It is known as golf’s unofficial “fifth major,” but the Players Championship has an identity problem.
But — and there is always a but — it is never quite seen in the same light as the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open or the U.S. PGA.
It boasts arguably the strongest field in golf, prize money on a par with the majors, a stunning, fan-friendly layout in the purpose-built Stadium Course, and by all accounts, unsurpassed hospitality for the players.
According to former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, it is only a matter of time before the Players is elevated to major status.
“Time does a lot of things,” the Australian told CNN’s Living Golf.
Rickie Fowler, who won last year’s tournament in a three-way playoff with Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner, is already convinced.
“It has the major feel, obviously one of the best fields we play all year, on a tough golf course.”
The tournament began in Atlanta in 1974 before settling, in 1982, into the new Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on 415 acres of swamp land bought for $1 near Ponte Vedra Beach.
It was the brainchild of then PGA Tour commissioner Dean Beman, who wanted a site for the only tournament owned by the players of the tour.
This year, in its 43rd edition, the winner will take home a whopping $1.8 million, a payout matched only by the three American majors — and a little more than the British Open.
The overall purse is the richest on all of golf’s tours, with a prize fund of $10.5 million available, the biggest by $500,000.
Alongside the bumper payday is the claim that whoever wins will have beaten the strongest field in golf: The Players features arguably the top 144 players on the planet.
The Masters, on the other hand, is invite-only, based on certain qualifying criteria and a field of about 90. Past champions and a smattering of amateurs and international players make up the numbers.
The U.S. Open and the British Open also have spots for qualifiers and amateurs, while the U.S. PGA reserves 20 or so places for its teaching professionals.
Then there is the Stadium Course itself — a layout hailed for its design, with no two consecutive holes running in the same direction, a tough test for players of all styles, and stadium-style vantage points for huge galleries.
There are even particular Players Championship traditions. Ever since Jack Nicklaus won the inaugural event, the victor has donated one of his winning clubs to the collection, housed in Sawgrass’ 77,000-square-foot, Mediterranean-style clubhouse.
The four modern majors came together when the Masters, run by the Augusta National, began in 1934.
All of golf’s major milestones are based on these events. Nicklaus holds the record with 18 major titles, while Tiger Woods’ pursuit has stalled on 14 majors. Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth et al are busy chasing these landmarks.
“Majors define history, they define a player’s career,” Mike Davis, executive director of the U.S.G.A. which runs the U.S. Open, told CNN’s Living Golf.
“One of the things that sets the majors apart is the history to them makes the current year’s championship and certainly future ones all the more special.”
Or can it?
“I would say it’s fifth on the list of tournaments most guys want to win, except maybe their national open,” Ogilvy said.
“If it all stopped now I’d be happier there was an Australian Open on my mantlepiece and I wouldn’t miss the Players as much.
“The PGA Tour in the U.S., whether right or not, is generally the overseeing body of all golf — they have the most influence — so their tournament at their course, which keeps getting won by the best players in the world, at some point may be recognized as one of most important tournaments in golf.
For now, defending Players champion Fowler knows he is yet to claim a major title.