Why The Players Championship Already Is A Major

Strictly speaking, there are only four Majors in the male golfing calendar but we look at why the Players Championship is already ‘better than most’

JT Players
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Players Championship is the flagship event on the world’s leading golf tour – The PGA Tour. Year on year, fans lock horns as to whether the event is the ‘fifth Major’ and regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, you can make a strong argument for both.

As we look into the evolution of the event, the Players Championship may already be a Major championship...you just don't know it yet. 

THE COURSE

The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was designed by one of the most influential figures golf architecture has seen this last half century, Pete Dye. The course was purpose-built with the Players Championship in mind and opened its doors in 1980, two years prior to the inaugural hosting of the event. 

Things didn’t run quite so smoothy in the first two tournaments however, with Ben Crenshaw describing the Stadium Course as “Star Wars golf, designed by Darth Vader.” He was not alone. Jack Nicklaus acclaimed: “I’ve never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.”

After the second hosting in 1983, the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin and Ben Crenshaw signed a petition urging commissioner Deane Beaman to order changes to make the course more fair. Hal Sutton won with a score of five-under and it would be 12 more years before another player won with a score that high.

Dye made some dramatic changes in the following year by remodelling the greens and reshaping and replacing several of the bunkers. Ben Crenshaw would go on to describe it as a “damn good golf course," something uttered by many of the world's leading players today.

A lot has been written about the signature hole, the par-three 17th. The 'island green' measures no more than just a pitching wedge for modern touring professionals yet continues to be one of the most problematic holes on the course. It is also wedged between an exciting par-five and one of the most difficult holes on the calendar in TPC Sawgrass' 18th. The closing three-hole stretch rivals that of Amen Corner and the Bear Trap in terms of difficulty and spectator excitement, with many a Championship won and lost on those holes. 

PURSE, PRIZE MONEY AND EXEMPTIONS

The 2022 Players Championship purse is the largest in PGA Tour history, up from $15m to a total of $20m - $7.5m more than the US Open, which is the biggest purse of the four Majors. The Players champion will take home a record $3.6m, the largest in tournament history.

As well as financial riches, the winner receives a five-year exemption on Tour and a three-year exemption for all four Major championships. The champion also earns 600 FedEx Cup points, which is the same as any Major and more than the 500 for 'regular' PGA Tour events. 

The only area which is not on par (no pun intended) is the world ranking points. The winner of the Players Championship is awarded 80 points against the 100 for a Major championship. 

A major reward for the tournament, you could say.

THE FIELD

The field consists of 144 players consisting of the following criteria:

  • Winners of PGA Tour events since last Players
  • Top 125 from previous season's FedEx Cup points list
  • Top 125 (medical)
  • Major champions from the past five years
  • Players Championship winners from the past five years
  • The Tour Championship winners from the past three years
  • World Golf Championship winners from the past three years
  • Memorial Tournament and Arnold Palmer Invitational winners from the past three years
  • Top 50 from the Official World Golf Ranking
  • Senior Players champion from prior year
  • Korn Ferry Tour money leader from prior season
  • Money leader during the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, if not the regular-season money leader
  • Top 10 current year FedEx Cup points leaders
  • Remaining positions and alternates filled through current year FedEx Cup standings

To put into perspective, the Players Championship has a Strength of Field rating of 857, higher than the 2021 Masters. To win a Major championship you have to beat the best in the world and to win the Players Championship, you have to do just that.

MAJOR MOMENTS

Whilst the argument of the Major setup can continue long into the night, one thing I’m sure everyone can agree on is that the tournament needs to produce memorable moments and the Players Championship has done just that.

Len Mattiace, a local Sawgrass resident, arrived at the 17th tee on Sunday afternoon in 1998 just one shot off the lead and was a Cinderella story waiting to happen. His tee shot flew over the island green and into the water. He would go on to take a drop and find the front bunker before blading his next shot into the water again. His quintuple bogey-8 ended his tournament dreams.

In 2015, Rickie Fowler played the final six holes of the tournament in six-under-par to post a closing round 67 and join Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia in the lead. He would go on to win the three-hole aggregate playoff and claim the biggest victory of his career to date. Running up to the event, Fowler was described as the ‘most overrated tour pro’ in a poll of anonymous tour players by Sports Illustrated. That was one way to answer your critics.

Tiger and Sergio went at it in 2013, both in the media centre and on the golf course. Garcia claimed that Woods intentionally used the crowd to disrupt him, something which the 15-time Major champion denied. The two went head to head on the back nine on Sunday and were tied for the lead going into the 17th hole. Garcia hit two balls in the water en route to a quadruple bogey and compounded the error with another water ball at the last for a double bogey. Woods claimed his second Players Championship.

As Woods did so many times over the years, he provided another memorable moment in 2001. He entered the 17th hole on Saturday afternoon tied with Vijay Singh and three behind leader Jerry Kelly. His tee shot found the fringe some 60-feet from the hole. What he did next, well I'm sure you know. As he holed the putt, Johnny Miller and Gary Koch provided some of the best commentary the game has seen. The putt was indeed: “Better than most.”

Hal Sutton produced one of the most iconic on-course moments when he went head to head with Woods in 2000. Sutton was quite vocal about Tiger throughout that year, who the media consistently dubbed “the next Nicklaus.” Sutton famously felt that Woods didn’t have an intimidating factor and that the intimidation lived within those that allowed it. On this occasion, he might have been right. Sutton held a one shot lead over Woods on the final hole of the tournament and stepped up with a 6-iron fitting for the moment, closing the predatorial Tiger for his second Players Championship victory. Echoes of: “Be the right club, TODAY” can still be heard on the property to this day.

 

SCHEDULE

The Players Championship was originally played in March before it was rescheduled to May in 2007 following the introduction of the FedEx Cup and the season closing, Tour Championship. 

The tournament would be moved back to May in 2017 to better facilitate the positioning of the PGA Championship in August. As a result, the PGA Tour has flagship events and Majors in more compelling parts of its season, specifically:

March – Players Championship

April – The Masters Tournament

May – PGA Championship

June – U.S. Open

July – Open Championship 

August – The Playoffs 

September – The Tour Championship

With this setup, the golf season is perfectly poised to accept the Players Championship as a Major without disrupting those that are already existing. 

James joined Golf Monthly having previously written for other digital outlets. He is obsessed with all areas of the game – from tournament golf, to history, equipment, technique and travel. He is also an avid collector of memorabilia; with items from the likes of Bobby Jones, Tiger Woods, Francis Ouimet, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Adam Scott and Ernie Els. As well as writing for Golf Monthly, James’ golfing highlight is fist bumping Phil Mickelson on his way to winning the Open Championship at Muirfield in 2013. James grew up on the east coast of England and is the third generation of his golfing family. He now resides in Leeds and is a member of Cobble Hall Golf Club with a handicap index of 1.7. His favourite films are The Legend of Bagger Vance and Tin Cup.