Tournament Players Championship Brings Excitement and Attention To St. Johns County
One more Players Championship with heat, humidity, Mother’s Day, the Pink Out and the promise ofmore record crowds with 2001 and 2013 champion Tiger Woods and 2007 winner PhilMickelson trying to turn back the clock against the talented Generation Next onthe PGA Tour.
After this week’s Players, which begins today at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, the tournament will go back to its historical spot on the calendar in March. The2019 tournament will be March 14-17, with a St. Patrick’s Day finish.
When the winner hoists the Waterford Crystal on Sunday evening, The Players ends a 12-year run in May.
They were boom times with record attendance and winners such as Mickelson, Woods, Jason Day, Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler. Three tournaments were decided in playoffs after there were only two in the first 34 years of the PGA Tour’s crown jewel event,and five more were by margins of one or two strokes.
No matter when it’s held,one thing will always be true about the event. It features the deepest field in golf.
“It’s right up there withthe toughest to win for anyone,” Rory McIlroy said. “You’re able to call yourself a Players champion, you know you’ve done something pretty special.”
Going back to March will bring changes. The wind will be prevailing out of the north and northeast,rather than the south and southeast. The grass will be an over seeded rye, greener and lusher than May’s Bermuda but necessary in case there’s a coldwinter.
“It could be a little softer,” said Ian Poulter, who has had starts in March and May. “I’ve played this course in every type of wind, so it’s just about re-familiarizing yourself with the conditions. They will be slightly different but the golf course itself won’t change much.”
Woods is the only playerto win in both March and May. Only 19 players in history have recorded top-10 finishes in both months, and only seven of them are in this week’s field, with Woods joined by Mickelson, Garcia, Adam Scott, Chad Campbell, Henrik Stensonand Zach Johnson.
Scott and Woods are the only players to have multiple top-10s in March and May.
Indeed, the experience of going to March will be new for most of the 2019 participants. Nearly 90 percentof this year’s field have never played the tournament in March (126 out of the144 starters) and will, for example, stand on the 17th tee with the wind swirling from behind or from the sides, instead of against them.
“We haven’t seen the course that time of year,” said Fowler. “I’ve only heard about it.″
Justin Thomas isn’t sure there will be any drastic adjustments needed.
“That’s what practice rounds are for,” Thomas said. “We’ll have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to figure it out.”
Mickelson wonders if there will be any discernible difference.
“The golf course itself doesn’t favor any one particular player,” he said. “There are holes it does favor longer players and there are holes that it doesn’t, where short and straight is the key. I think that we have such a great mixture of champions on this golf course and a variety of styles of play that I don’t think it will matter how the preparation is. It’s just the beauty of the design and the set up and the overall architecture.”
However, there have been differences in winners between March and May.
During a 14-year span from 1991 to 2004, the tournament was won six times by natives of Australia, southern Africa and New Zealand, countries with notoriously tricky wind attheir top golf courses.
Australian Greg Norman set the course record of 24-under 264 that still stands in 1994, countryman Steve Elkington won the tournament twice and Adam Scott was the youngest winner in history until Si Woo Kim last year.
In May, only one Australian won, Day in 2016. Tim Clark of South Africa won in 2010.
May has been a primarily a time for Europeans and South Koreans to shine with Garcia (Spain), Stenson(Sweden) and Martin Kaymer (Germany) winning during a seven-year stretch and K.J. Choi and Kim becoming the first players from anywhere in Asia to win at the Stadium Course.
Sandy Lyle in 1987 was the only European winner of The Players in March. Only two Asian players, Joe Ozaki and Isao Aoki from Japan, so much as cracked the top-10 in that month.
The move to March may open the door for Australians to dominate again.
“I certainly haven’t had much luck in May,” said Marc Leishman, who has only one top-10, three missed cuts and two finishes outside the top-40 in eight starts. “Maybe I’ll do better in March.”
May also lessened America’s strong grip on the Waterford Crystal. U.S. pros won 21 of 30 Players in March (70 percent), including the first 10 and 13 of the first 14.
In May, Americans have won four of 11 (36 percent).
The demographic with perhaps the biggest adjustment in store will be First Coast golf fans.
The Players, and before it, the Greater Jacksonville Open, was the area’s “Rite of Spring.” Easter often coincided with the tournament, warm weather was either here or just around the corner and The Players was the first huge golf event of the season from a national and international basis.
It’s the latter reason that The Players is likely to continue to thrive two months earlier, with thePGA Championship moving from August to take The Players’ former spot in May.
“Since I won there in March and May, I really don’t have a preference,” Woods said. “I do like the idea of having The Players in March, then four consecutive majors.”