The Players Championship is approaching its golden anniversary, as 2024 will mark 50 years from the time this iconic event made its debut in 1974. Conceived by Dean Beamon, commissioner of the PGA Tour at the time and a former player himself, “The Players” was designed to be an event where the Tour itself would be the focal point, and the PGA tournament players themselves would hold sway (it was originally called “The Tournament Players Championship”).
The concept was to create a championship that would showcase the talent and power of professional golf in America, and shine a bright light on the PGA Tour—home to the greatest golfers in the world. From the outset, The Players Championship achieved exactly that, as Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the greatest player of all time, won the inaugural event (and three of the first five). The next step was to secure a venue that could stand with the four majors, and support championship golf at the highest level—and so Pete Dye was brought aboard. But not only did the PGA Tour want a course that would be a stiff test for the field, they also wanted breathtaking visual appeal and viewing areas that would maximize the experience for fans.
Pete Dye delivered precisely what was ordered, and then he dropped a cherry on top, with classically positioned risk and reward holes to build excitement and drama, while creating a treasure trove of moments to be remembered and discussed year after year. The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL is perennially ranked by Golf Digest among the top 100 golf facilities in the U.S., and is one of Pete Dye’s crowning achievements. And to guarantee the field is maintained at a major championship level, the PGA Tour has continuously raised the purse over the years, making The Players the richest event in golf by a wide margin (the purse this year is up to $25 million, a whopping $5 million increase over 2022).
“Be The Right Club Today!”
Most everybody has seen the clip of Hal Sutton intently staring down an approach shot, saying “Be the right club…be the right club today!” But how many remember the circumstances, and that it took place on the eighteenth hole of the final round at the 2000 Players Championship? Tiger Woods was at the top of his game, in the process of sculpting a record-breaking season. He had already recorded three wins going into The Players, including Bay Hill the previous week (and would go on to win nine times in 2000, including three out of the four majors).
Sutton was the leader going into the fourth round, with a one-shot advantage over Woods as they played together in the final pairing. Needless to say, fans, reporters, and analysts all believed that a Tiger victory was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Although Hal was a solid veteran, with eleven tour victories, including the 1983 PGA Championship and the 1983 Players Championship, and had recorded 3 wins in the previous two seasons, his biggest wins were a long way back. Going toe to toe with Tiger at the very top of his game was a daunting task, but Sutton is a bulldog and kept grinding away, maintaining his one-shot advantage as they walked to the 18th hole (and Tiger had just made eagle at sixteen to get back within one).
Holding the honor, Tiger ripped a long iron stinger right down the middle and applied maximum pressure. Sutton then took driver, and with nothing but water all the way down the left side, trouble on the right, and a sliver of fairway in between, striped a perfect drive that scooted past Tigers ball and left him 179 yards to a back pin. Tiger hit first, missing the green, but leaving a straight forward up and down for par. Hal knew that a birdie would be a tall order, even for Tiger, and so par would likely give him the victory. Long on his approach, however, would be dead, and short could catch the slope and wander away, leaving him a long and difficult two-putt (not to mention the water lurking ominously on the left).
He pulled a six iron, flushing it with a gentle draw, and as the ball flew toward the center of the green, TV microphones caught his words as he stared the shot down; “Be the right club. Be the right club today…Yes!” as the ball settled some fifteen feet below the hole. When Tiger missed his birdie chip, Hal two putted for par and his second Players championship. It was indeed the “right club,” and became one of the moments that Dean Beaman and Pete Dye had worked so hard to create.
Fuzzy and Norman
In 1994, Greg Norman was the face of the PGA Tour. With his flowing blonde hair, Australian accent, and trademark cowboy hat, Norman was the most recognizable figure in golf. Arguably the greatest driver of the ball in history, Norman was also known as the “The Great White Shark.” With an aggressive style of play, Norman won twenty PGA Tour events (including two major championships), and amassed 71 worldwide wins.
While he was an intimidating figure, thus earning “The Shark” moniker, he also experienced a few gargantuan collapses (the 1996 Masters is by far the most notorious). At the 1994 Players Championship, however, Norman kept his foot firmly on the gas from start to finish, with an opening round 63 and a flawless final round 64, to set the tournament record at 24 under par.
Norman’s playing partner, the colorful Fuzzy Zoeller, was the primary victim of the Shark’s attack (and he had given it his all with a final round 67, finishing four shots back at 20 under). On the eighteenth green, after Norman tapped in the final putt, Fuzzy casually ambled over with towel in hand, and patted the sweat from Norman’s brow—creating another unforgettable moment at The Players.
“Oh, What a Bounce!”
Fred Couples had not won on the PGA Tour in more than a year when the 1996 Players Championship got under way. A herniated disc in ‘94 had severely limited his play, and some thought Freddie’s career may even be over. He was a long shot at best. When he opened with a sizzling 64 though, the Freddie faithful started to buzz. He held it together with an even par 72 in the second round, and followed that up with a 68 in the third.
