The world knows The Players Championship is coming to Ponte Vedra in Northeast Florida next week for the 40th edition of what may one day become golf's fifth Major. The Players 2013 boasts the strongest field in golf by virtue of its size, professional purity and international pedigree. With a permanent home on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass where the PGA Tour world headquarters are located beyond the first green, this is the club championship of the world's best golfers. The blended brand of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and others, like Masters champion Adam Scott, combined with The Players is the modern equivalent of what Bobby Jones built at Augusta National in the early 1930s.
Born in 1934, by age 40 in the early 1970s, The Masters filled out a friendly foursome of Majors. The oldest being The British Open (first played in 1860) along with two other American golfing competitions, the United States Golf Association Championship (USGA, first played in 1895) and the Professional Golfers Association of America Championship (PGA, first played in 1916). Somewhere in those first 40 years, with the advent of golfing television in the early 1960s and the Big Three—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player—the four majors we know today came into being.
Why is there a reluctance to add a fifth major? It could be as simple as the number four and the nature of the foursome in golf. While only a number, so too is 18 for the number of holes on a golf course and 12 being the number of eggs we typically purchase, it does account for a custom in golf. Perspectives and precedents do change over time. One can play nine holes and buy half dozen eggs, too. The Western Open, today's vagabond playoff event, preceded the PGA and was widely regarded as a major in the early 20th century. The reason why it never became official seems to be lost in the annals of golf history.
Another debate is that, if golf is a game of the world, why would another major be added in the United States, rather than in Southeast Asia where the growth of the game today rivals that of America in the 1920s? With golf being played in the Olympics in South America in 2016, golf is being reseeded and may grow where it has not in the past. Perhaps the number of majors someday will be seven, one for each continent?
Although the game of golf is a physical one, there is a spirit of it and behind it, which sustains our interest and engagement with the game. It entertains us, refreshes us and creates an enjoyment we cannot find in another sport or activity. Though a business to some, the self-growth, social and charitable aspects of the golfing environment is what makes us a golfer, and these are surely present at TPC Sawgrass and The Players Championship.
The spirit of volunteering and supporting local charities is what brought the PGA Tour to Northeast Florida in the first place. The Jacksonville Open dates back to right after WWII with Sam Snead winning the first two events in 1945 and 1946. Officially the current volunteer organization that teams up with Matt Rapp, Executive Director of The Players Championship, dates back to 1965, the year Bert Weaver won and chairman John Tucker wore the Red Coat. Once The Players came to Ponte Vedra for good in 1977, the Jacksonville Open ceased to exist but the spirit never died—it only became broader and deeper.
"Hello neighbor," is a familiar greeting as the 2,100 volunteers come into TPC Sawgrass to pick up their volunteer packages in the weeks preceding The Players Championship. Many live in the immediate Northeast Florida area but others live throughout the United States. Some even come from faraway foreign countries like Switzerland and Argentina to serve for the benefit of local charities. Since coming to Florida's First Coast, The Players have raised $52.8 million for charity.
Though the volunteers give, they also receive, as evidenced by the experience of Mike Kelly, a gallery marshal on the 18th hole. He felt like he was a part of history a few years ago when President George H.W. Bush came to his hole during the Military Appreciation Day festivities. With the Lifetime Achievement recipient in a golf cart amidst a military progression up the 18th fairway and an F-16 flyover, Mike took home a life time experience that day, one he will never forget.
On a more personal level, a young boy of seven years went home with something he will likely never forget last year. Mike and the other marshals have a tough job ushering the players as they emerge from the tunnel under the 17th green grandstands to the 18th tee box. Amidst the surge of gallery yet intent on maximizing the tournament experience for youth, the marshals create an alley for the players to pass.
With the youngest ones front and center on the rope line. Mike worked with a seven-year-old boy on Friday instructing him on the proper closed fist pump greeting to acknowledge the players as they walked by. The kid went home and practiced in front of a mirror and came back on Saturday to connect with Phil Mickelson who also gave him a golf ball. For an encore, on Sunday the kid received a ball from Tiger Woods. The mother was so excited for her son and his growing confidence that she asked for a picture of him with Mike.
On a larger scale there is other impactful work being done mostly behind the curtain of professional golf at The Players and other PGA Tour events. There are military job fairs, baby showers for military moms-to-be, day-long forum and networking events for female business leaders and even education conferences that focus on improving the learning experience for our children.
Looking back years from now, golf's biggest impact may be widely felt through its focus on education. The Players made a 10-year, $50 million commitment that is well underway and ahead of schedule with over $11 million contributed the first two years. What is unique is that it is a cohesive public and private initiative that includes another $50 million of private capital that transforms the teacher and administrator school organizations for the benefit of the students as they prepare for college or career.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the happy reformer, gave the keynote speech at this year's Champions for Education Conference held at the Clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass. The initiative is an intricate, dynamic and all-encompassing futuristic plan for Jacksonville and Duval County public schools that is being built upon a base of solid improvement in recent years. As a unique opportunity to transform public education and dramatically improve student achievement it may well turn out to be the recipe for other school districts in America.
The Players Championship, Volunteers and Educators all at TPC Sawgrass…are you ready for the 40th The Players this week?