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The Players Championship is golf’s biggest festival

THE PLAYERS Championship - Final Round
The most famous scene at The Players and one of the most famous in golf — the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Players Championship is golf’s biggest festival. It’s a prestigious golf championship, social gathering, family picnic, college bar, food market, tailgate, and chugging capitalistic engine spread over 400-plus acres in Florida swampland. It accommodates those who love golf, those who casually know just a little, and those who might not even know what “par” is and don’t much care to find out.

Golf has no rigid definition. It’s a game that can be The Masters or the U.S. Open or the Euro Tour’s new GolfSixes or the LPGA’s International Crown. It’s a game that can be going out with a few friends to play as many holes before dark on a crusty dog track course that has no flags on the greens (if this seems specific, it’s because I played this way down here this week and it was a fantastic evening chasing the sun — just hit it and hope the hole is near where your ball landed). We don’t have to define the game as one particular thing and not the other.

At the pro level, we get so occupied with sorting and categorizing events, players, and courses to bring some more definition. The Players has been jabbed for being “not a major.” After the Masters, it’s the biggest event in golf held annually at the same venue everyone immediately recognizes. For a long time, there was an yearly debate to fill up air time about whether this was the “fifth major.” Sure, the Tour probably wanted its marquee event to carry the resume weight of a major, but it was mostly a TV and media talking point. That discussion has subsided in recent years. The Tour is not trying to elbow The Players into the major championship discussion. And the press has become quieter about it.

The debate subsiding is largely because of the identity that The Players has carved out for itself. It’s not a major, but it’s much bigger than some upper-tier event on the weekly PGA Tour. It is entirely its own thing, floating alone. The Tour does not seem to care so much that it’s not a major. What they have made is the strongest field of the season, with one of its most lucrative purses, on an instantly recognizable course that reliably throws this festival each and every year.

A True Stadium

The Stadium Course at The Players has a remarkable versatility. For actually watching golf, it’s maybe the best venue in the game. A simple grounds pass should give you a view of just about every shot on every hole. Inside the ropes access is not necessarily an advantage for watching golf here. Almost no course offers that with an event of this magnitude, with most other big events ballooning to five and six and 10 deep along the ropes. You can get stuck just looking for a peek of the top of a golf club at the Masters or just trying to see a handful of shots in an entire afternoon at the Ryder Cup.

The course also prompts debate among the golf architecture die-hards. So for watching actual golf, played by the best golfers in the world on a course that, if nothing else, is interesting, this is about as good as it gets. The golf, however, is just a piece for so many who come to this event.

A True Party

Pro golf can be a punchline, mocked for being a stuffy thing for old people. But if you go to any number of PGA Tour events, you can find a big outdoor party with an ancillary tournament running alongside it. Some stand out more than others, and the peak events on Tour are undoubtedly the Phoenix Open and The Players.

The Players is Jacksonville’s Kentucky Derby. This is a tradition that the local culture has embraced and one that the PGA Tour wants to foster. There are few pretensions here. After going to Augusta National a month ago, it was hard to think of a more polar opposite environment among the larger golf tournaments. There are more tattoos and fewer quarter zips. A variety of high class club and golf course insignia are less prevalent, exchanged for more Jumbo Shrimp and Jags logos.

It’s not all Jacksonville, as fans from across Florida, Georgia, and the South Carolina coast make the annual pilgrimage to Pete Dye’s place. Imagine that, another SEC amalgamation at a golf tournament. One fan along a high-trafficked walkway at the 17th hole spent a portion of his afternoon looking for fellow Tennessee fans. When what looked like a comrade in orange walked past, he inquired enthusiastically, “Go Vawls!?” The response he got was a shout that resonated in the amphitheater, “Helllll no, Roll Tide!” Moments later, he found a fellow Vawl and his afternoon was made, screaming wildly. There were Hotty Toddys and Go Gators, and even a #BBN sighting. There was also golf somewhere nearby.

THE PLAYERS Championship - Final Round
The 2017 winner, Si Woo Kim, tees off on the 18th hole.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This atmosphere exists throughout the course, and the PGA Tour wants to foster the celebration. There’s a “Wine Lounge” behind the eighth green. If you’re trying to cut across the back nine, you’ll just stumble upon a bar scene materializing in the middle of the woods. It’s far enough away from a fairway so the noise would not impact play, with couches and a TV set up for fans to keep monitoring the actual reason we were all gathered. Bloody Mary bars are set up inside two gates, ready and waiting for those who enter right at 7:30 a.m. As I watched players on the 17th, I overheard one group losing interest in the scene and wanting to go back to “The Oasis,” apparently the name for another public bar on the property. There’s a full lineup of these alcohol outposts listed under the encouraging slogan of “Get Refreshed.”

A Concert at 17

The entire 400 acres is a celebration, but the vortex of raucousness sits just over a half-mile from the grandiose (or gaudy, depending on your taste) clubhouse. The famous 17th “island” hole is maybe the most hyped par-3 on the PGA Tour. Everyone knows exactly what it looks like and how it plays from years of TV coverage.