Still, Freddie found himself four back of Tommy Tolles going to the final round. With four birdies on the front nine, Couples began charging up the leaderboard, and when he reached the par 5 sixteenth hole, he was one shot off the pace. He piped his drive to the middle of the fairway, leaving 220 yards to a pin cut on the right side of the green, only a few yards from the wooden bulkhead and a watery grave–exactly the kind of risk and reward shot that Pete Dye had in mind.
Freddie went with a 2 iron, playing his patented high cut to get it close for a chance at eagle and the lead. He was on a slight upslope with some wind in the face, and he blocked it just a bit. As the ball was in the air, fading toward the right side of the green, you could cut the tension with a knife. And when it landed only feet from the bulkhead, there seemed no doubt it was destined for the water and a heartbreaking defeat.
But miraculously, the ball caught a little side slope next to the bulkhead and kicked dead left, coming to rest a few inches short of the green—prompting Johnny Miller to exclaim “Oh, what a bounce.” Freddie then gathered himself and drained a thirty-footer for eagle, taking a one-shot lead enroute to his second Players Championship victory.
The 17th Hole
The par 3 seventeenth at TPC Sawgrass, with its island green, is one of the most famous and exciting holes in the world, and has produced some of the most memorable moments in golf history.
“Better than Most!”
At the 2001 Players, Tiger was once again within hailing distance of the leaders going into the weekend. Starting play on Saturday, he was six shots off the lead held by tour veteran Jerry Kelly. Throughout the day Woods chipped away at the lead, and by the time he reached the seventeenth he was knocking on the door.
The hole was cut in the left front of the green, and Tiger’s tee shot flew long, coming to rest only a few feet from the very back, perilously close to finding the water. He was left with a sixty-foot downhill putt that included a seemingly impenetrable number of twists and turns, and he stalked it with Tiger-like intensity to come up with the perfect line and speed. No easy task, even for Tiger, as demonstrated by the most famous faux pas in golf broadcast history.
Before Tiger attempted the putt, commentator Gary Koch stated that “he had watched many putts from the back of the seventeenth green, and the results were not good,” so presumably he had a pretty good idea of what the putt would do. As Tiger made his stroke and the ball meandered halfway to the hole, Gary unenthusiastically remarked “Johnny, that’s better than most.” But when it suddenly made a right-hand turn and started heading for the center of the cup, Johnny Miller stated dryly “how about in.”
Gary, suddenly appreciating that he had just described one of the greatest putts of all time as merely “better than most,” repeated it two more times with increasing intensity—giving us the iconic clip seen by millions.
Ironically, Gary’s imperfect call has taken on a life of its own, almost overshadowing the incredible putt itself. One thing is certain, Tiger’s putt on seventeen is among the most memorable moments at an event that has produced so many. And of course, Tiger would go on to victory, defeating Vijay Singh by a stroke in an exciting Monday finish.
Freddie’s Hole in Three
At the first round of the 1999 Players Championship, Fred Couples was not having one of his better days at five over as he prepared to hit his tee shot at seventeen. He had had big moments at seventeen in the past, recording an ace in ’97 and making a huge birdie on his way to winning in ’96. But when a wind gust knocked his tee ball down, finding the water and almost a guaranteed double, it seemed his day was only getting worse.
Rather than head over to the drop zone for his third, Freddie just tossed another ball down and pulled the same club. He flushed it again, but this time the wind didn’t gust, and the ball flew straight in the hole for a remarkable par. It was a magical moment, and the re-set got him back on track as he went on to a top 5 finish.
At the second round of the 2015 Players Championship, Matt Kuchar (the 2012 champ), pulled his tee ball left on seventeen, seemingly destined for the water and a sure double. Somehow his ball stayed dry, bounding down the narrow grass walkway that provides access to the island green.
Unfortunately, his ball came to rest inches from the wooden bulkhead, leaving him no stance to hit a conventional right-handed shot. With water to his left, to his right, and beyond the pin, Kuch turned around and, facing directly away from the hole, lofted a backhanded chip onto the green, a remarkable shot with nothing but trouble everywhere you looked, and another memorable moment at the Players.
Seagull takes the stage
During the second round of the ‘98 Players, Brad Fabel put his tee ball safely on the green at seventeen. Or so he thought. Suddenly a seagull swooped down on his ball, biting and kicking it around the green for a while before finally taking flight, with the ball in his beak. The gull didn’t get far before the ball dropped into the water, depriving it of a valuable souvenir. But there was no harm done, as Brad was able to replace the ball to where it had originally come to rest—and it made for a light, and memorable moment at a hole that is known to strike terror in the faint of heart (and pretty much everybody else as well).