The Players Championship is the primary week of the year when the PGA Tour celebrates itself. It’s a party, a “festival of golf” as I termed my first experience with it, hosted in the Tour’s own backyard and with all the money and pomp and circumstance you can throw at a golf tournament. In recent years, however, it’s trended away from a gathering that was more of a wedding reception everyone’s pumped to throw down at into a Thanksgiving dinner with some tension that maybe not everyone wanted to attend.
In 2020, Players week coincided with the precise moment when the sports world was shutting down for the pandemic and the Tour spent multiple days relenting to the trend, conceding an edge here or there, and then finally canceling the event after playing the first round. It was awful timing for a week that is so critical and celebratory for the Tour.
Last year brought us Commissioner Monahan’s “legacy not leverage” quip as Phil Mickelson hid in exile and the Saudi Golf League appeared grievously wounded. It put a cloud of tension over the week, but the event went on and boy could this year have been made a lot more fun and less awkward had Cameron Smith not won it!
The Saudi Golf League effort, presumed on life support at last year’s Players, was not dead, of course, and Smith would join it before the end of the summer. This year’s gathering will have to acknowledge the intervening 12 months in some way, which is probably not a preferred tapdance to do during what’s supposed to be such a blowout week.
It’s hard not to confront the strange fact that the winner, runner-up, and third-place finisher at this championship last year are no longer welcome. The Tour will do as little as possible to acknowledge it, which is its right—I’m not sure what they’re expected to do or what might be the best path—celebrate the guy that bolted for the rival league? It’s definitely weird pretending like last year’s event and its winner don’t exist. The Tour appropriately floods the zone this week with content and social media coverage and promotion from most of the people and resources they have for this home-game party. It’s a tricky thing to do all that while swerving to avoid the reigning champion. A big challenge for fans will be trying to find a picture of Smith or his name on the grounds. His past-champions parking spot is long gone from the lot. The promotional banners and signage and infrastructure that blanket the grounds rely on the image of other past champions. I’ve looked and seen absolutely nothing as evidence of his existence, but I always sucked at the Where’s Waldo books, so it could be out there somewhere.
Making things more uncomfortable is that Smith is a nearby resident. He lives just around the corner from TPC Sawgrass and down the street from tour executives who now vehemently oppose him. His golf life around town has become complicated, as Adam Schupak noted here. There’s talk of the local resident attending as a fan on a ticket, which would create an even more unwelcome circus and confrontation for the Tour.
This is all an awkwardness the Tour does not want during its party. But it’s hard to avoid. In the media center on Monday, a smiling Bryson DeChambeau appeared in an equipment ad on the two big screens bookending the press conference dais with all the gold man Players logos. That’s probably the only time you’ll see Bryson this week. Outside the gates of TPC Sawgrass is Nona Blue, owned by a restaurant group that Graeme McDowell has had a stake in for many years, though it’s been several since that fact was publicly promoted or referenced, perhaps due in part to his irrelevance as a high-profile player and in part to his more recent relevance as an antagonizer of the locals. In there this week will be, and already have been, plenty of players, caddies, and various tour types patronizing the place part-owned by a guy they don’t want to talk to anymore and whose persona non grata status they probably feel is well-earned.
Adding to the tension will be a players meeting set for Tuesday morning, which will likely bring some pointed questions, if not pushback, from rank-and-file members about what the new 2024 Designated Event structure might mean for them, the non-elites and top earners. The questions and conversation will not all be smooth as the Tour tries to quickly adapt and strengthen its product in the face of LIV. That will bring another element of strain to a week when the Tour is just trying to celebrate its players and itself.
When it comes to avoiding stress and agita on this week, the Tour has had some shit luck and timing in recent years. At some point the shots will start flying and the golf will become the primary concern, but early in the week, these are the issues: intentionally ignoring what happened here last year while sorting out and promoting what the future Tour will look like. It’s not the carefree party Players week wants to be.