THE PLAYERS’ 50th Anniversary

5 Most Exciting PLAYERS Championships


Any list of most exciting PLAYERS is going to suffer from recency bias. It’s easier to remember an exciting tournament from the last five or 10 or even 20 years than one from 30 years ago, never mind 50. In addition, many people who have attended recent PLAYERS weren’t even alive when the first one was played. So, depending on your age, you may or may not remember all of these, but this group definitely got the fans excited about the day and the finish.

1996: Fred Couples’ Eagle, Birdie, Par Finish

Fred Couples had a love/hate relationship with TPC Sawgrass. He used to say that when he first played it, he never made a cut. And he was right, at least until 1984 when he won. While he may have been a surprise winner that year — even to himself — by the late 1980s, he was a threat every time he teed it up. That said, in 1996, he didn’t lead until the very end.

In writing about that year’s tournament for Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly said Couples was allergic to practice. That wasn’t the case. Couples had a back problem that kept him from practicing. However, bad back or not, one thing was certain, Couples knew the course. He had set the record twice.

Using wood woods and balata balls, he had posted a record 64 when he won for the first time in 1984. Amazingly, in that round, he had bogeys on the first and last holes. Then in 1992, he shot a 63 out of the blue. That was the year Davis Love III won for the first time.  

But in 1996, the story wasn’t about records. It was all about the wet conditions and Tommy Tolles, who had played on the Nike Tour, with two wins, and the PGA Tour.

After three rounds, Tolles was two shots ahead of David Duval. Couples was in fifth place, tied with Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie, four back of Tolles. Couples was close enough to have a chance, but he would have to have a couple of scoring miracles or a birdie barrage, and he would need some help from those who were ahead of him and those tied with him. Nothing dramatic happened early.

On the 8th Couples’ ball landed just two feet from the hole. Birdie. It was helpful. 

By end of the first nine, he was only one behind the leaders, Tolles and Montgomerie. 

No one performed any heroics until almost the end of the round. That’s when Couples came to the 16th.  For his second shot, Couples and caddie Joe LaCava decided on a 2-iron. Couples hung it out a little too far to the right, and it was almost possible to hear thousands of people gasp. Then when the ball found the right side of the green, they exhaled with a huge roar. 

“It was a perfect club,” he said. “I cut the ball and I actually overcut it, and it was hanging, and I thought it was in the water for sure.”

Then the next miracle he needed happened.

Couples made the 25-foot putt and the gallery exploded. It was so loud, you could feel the ground shake. Yes. Fred Couples made the earth move. After that, he made a 30-foot birdie putt on the island 17th. More explosive noise, not quite at the same decibel level as for the eagle, but loud. They knew what Couples knew. He was probably going to win the tournament. And, of course, he did. Eagle, birdie, par did it.

“I wasn't really planning on playing 'til I was 46, but at least now I will be exempt if I am,” Couples said in his post round interview. He shot a final round 64.

1999: David Duval on A Course Harder Than Any Major

At the 1999 PLAYERS David Duval beat everybody. Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Nick Price, Colin Montgomerie, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, Fred Couples and anybody who was somebody in golf at that time. It wasn’t a garden variety victory, either. It was made amazingly difficult by a decision to make the course play harder. They got what they wished for. It was like an out-of-control NASCAR race. There were scoring wrecks everyplace. A lot of people love that kind of golf. To them it’s exciting. If that’s what you like, then the 1999 PLAYERS was probably the most exciting one of all. 

“I have never seen the greens brown on Tuesdays,” the late Bruce Lietzke quipped to Sports Illustrated describing the condition of the course.

The Associated Press reporter said at the time: “THE PLAYERS Championship is not a major. From the looks of things on Saturday, it may be even harder.”

That day, Duval, the eventual winner, had five bogeys.

The Associated Press continued: “The third round had the whipping wind of a British Open, the nasty rough of a U.S. Open and the terrifying greens of the Masters.”

“As far as the golf course goes, this is as tough as I’ve seen it,” Duval said as he staggered away.    

Others likely agreed.

Love had a triple bogey on the first hole and put two balls in the water at the 17th.

Els had a 42 on the back nine.

“It was like playing Augusta and the U.S. Open on the same day,” Montgomerie quipped. “I like none of them, so if you put it together, it’s worse.”

“I don’t know what they were thinking today,” Woods said. “Certain holes were impossible to play. The greens were so fast, so burnt out.” He had a 75.

“I hit 14 browns in regulation, so I didn't play that badly,” the late Bruce Lietzke said to Sports Illustrated. “But they made the best players in the world look like knuckleheads.”

During the final round, conditions stayed difficult. Only Duval was pleased about that.

“I wanted the greens to stay the way they were, because I knew they would reward quality shots and smart thinking. I feel like I am good at both,” he said.

When he came to the 17th, he had to put his tee shot on the green to win the tournament. What did he do? He remembered what former PLAYERS champ Nick Price had done.

