No one is quite sure, not even veteran golf reporters, why four tournaments--the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA--were originally designated as majors.
Some say Jack Nicklaus was the first to label those tournaments as majors-- and if he said it, so be it.
It’s believed that Deane Beman, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, would like to have the Players Championship regarded as a fifth major.
The tournament, which begins today on the stadium course of the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, is certainly attracting one of the best fields of the tour. The money is also attractive, the total purse reaching $1,350,000 with the winner earning $243,000.
The Players Championship has been in existence only since 1974, moving around until it found a permanent home here in 1982. So it doesn’t have tons of tradition.
Although the course has been improved since it became a tour site, the memory lingers that it was once a swamp. And J.C. Snead once observed, “They messed up a perfectly good swamp.”
Other golfers were also unkind in their earlier assessments of the course. Tom Weiskopf said playing here was “donkey golf,” a pin-ball machine effect caused by the many earthen mounds built to accommodate spectators. Others said the site would be better served if it were left to the alligators.
“I knew changes would be made before it opened,” Beman said. “We budgeted a substantial amount for changes over a five-year period. It would be great to think we can build a perfect course from the outset. But I know of no course that hasn’t been modified.”
And the pros have revised their opinion of the course, noting the improvements. But most of them are not quite ready to bestow major status on the Players Championship.
“I haven’t thought about it too much,” Mark Calcavecchia said Wednesday. “Maybe the other players might think it’s more of a fifth major than I do. I think of it, though, as a real good golf tournament, a real important one.
“But I won’t have the same feeling on the first tee tomorrow as I would at the Masters, U.S. Open, the British Open, or the PGA. Those are the four majors and I think it’s going to stay that way. But I think this is the next-most important tournament on our tour.”
Curtis Strange, golf’s leading money winner in 1988, agreed with Calcavecchia, saying: “I won’t say there won’t a fifth major, but right now there isn’t one. I don’t think there is a need for one.
“I think there’s a level of tournaments after the four majors that are good tournaments and hold more prestige than some others.
“This is a big-money tournament on a bit of a funky golf course that holds it back as far as I’m concerned. But I don’t mean to degrade the tournament. I will give it this. It’s probably the best field of players we’ll have all year long.”
Funky, Strange said, meant that the course was “tricked up,” but not to the extent that it has been in the past.
Calcavecchia is the year’s leading money winner, having earned $429,112 in only three months while winning two tournaments, the Phoenix Open and Nissan Los Angeles Open. Steve Jones, No. 2 on the money list with $377,738, has also won twice.
It has been said that Calcavecchia or Strange might be the next pros to achieve so-called dominant status as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson did in previous years.
Johnny Miller was the last pro to win eight tournaments in a year--1974--and no one has won more than four since Watson won six in 1980.
Calcavecchia was in contention to win two more tournaments this season, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the Doral Ryder Classic.
So he was asked if he anticipates anyone winning four or more tournaments in a year.
“I think it would be a total fluke if anyone wins more than four tournaments in a year,” he said. “I just can’t see it. There are just too many good players.”
Strange, however, said it’s possible for someone to have a year like Miller’s in 1974.
“I don’t think it’s farfetched (winning more than four or five tournaments),” he said. “I think of my year last year. I won four in the states and one overseas and I played a little inconsistently. However, when I was in contention, I won, which is good play and some luck.
“Even back with Miller, four or five tournament wins was still an accomplishment. I’m not sure that if you brought Johnny Miller to 1989 and he played the way he did in 1973, or 1974 he might not win seven or eight tournaments. His scores were unbelievable. He played as well as anyone who ever played the game from tee to green.”
Strange admires Calcavecchia, who has become a factor on the tour the last two years after struggling earlier.
“Up until three or four years ago, Mark was really not known on the tour,” Strange said. “He has matured, but then everybody has matured. Everybody respects the way he plays, his aggressiveness. I think it’s fun to watch him.
“When you play the way he plays, some people may call it reckless. It’s Arnold Palmer’s style. But reckless is too harsh a word. He can lose golf tournaments that way, but he can also win them, too.”
Calcavecchia is taking some time off after the Players Championship to concentrate on preparing for the Masters, April 6-9 in Augusta, Ga.
He said he doesn’t dwell on his loss to Sandy Lyle there last year, when Lyle hit a perfect five-iron out of a bunker on the 18th fairway to birdie the hole and beat Calcavecchia by one stroke. “I know I’ll be mentally fresh (for the Masters),” Calcavecchia said. “If I make any mistakes, it won’t be because I’m mentally tired.”
For now, though, the test is here, the aspiring fifth “major.”
PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman said the rough has been cut around the greens, allowing for a greater variety of shots instead of the usual sand wedge to the green. . . . Mark McCumber, who will be defending his title in the Players Championship, has missed the cut in two of his last three tournaments after making 40 of 41. He doesn’t seem concerned, though, saying, “All it shows is how competitive it is out here. Just look through the records to see who has missed a cut and then came back to win the next week.” . . . The weather here is balmy with the temperature in the lows 80s.