The Players Championship weather included rain, lightning, thunder, wind and a 50-degree extreme of temperature from midweek practice rounds at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass to early Sunday morning.
It took more than 54 hours for the first round to be completed and more than 80 hours for the second round to be put in the books.
The tournament went to the first Monday finish in 17 years, never a best-case scenario.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the PGA Tour’s two biggest stars of the last quarter-century, didn’t suit up, marking the first time they missed The Players at the same time. Woods, however, was the star of his World Golf Hall of Fame induction on Wednesday at the PGA Tour’s Global Home as he delivered a heartfelt 16-minute speech on how a kid from a working-class family became a global superstar.
Through a week mixing adversity with relief at finally having as close to normal a Players experience as possible, it was a rousing success when it comes to attendance, economic impact and international focus on the PGA Tour’s “Gold Standard” event that the top players, more and more frequently, are according major championship status.
“Everything,” said 2019 champion Rory McIlroy earlier in the week when asked what went into making The Players the Tour’s version of a major. “You’ve got 24/7 coverage of it. I think the changes to the golf course, the aesthetics of it. … the agronomy, just the whole feel of the place. I mean, you drive in here and you have that big grand clubhouse, it feels special. It feels like a special event. It feels like a special week.”
From a First Coast to an international standpoint, The Players has risen in stature entering the latter stages of its fifth decade.
This year, coming off the cancellation of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and playing the 2021 tournament in front of 75 percent fewer fans than normal, there was, what volunteer chairman Matt Welch said, “a pent-up desire to get out here and enjoy the tournament.”
The Tour reported that hotel capacity in the beaches area and Intracoastal West was at 85 percent. Nearly 60 percent of the tickets and hospitality venues were purchased from outside the area.
An early sign was that parking for what are historically the two biggest days for attendance, Friday and Saturday, were sold out before Thursday’s first round. Another was the scene at the practice areas on Monday: more players are getting to the TPC Sawgrass earlier – 111 of the 144 in the field registered and were on the property on Monday.
“Guys are showing up a lot more on a Monday, guys are showing up a lot earlier on a Tuesday,” said Collin Morikawa. “There’s a lot more people out here because they’re putting in that extra little prep because they view this tournament … as the players’ tournament and it’s for us, it’s for the PGA Tour players.”
Money helps, but there’s more
Of course, money talks and the announcement late last year that the Tour was bumping the overall purse to $20 million, with the first-place check of $3.6 million, not only got the players’ attention but their focus. The winner late Monday earned more than the total purse in 1997 and double what Rickie Fowler took home for winning in 2015.
Money isn’t everything but McIlroy noted the Tour is striving to make sure The Players is a major in other aspects: course condition, player amenities and perks such as a five-year exemption and 100 more FedEx Cup points than most of the other Tour events.
“I think there’s a lot of thought and a lot of new ideas that are brought to the table for this event,” he said. “This is where the PGA Tour can showcase what they have. Obviously, the prize fund is huge, and that’s great, but there’s a lot of other things that go into the event to make it feel the way it is and make it feel special.”
Xander Schauffele said he sees the status of The Players rise the more he comes here.
“A lot of people want to win this tournament, not just because there is a $20 million purse, but just because it’s considered our fifth major, and majors are sacred to us,” he said. “Every year we come here the stands seem to be bigger, everything seems to be bigger. Overall, you make big tournaments by just making everything more magnitude and more important. This is a very important week for us.”
The Players has an international reach on NBC/Golf Channel and digital coverage on ESPN+ and Discovery in more than 200 countries and 27 languages. NBC and Golf Channel provided 45 hours of live coverage with limited commercial interruptions, and the digital platforms carried action for another 167 hours.
Weather extremes hit the course
Another key factor in the week was how the tournament, its staff and the volunteers responded to adversity.
The weather was sunny and in the 80s for the two practice-round days but trouble began looming when the course was closed at 3 p.m. on Wednesday for lightning near the area. Then came the storms and rain on Thursday and Friday, and a quick but violent storm that raced through the area Saturday morning.
Nearly 5 inches of rain fell on the property during the week but director of agronomy Jeff Plotts had 180 able-bodied men and women at his disposal, 90 on his staff and 90 volunteers.
Rather than dwell on the misfortune of getting hit with weather that chief referee Gary Young termed “highly unusual” for this time of year, everyone took it as a challenge.
Plotts’ staff and volunteers worked from around 4 a.m. every morning to after darkness every night to get the course ready after every wave of weather. Plotts joked that the area experienced all four seasons in one week, and the temperature extremes were 50 degrees from Wednesday to Sunday morning, when players teed off with a wind-chill factor in the upper-20s.
His staff and the volunteers assigned to maintenance were called the MVPs of the tournament.
Plotts merely said, “we always want to be the unsung heroes.”
When the tournament reopened on Saturday at noon, the fans poured in, creating bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles on A1A, Solana Road and Country Road 210. When they filled the amphitheater-like setting around the 16th and 17th holes, it was the usual party atmosphere.
But it also was more than simply getting the grounds ready. There were volunteers who had to aid in player and fan evacuation, then get the practice areas ready and the players back onto the course when play resumed.
Four times, because of either rain or darkness, players, caddies and walking marshals and sco had to be transported off the course and back to the clubhouse in vans.
“We had a plan in place and we executed it,” said tournament executive director Jared Rice. “We’ve got many volunteers who have been doing this for a long time and it was flawless.”
Welch said at one point the possibility of the tournament extending to Tuesday existed.
But on Monday morning, he was able to bask in the glow of another job well done. And he had another important statistic for the week: The volunteer force of more than 2,000 often takes vacation time to work at The Players or travel from outside the area for tournament week. When it was clear on Friday that the tournament would extend to Monday, Welch said he needed 600 volunteers.
More than 800 said they’d be there.
“I couldn’t be prouder of them,” he said. “We had more things thrown at us weather-wise than I can remember in the 15 years I’ve been here and they did the absolute best they could.”
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Players Championship bounces back in a big way, despite weather