“The best golf shot I have ever seen played, and not — it wasn't a spectacular shot,” Duval said. “I just mean the whole combination of routine and everything with the situation was when Nick Price won this tournament. He walked up there; grabbed his club; stood out over the ball, and hit it. Just never even gave himself — he never gave himself enough time to think about anything other than hitting it up there close.”

A tournament highlight was the Fred Couples hole-in-one at the 17th, which meant he actually made a par on the hole since his first ball went in the water. So, hole-in-three?

With Duval’s victory in THE PLAYERS, he took over the No. 1 ranking from Tiger Woods, which was a real achievement. He held it for 14 weeks until Woods got it back. Then, Duval retrieved it once more for a short time, and then it boomeranged back to Woods for about five years. But David Duval could say that when he was at the top of his game, he had taken the No. 1 spot away from the player who is either the best ever or the next best ever, depending on which measuring stick is used. Woods is tied for the most tournament victories on the PGA Tour. Jack Nicklaus has more major titles than anyone. Take your pick.

As a bonus for the Duval clan, Bob Duval, David’s father, won on the PGA Tour Champions the same day.

2000: Hal Sutton “Be The Right Club To-DAY”

Hal Sutton had won THE PLAYERS in 1983, the same season he won the PGA. There, he defeated Jack Nicklaus. As a result, he was called the next Nicklaus for a while. It was a large burden to bear, pardon the pun. While he didn’t win 18 majors and 70 tournaments as Nicklaus had done, Sutton had 14 PGA Tour victories and what could be called gumption. At the 2000 PLAYERS, he demonstrated that even he, a modest length hitter, at age 41, could stand up to the bulldozer that was Tiger Woods.

During the late stages of the third round, Sutton looked as though he might be ready to collapse under the strain. He had played 25 holes without a bogey. At the 17th hole, his 9-iron hit the island, but hopped into the water. He hit a lob wedge from the drop zone, and it spun a little too much and landed in the fringe. He ended up with a six. When the round was over, Sutton was only one ahead of Woods instead of four.

But Sutton was hard to scare.

“I don’t want to start anything, but he’s still one down,” Sutton said after the third round concluded. “He’s just another guy who is going to put his right leg in his pants, then his left leg in his pants like I do. We’ll tee it up on the first hole, and we’re going to see who comes out on top.”

Nobody in their right mind had ever challenged Tiger Woods that way. Whether on purpose or not, he had thrown down the golf gauntlet.

“I’ll just go out and play my game,” Woods said. “Hal might be thinking differently, but he needs to motivate himself.”

On Sunday, a thunderstorm stopped play when the twosome were playing the 12th. Sutton had built a lead of three strokes.

Woods had, atypically, failed to birdie the par fives up to that point. In addition, he had made two bogeys.

“Well, obviously things aren't going as exactly the way I wanted to,” Woods said about his shortened round. “But I am right there, and I got a pretty good chance of winning right now. I am only 3 back with six holes to go. But there is a lot of golf to be played.”

Woods mentioned that a comeback was easier on TPC Sawgrass because so many things could happen. 

“You can make birdies and other person make bogeys, or eagle on 16, there are a lot of different things; then you still got to play 17, and 18 is not a given par either,” he added.

The rain continued for some time, and soon, a Monday finish was in the cards. Of course, everyone knows the outcome. But it was not decided for sure until the last hole. 

Sutton had hit 17 of 18 fairways, the last one being the 18th. From there, he hit a 6-iron, which is probably impossible for any youngsters in the game to believe, but he did. He had 179 yards to the hole. 

As the ball was in the air, Sutton uttered those now-famous words, “Be the right club to-DAY!” His ball was just 10 feet from the hole when it settled.

Woods had hit the green but with too much force. His ball rolled through and came to rest in a swale beyond the far-right corner of the putting surface.

In the end, Sutton defeated Woods by just one shot. 

“To lead THE PLAYERS Championship from start to finish and to be able to play in the final round with Tiger Woods in the last group and beat him head-to-head, I can't not paint that dream any prettier,” Sutton said after the victory.

His victory in 2000 was worth $1,080,000 versus his victory in 1983 which was worth $126,000.

2013: Tiger Woods & Sergio Garcia — Duel in the Swamp

In 2013, the ultimate golf cage match took place between Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia. Garcia had the misfortune, like many golfers, to be playing competitively at the same time as Tiger Woods. Not much more needs to be said about that. So was Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love, Jim Furyk and many others.

At that point in his career, Woods ate trophies for lunch, it seemed. He snacked on majors for dinner.  Playing against him, for many years, was a fools’ errand, but people had to try. Such was the fate of Sergio Garcia. It annoyed the living daylights out of him.

In 2013, the visceral feelings came to a head at THE PLAYERS. Woods had already won three times since January, most recently at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He was licking his chops thinking about snacking on another trophy. He was up to No. 77 in victories, looking for 78. If he’d actually had claws, you could imagine that he would have slashed a tree thinking about it. You know, with a growl.

