The Players no longer the first big-hitter in the lineup, but still packs a wallop

The Players no longer the first big-hitter in the lineup, but still packs a wallop
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – For much of the past half-century, The Players Championship has been the stage for the first mighty clash of the season.

Sure, there’d be minor skirmishes throughout the first two months. Tiger Woods starting most dominant years at Torrey Pines made a big event feel even bigger. The top 64 in the world would go head-to-head – maybe – at the Match Play. Doral was always a lively affair. But at the end of March, a few weeks before the Masters, all of the game’s best players were guaranteed to assemble here at TPC Sawgrass in what was the first high-stakes battle.

It felt like a major preview. It felt momentous. Boasting the strongest field in golf, The Players’ unofficial status as the game’s fifth major was endlessly debated.

And this year, at the start of this nascent era, it all feels … a bit different?

Compelled by LIV Golf to consolidate its assets and evolve into more of an entertainment product, the Tour has leaned into the idea that the superstars need to convene more often. As a result, The Players is no longer the first high-stakes test of the season – it’s actually the fifth, and the fourth in five weeks.

For the first time, it’s a continuation of the drama, not a culmination.

Designated events making players ‘battle-tested’

The elevated tournaments at Kapalua, Phoenix, Riviera and Bay Hill have been such a smash hit that nearly all of the eligible players have turned up, lured by both the stiffer competition and swollen paychecks. Those enticements will grow even more next year, in the latest iteration of the designated-event model, with eight limited-field events for the Tour’s top 50 offering a boatload of cash, world-ranking points and all-important FedExCup points.

But if the Tour has underlined and boldfaced more than a half-dozen events, signaling to fans that all THESE are of heightened importance, how does The Players stand out?

“It’s not going to be as big of a gap as it maybe has been in the past,” Jon Rahm said.

Of course, there remain ways both big and small that make the Tour’s flagship event even weightier. The winner receives a five-year Tour exemption and major championship invites. A record-setting $25 million purse means that the winner will walk away with $4.5 million (and even a fifth-place finish will net a player more than $1 million). There are 600 FedExCup points to the winner – the same amount the Tour doles out to a major champion. And the winner receives 80 OWGR points, easily the most this year, and the largest haul since the 2022 Open.

Full-field tee times for The Players Championship

“I don’t know how you can improve it,” said first-timer Taylor Montgomery. “It doesn’t get any better than this, in my opinion. The food – you can even have dinner here! I don’t know how it can get better, to be honest.”

Once promoted as the strongest field in golf, The Players can no longer claim that distinction, not after 31 players who competed in the 2022 edition are now LIV Golf members. But it is the strongest field of the Tour season, and that’s no small detail as the Tour, in its ongoing battle with LIV, tries to position itself as the most pro-competitive circuit in the world.

“Unless something drastic changes, it’s still the fifth major in golf,” said rookie Will Gordon. “Those iconic holes at the end, you’re not going to be able to replicate that purse-wise or feel-wise somewhere else. This is the Tour’s pinnacle event, and it’s always going to have the support. I don’t think that’ll ever shift.”

Said Collin Morikawa: “There’s something special about this week. There’s something about this tournament that when guys show up, you know everyone’s here. You know everyone who wants to be the best in the world, we’re all showing up here this week.”

Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas say Tour officials fought for balance with new designated event model, in an effort to keep middle-tier players in mind.

Thanks to so many star-studded showdowns already, the tournament doesn’t serve as a major preview as it once did. The storylines this spring are already well-established: Rahm has won five of 10 starts worldwide, returning to the top spot in the world ranking. Scottie Scheffler seems to have little interest in returning his green jacket. Rory McIlroy is the Tour’s reigning season-long champion despite spending much of his free time on conference calls and in boardrooms.

Over time, the Tour hopes, each of the designated events will create its own identity. A trophy presentation with Tiger Woods at Riviera. A test of survival at Bay Hill. A handshake off the 18th green at Memorial with Jack Nicklaus.

But history might be The Players’ greatest differentiator, the reason why it can stand out even in an increasingly crowded landscape. It’s not just the list of past winners – everyone from Jack to Trevino, from Norman to Tiger, from Phil to Rory. It’s not just the tournament’s elevated stature that could be a difference-maker when weighing a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness. No, it’s the history of iconic moments on a tricky, treacherous venue that favors no particular skill set – and players who want to join that legacy after defeating each of their Tour colleagues.

“It’s the magnitude of the event and the golf course that comes with it,” Rahm said. “It’s a very unique tournament and a very unique championship. It’s our championship. I think that’s what makes it different to some of the other events.”

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