On an Island in the Sun

The 17th at Sawgrass, Before THE PLAYERS. (Courtesy of St. Johns County VCB)

THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, which is how the PGA Tour now calls their flagship track, wears a worried crown. Like many coastal Florida golf courses, Sawgrass is built not on the coast itself but on a swamp across the street. Its views and variation are man-made, the hills imported and the water hazards cut in as with a jigsaw. The sand traps are either broad and flat, which is consistent with the terrain, or fat and deeply banked, which is consistent with TPSC@TPCS’s mandate: to surprise both the viewer and the player with unexpected features. Between the first hole and the infamous seventeenth, one sees grass moguls and islands of sod scattered across seemingly borderless fairway bunkers and plateau greens and palm trees, characteristics not common to most swamps. What is this place? Each year the course, like THE PLAYERS Championship that’s played on it, offers more questions than it does answers, but it’s always a good watch, even when the winner wins going away.

This year the winner was Jason Day, who led all four rounds and set a few scoring records. Day, with a combination of freakish distance (he hit a few 2-irons over 300 yards and was able to attack the Stadium Course’s back nine par 5’s with mid-irons) and solid putting, proved again why he, not Jordan Spieth, is right now the number one-ranked player in the world. Aside from a few holes of uneven play on Saturday, when the greens browned and became two to three feet longer than they’d been on Thursday and Friday, Day was dominant. He hit it past those moguls, and the palm trees, too; and when he didn’t, his polished short game bailed him out. It was a thorough victory. A contingent of lesser-known players—Kevin Chappell, Justin Thomas, Colt Knost and Ken Duke—plus rising superstar Hideki Matsuyama and hometown favorite Matt Kuchar kept Day honest, but in the end Day’s power and precision comfortably separated him from the field.

His win also complicated the perennial question at THE PLAYERS: How much of a major is it? For years the Tour pitched the event as a fifth-major, a self-declared status that elevated it over other significant, non-major events such as Bay Hill, The Memorial and the WGC Series. When THE PLAYERS was contested in March, two weeks prior to Augusta, many players thought of it as a final tune-up before The Masters. An outsized purse assured that the world’s top-ranked golfers would attend, and the tournament’s close ties to the PGA Tour (headquartered in Ponte Vedra, Jacksonville, on the same swamp as the course) gave THE PLAYERS gravitas. It felt, and still feels, like a fixture on tour. Where the Valspar Championship might next year be called the Cialis Open, THE PLAYERS will always be chiefly sponsored by the PGA.

Now that the tournament has been moved to May, historically a low-coverage zone for golf, its prominence has increased. You can see it in the crush of patrons and the mutli-storey chalets built up around the island-green seventeenth, an unbroken wall of raised spectator spaces with clean white friezes that bring to mind baseball’s upper decks. On Seventeen, the Stadium Course has fully achieved its name; sometimes it’s hard to see the golf through all the people. And should we ever doubt the significance of THE PLAYERS, the new Tuscan-inspired megalith of a clubhouse assures us that, while we might not be watching a major, we are watching something big, something important enough to require a castle.

But how important? Sergio Garcia punctured the fifth-major argument in 2012, when he said he didn’t think he was good enough to win the big ones. Four years earlier, he’d won THE PLAYERS. Here was a globally recognized golfing prodigy once thought to be Tiger’s main rival saying he can’t get it done on golf’s biggest stages with THE PLAYERS trophy on his shelf. A bit of a backhand, perhaps, to Tim Finchem and the gang at Ponte Vedra, but also too a candid reminder (from a guy who’s never had much of a filter) that for all its charms, the players know where THE PLAYERS stands.

Still, it’s a fantastic event. The course challenges players in every part of their game—and patrons, too. I’ve been to the tournament several times and always leave sore and sunburned, a low-level ache in the legs from climbing all those unnatural mounds. But satisfied, too. You see a ton of good golf and professionals making quads and quintuples on holes that require no more than a wedge off the tee. Sometimes you see both from the same player within the hour. THE PLAYERS might not be a major, but its winners list is evidence that one must be majorly talented, usually, to win it. Talented in a Jason Day kind of way.




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Lee Ellis's work has appeared in The Believer, Lucky Peach and newyorker.com.