On the ground, the 17th is a concert with 48 different acts throughout the day. Like any outdoor concert venue, there are lawn seats and grandstands and high-class suites. It gets more subdued on the lawn and suites behind the green, which could be the field boxes compared to the bleachers atmosphere at more distant parts of the hole.

Augusta’s par-3 down in Amen Corner is a social gathering, too. But there the purpose is more to be seen, peacocking about in pastels. Here, the purpose of the eclectic mix of cigars, strollers, and sundresses is to holler and have fun. There are also multiple video boards broadcasting every shot, brands plastered everywhere, phones in every hand, and hopeless marshals raising their hands to try and still what becomes a constant crowded-bar hum. The only commonality with the 12th hole at Augusta was par.

Mark Hubbard, who was playing in his first Players this week, has gone into that similar atmosphere at the Phoenix Open. “There’s probably only 150 people watching every shot,” he said of TPC Scottsdale. “They’re just there to party.” His approach this week would be the same as Phoenix. “So if they don’t really care what’s going on, you shouldn’t be thinking about your shot anyways. So just have fun with it.”

The scene is bustling all weekend, hitting capacity around lunchtime and staying that way until the final groups come through almost seven hours later. There were older folks who caught mid-afternoon naps in their lawn chairs, and younger folks who caught late afternoon naps on the turf. By the end of the day, the seagulls hovered above as the crowd started to provide openings for the birds to swoop in on some of the trash that piled up.

It was not some lawless mess, with security lurking around the players and police walking within the crowd. Occasionally someone got over their skis up in a grandstand or behind the tee box, but it was well-monitored. There was often one idiot standing out, yelling “Get in the water!” indiscriminately after a tee shot went into the air. But one caddie told me the scene was “respectful on 17, unlike Phoenix.” Some players have been heckled to the point of disruption, with the most notorious being the unrelenting abuse Sergio Garcia took here in 2015, when things were particularly charged as Rickie Fowler went on his dramatic run and just one year after Sergio’s Sawgrass beef with Tiger.

This year, with a green jacket now in his possession, they chanted “Ole Ole Ole” for him as he approached the green.

A Brand Parade

The Masters is infamous for de-branding everything. It’s just “light beer” and “diet cola.” At the Players, fans complained about a lack of Bud Light, with options for just Bud heavy and Mich Ultra, an obvious attempt to funnel attendees to the partner beer as a stand-in. Brand after brand and partner after partner is set up throughout the property, offering one experience or another that may or may not be a waste of time away from the golf. There’s a golf simulator and a mini-island green competition and VR booth.

The bar is not just a bar, but a Grey Goose Lounge. A hospitality suite is not just a suite with pricier tickets, but an Oakley benefactor compound, an 11,000-square-foot climate-controlled tent. The local smaller guys get the best food spots, with a “Taste of Jax” court and the now-famous “Tacos on 12,” a crowded plaza and a spot that’s become a tradition here. At the merch tent, even the 17th hole now has its own logo and “island life” collection of gear. It’s Darren Rovell’s twitter feed come to life.

This exists at almost every non-Masters golf tournament, but the scale of it all at The Players, where the hosts have mastered a property setup for such annual “activations” and “experiences,” is unparalleled. This is the PGA Tour’s main event and the opportunity for a capitalistic bonanza is not passed up. It can be nauseating but the different non-golf-watching activities and suites are part of what makes this a festival. Pro golf can be both this and the Masters.

Getting Everyone Involved

As a plane flew overhead advertising for an area strip club, families walked through the kid zone, a playground set up in a grove next to a Nickelodeon tent where they can get slimed. The rowdiness of the 17th gets all the publicity, and rightly so, but strollers were ubiquitous on every hole. Kids wedged their way along the fence line for autographs and hi-fived every player along rope lines from tee-to-green and green-to-tee.

While some locals came to booze like it was a Jags tailgate, this is an annual family outing for Jacksonville too. Tipsy millennials locking arms to keep each other upright walked the cart path up the 18th while kids in whatever we’re calling the next generation did barrel rolls down the hill up above. Neither generation was preoccupied with the golf shots. Across 400 acres and not jammed into one section of an NFL stadium, the different purposes all seemed to coexist without incident.

* * *

I’ve made snarky comments about the “fifth major” and a Sawgrass shortcoming or two in the past, but recent powerhouse winners like Tiger Woods, Jason Day, and Rickie Fowler have pumped juice into the event. An aggressive effort to create a celebratory vibe on the grounds and for TV have made it so a winner that’s, well, not a powerhouse can be weathered. Its identity as both a golf tournament and an event has never been stronger, approaching a point where The Players can be the star, not the winner.

While the grounds at Augusta can make you feel like you've been dropped in a different world, The Players has a recognizable piece of almost every familiar Saturday afternoon activity. There’s a barbecue and a family walk and a golf outing and a trip to the mall and a bar crawl all happening at the same time. As a golf tournament, I don’t know how we neatly define it. It’s not a major. It’s not regular old PGA Tour event.

As an event, it’s The Players, a festival at the golf course, and there is nothing else like it in the game.