By Rick Drennan
Take Charlie Darwin’s theory on natural selection and give it a golfing twist. Maybe that helps answer a question that continues to dog the PGA Tour: Should The Players Championship get major status?
For generations, sportswriters have deified the four majors as if they were chiseled in stone tablets and summoned down from the Mount.
But, for arguments sake, let’s sift through the real reasons the Majors are in fact majors, and decide if it makes sense to jettison one, or add another.
First the problem: all four Majors are independent entities, not owned by the PGA Tour, thus limiting what can be done to them.
Then, there are the tournaments themselves, indelibly imprinted into our collective consciousness.
The Masters is the youngest of the four (1934), and played on a bucolic venue (Augusta National) with a limited field of invites only. Its timing is impeccable and celebrates the heraldic arrival of spring.
Aging fans wax poetic about the blooming azaleas and the trippy walk down Magnolia Lane and who doesn’t yearn to wear the green jacket, even if it’s ugly and outdated and the colour of a breath mint?
Still, The Masters has an ethereal place in the pantheon and is as secure today as it ever was – driven by a yummy date, a gussied up venue, and a piano libretto that ushers it into our households each April via CBS Sports – voiced over in whispered reverence by Jim Nance. Watching it has become a catatonic experience.
It matters little that the field sucks (the thinnest of the four majors), or that an everyman pro like Lee Trevino hated Augusta’s cracker mentality so much he used to bypass the clubhouse and put his golf shoes on in the parking lot.
How about the two Opens (U.S. and British)?
The American version (1895) epitomizes golf at its grit-grinding best (or worst). Its tight fairways, cabbage-like rough, and greens with stimpmeters in the high teens put everyone’s game on the smithy – much to the morbid delight of USGA officials.
Perhaps the perfect writer to describe such a slash-fest was Stephen King.
And don’t forget: the event has spat out some the quirkiest no-name winners in history: Andy North (twice!), Ed Furgol, Jack Fleck, Dick Mayer, and Orville (Orville?) Moody.
Last year’s venue, Chambers Bay was a disaster, and some say it forever tarnished the event’s reputation. The USGA, being the USGA, it quickly promised a return to this grassed over gravel pit some time in the near future. LOL.
Still, it’s the Open, and most golfers (especially Phil Mickelson) would do cartwheels down C Bay’s tarmac fairways to add it to their trophy case.
The other Open (1860), the British version, is the so-called world championship of golf. Yet not so long ago (mid-1950s) it had dwindled down to clichéd irrelevance, churning out winners like (Mad) Max Faulkner Peter Thomson, Fred (no relation to John) Daly, Kel Nagel and the immortal Dick (note the biting sarcasm here) Buront.
It wasn’t until the telegenic Yankee Doodle heartthrob Arnold Palmer went over in 1960 (losing to Nagel) that it could proclaim itself the colossus it has now become.
And finally, let’s look at the PGA Championship (1916), the ugly half-sister of the majors. Until 1957, it was a middling match play event that produced such luminous winners as Chick Harbert and Walter Burkemo.
Rumour has it the rota for the modern-day majors wasn’t actually chiseled in stone tablets but concocted over a few drinks in a Fort Worth bar by Arnie P and his golf writer buddy Bob Drum.
So why doesn’t golf do the decent thing and make The Players Championship a real major?
Here are my compelling reasons.
Prize money: largest on tour at $10 million, with $1.8 million to the winner
The Field: The deepest in golf
Venue: TPC Sawgrass might be the best-known course in golfdom, and hole No. 17 is a made-for-TV docudrama – the most compelling car wreck outside of NASCAR.
History: Who of a certain age can forget Jerry Pate’s victory in 1982 when he dragged commissioner Dean Beman and course architect Pete Dye into the surrounding water to celebrate his win; or Tiger Woods’ “better than most” putt on No. 17 on the final day of the 2001 championship; or Rickie Fowler’s six under par for the last six holes finish, including three straight birdies on No. 17, including two in sudden death?
Intangibles: Nearly a billion households outside the U.S. receive the broadcast in 30 different languages.
Intangibles 2: Sawgrass favours neither a drawer nor cutter of the ball, or the long or short hitter. It’s been called the most democratic course in golf, and its winners reflect that: from Tiger Woods to Fred Funk.
Which brings me to the reason for this rant.
In late January, I joined a travelling troupe of Canadian golf writers on a trip to Jacksonville, which included a robust round on TPC Sawgrass.
Although we dragged in a massive cold front behind us, and our round began with snow flurries on the first tee, it was a rollicking ride over a course that is like a run-on sentence that comes to the screeching halt with the biggest exclamation point in golf: the scary 17th.
All the holes at Sawgrass went by in dizzying repetition, but 17 loomed large, and when it finally came into sharp focus from the 16th fairway, each of our foursome gulped noticeably – and bladed our next shots.
At 17, I blanked out, hit as solid an 8 iron as I’ve ever hit, and had a 10-footer for birdie, which I nervously missed – wide right.
No wonder I was in a merry mood when I opened my notepad and interviewed Bill Hughes, the course general manager, and Matt Rapp, executive director of The Players Championship.
Hughes is a larger than life character who lives life like a downed power line – always crackling with energy.
He serenaded our troupe with stories about The Players, and walked us through the enormous clubhouse, built on scale with the quixotic Breakers Hotel in St. Augustine, now the home to Flagler College.
He even led us through some of the hidden passages at the club (out of bounds for most visitors), and was emotional in his defence of the tournament being named a major.
It’s better than most, he said, channeling his very best Gary Koch.
Both men understand a tournament’s success is an organic thing, and like a ripening fruit, The Players is now full to bursting.
Fowler’s heroics should have propelled it to its rightful spot as a full-blown major.
But it hasn’t.
The Masters is still the best of the best because hope spring eternal for winter weary northerners using The Masters to count down the days till summer.
Seeing the azaleas in bloom revitalizes me, as did Jack Nicklaus’ improbably win in 1986 – still my favourite sporting moment.
I’m okay with the two Opens keeping their place in the pantheon, but after having the chance to play TPC Sawgrass, I can now understand why it should get its very own stone tablet.
Being a Darwinian, I’d drop the PGA Championship in a heartbeat.
I know the chances of that happening in my lifetime are equal to Donald Trump serving Mexican food at his first state dinner, but if the theory on natural selection is right, and I believe it is, then it’s way past time The Players takes its rightful place amongst the Big Four – or maybe even this compromise: The Fab Five?
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