’s Burgers.
The Players truly has something for everyone, which is why so many people come from all over to experience this event. I heard many Irish, Australian and British accents as well as German, Japanese and Spanish speakers as I toured the grounds over my days there. One of the reasons for this, is that there are so many ways to enjoy the tournament.
You can buy a grounds ticket – A Stadium Pass – which gives you access to every hole on the course by the day or for the entire week. Other options that are not priced yet for next year include a ticket to the Benefactor, a huge lounge and grandstand that lets you sit high above the 17th tee so you can watch all the action as the players come through. And for those who want more of a sports bar atmosphere, there’s the Blue Room VIP Lounge near the 10th tee which includes all-inclusive beverages (beer, wine, soda and water) and a special dining area to help you avoid the crowds.
The ultimate package for the tournament is called The Players Club. This all access pass is good Tuesday through Sunday and opens the doors to clubhouse to serve as your home base for the week. The only others who are allowed into the the 77,000 square foot Mediterranean style building are the players themselves, so with any luck you’ll get a glimpse of your favorite while you’re there. The Players Club ticket also includes all meals which are prepared by the best chefs from TPC clubs all across the country, a suite overlooking the 17th green and 18 tee, and a $500 shopping spree inside the Clubhouse shop which features items you can only buy there. Concierge services that are available from the moment you buy your pass to help you arrange housing, spa services, shopping trips, golf outing and other activities during the week. Each Players Club member is identified by a special pass with an RFID chip embedded in it. This technology can do amazing things. When you pull up at the clubhouse, the staff already knows who you are, any drink or meal preferences, even who your favorite player is. As I walked through the clubhouse I watched television screens change to show a member how Bubba Watson was doing after it picked up the signal from his ticket.
Golf is a great spectator sport. Long days wandering the course watching the best in the world ply their trade from just a few feet away. And though I’ve been to several tournaments including the PGA Championship, Westchester Open and others, none even come close to the experienced offered by the Players Championship. If you’re a golf fan, block out May 9 – 14 for next year now. This is one you’ll want to put on your bucket list.
More information for next year’s tournament and tickets can be found at The Players Championship website.