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Does Golf Really Need a Fifth Major?

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Tiger Woods
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THIS is a major, golf fans. (PGA of America)

It is an annual happening, just as reliable as the flowers in spring and the swallows making their return to Capistrano. It takes place when the troops are assembling to play at Sawgrass, and the debate always focuses on the same issue: "Why isn't the Players Championship the game's fifth major?"

Almost without fail, it is the PGA Tour members who move the question - very likely in an ongoing effort to needle the media into some kind of action. The players apparently feel that this is an unfair snub of "their own" tournament by the press, and they are determined to push the issue until it is corrected.

Without question, there is some basis for the grousing by the players. The Players Championship is one of the best tests of the year. It consistently has the strongest field, with the cream of the international tours adding substantial muscle and flavor. And the TPC course at Sawgrass does provide a demanding examination of golfing skills - and good theater, to boot. But these pluses do not automatically qualify it as a major.

The definition, or standards, for a golf major championship have never been spelled out anywhere. But a simple rundown of the so-called "Big Four" events does provide an important common factor. For instance: The British Open is 141 years old. The U.S. Open is 106 years old. The PGA Championship 85 years, and the Masters 67 years. The Players Championship is 27 years old - a mere babe by comparison. And anyone who knows even a tidbit of golf's history and traditions must know that radical changes do not come overnight. And since the four traditional majors have been in place some 40 to 114 years before the Players Championship played its first round, there has been no sense of urgency for adding it as a "Fifth Major."

The seed for such an expansion was planted by former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, who came up with the idea for the tour's own championship in 1974. He positioned it ahead of the Masters on the schedule and casually proclaimed that, because of its potentially best-of-the-year field and being the season's kickoff test, the event eventually would become golf's "Fifth Major."

There was some negative reaction when media people asked, "Why do we need a fifth major? The game has moved along pretty well with four." But those who knew Beman's motives knew he was trying to get the maximum clout for his grandiose overall plans. With the new Players Championship, he was also planning to introduce "Stadium Golf," what he called the "design concept of the future." This was the new Players Club at Sawgrass, where the course features mounds and amphitheaters that made spectating more enjoyable for the galleries.

Beman deserves much credit for innovation and planning for the future. Indeed, there are now more than 20 TPC Stadium Courses throughout the country in operation - or in the planning stage, including many on which PGA Tour events are played. But, of course, it is the Stadium Course at Sawgrass that gets the most attention - and often is the source of controversy.

When Architect Pete Dye finished the radical layout for the playing of the 1982 Players Championship, his work was greeted with torturous howls from the players. They branded it as a "penal" course, keeping their loudest screams for the now-famous par-3 17th, the island green in the middle of the lake. Almost immediately, changes were recommended by a panel of players, and there have been alterations and adjustments periodically ever since. The most recent refinement was the addition of substantial rough in strategic areas.

Most players feel it is a championship test, although many still question the fairness of No. 17. And some point to the unique layout as a good reason why the Players Championship deserves the "Fifth Major" accolade.

"It's got the putting challenge of the Masters, the winds of the British Open and the rough of the U.S. Open - and the best field of the year," is the way one described it. "What else does it need to be a major?"

The question is, WHO would proclaim it a major, and why?

These are things that evolve over a period of time. And, in terms of history, this is a very young event. There is no chant for upping its status, other than the one the players tune up for every March. And that spins out of self-interest mostly - it's their championship, their course.

In time, perhaps the media will pay more attention to the players' appeal, although I wouldn't bet on it. At the moment, the biggest concern about the Players Championship focuses on where it will be moved on the tour schedule. There has been much pressure on PGA Tour officials to take the Players Championship out of its long-time March date so that it would no longer clash with the Nabisco Championship, the first major event of the year for the ladies tour. Sponsors and advertisers have been complaining that it makes no sense to have two events that draw some of the best TV ratings of the year clashing with each other on the same weekend. The time zones between Florida and California do help somewhat, but there is at least a two-hour overlap when neither event attracts its full potential.

The issue was on the agenda once more at the quarterly meeting of the tour players on the eve of the Sawgrass event, and there were indications that the Players Championship might be moved to a date in May. That would place it between the Masters (early April) and the U.S. Open (mid-June), an attractive schedule spot. Interest in the tour would be at a peak. But it does have drawbacks, too. Very likely, a May date would cut heavily into the usual large representation of European players at Sawgrass, since that is a time when long-standing events on the European Tour are played. And without those top players the field weakens substantially.

Further, Florida turns on the heat in May - big time. And heat and the blistering sun can make radical changes in a golf course, as greens and other grasses fight for their lives. The TPC would not likely be the same test of golf in May as it was in March, and the chant for making it the "Fifth Major" could soften a bit. Here's a thought. Why not leave things just as they are? Change isn't always the right direction.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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