After round two, Garcia was actually one ahead of Woods. As it turned out, they would play together in round three. On the second hole, things exploded on Garcia’s end.

He was in the fairway where his tee shot landed, and Woods was, well, in the woods on the left. In amongst the pine straw and some gallery. A lot of gallery. Woods could not see Garcia or much else because he was blocked on three sides by a herd of people. His only view was to the green and there were people lining a corridor to let him hit.

Garcia thought he was away. He had a club out and was taking practice swings. No one disagreed with any of that, but as golfers are wont to do, Woods was getting ready on his end also. He took out a wood prior to Garcia taking a shot and the crowd cheered, knowing he was going to the green.

Garcia thought Woods was trying to annoy him on purpose, to interfere with his second shot. He took offense.

His shot to the green ended up on the right, near some trees. He was more than miffed. He was two breaths short of becoming a volcano, mainly because he made a double bogey on the hole and was looking for someone other than himself to blame. His error had taken him out of the lead.

NBC showed the timing of the incident, and it was clear that Woods did not pull a club in the middle of Garcia’s swing. But Garcia would have none of it.

Later, when there was a rain delay, Garcia commented for NBC.

“It was my shot to hit. He moved all the crowd he needed to move, and I waited for that,” he said. “I want to say that he didn’t see that I was ready. But you have a feel when the other guy is going to hit.”

In other words, Garcia thought Woods took out his club at that point in time on purpose to distract Garcia from an important shot.

After his round, Woods said, “The marshals told me he already hit, so I pulled a club.”

Fortunately for everyone, Garcia and Woods were not playing together for the final round. It was Garcia and David Lingmerth going last with Woods in the group just ahead of them. Scoring-wise, Woods and Garcia traded blows for the entire round.

The climax of the battle came when Garcia reached the 17th hole. He and Woods were tied at that point. Woods went under the barrier to the 18th tee and Garcia faced his fate, which in this case turned out to be two balls in the water for a quadruple bogey.

Not in Garcia’s plan. He was done in by that nasty little Island Green the way so many before him and after him have been. Then, as often happens after a big disaster, Garcia also put one in the water off the 18th tee. A final insult.

“That hole has been good to me for the most part,” Garcia said about the 17th after his round. “Today, it wasn’t.”

Total understatement. Thus ended the Duel in the Swamp.

Woods ended up with five victories that season, the last time he was able to do that.

2015: Rickie Fowler’s Gutsy Finish at PLAYERS

There are few golfers more popular than Rickie Fowler. One reason is that he has always taken time for fans, particularly kids. He has a pleasant personality, and he’ll give a smile and a wave. If he had victories in proportion to his fan base, he’d be ahead of everybody but Tiger Woods. People just love him.

That’s what made THE PLAYERS in 2015 extra special for a lot of people, Fowler included. The funny thing is he was nowhere close to the lead when the final round began. He was so far down the list that his mother had already headed to the airport to go home.

He had finished in third after the second round, but in the third round, he fell out of contention.

In the final round, he started with a bogey and was then at 6-under par. Chris Kirk was leading, and he was at 10-under.

Sergio Garcia, who was two shots back when the final round started, was the only one making a charge. He had four birdies and just one bogey on the front nine. Garcia and Kevin Kisner sprinkled birdies and bogies through their rounds as did Ben Martin, and it looked for a while like one of them would be the winner.

Then Fowler found an extra gear. After making a bogey on the 10th, he cruised for a couple of holes and added a birdie at the 12th, but it was at the 15th that the fireworks started.

There, Fowler birdied. And so did Martin. At the 16th, everybody birdied but Fowler. He eagled it. That’s when people desperately started calling his mother to tell her to turn the car around because there was a chance her son might win the thing.

Then, Fowler birdied the 17th with a miraculous tee shot to six feet, which he rolled in for a birdie. That gave him the lead. He extended it with a courageous tee shot of 331 yards on the 18th, followed by a second shot to 15 feet and yet another birdie. He was the outright leader. 

He had been five shots back at the beginning of the day, and at the end of it, he was leading. He had played the last six holes birdie-par-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie.

Unfortunately for him, there was about an hour left for the rest of the field to finish. He had to wait and watch them make birdies, hoping they would not better his score.

As it turned out, they didn’t better it, but both Garcia and Kisner tied him at 12-under par. There would be a playoff.

Instead of sudden death, it was a cumulative score, then sudden death. All three went to the 17th where Kisner hit to 10 feet, and Fowler ended up six feet away. They both made birdies. Garcia hit to 45 feet and missed the putt. But this was cumulative, so they all when to the 18th hole and they all parred. Garcia was eliminated and Kisner and Fowler continued.

Fowler and Kisner went back to the 17th, the third time they would play it that day. Really, who wants to play that hole three times in a round? Nobody.

Kisner cleared the water and landed 12 feet away from the cup. Fowler, for reasons no one could fathom, ended up with a shot right of the pin, in the narrowest of spaces between the hole and the water. The crowd went nuts! Fowler acted like he planned it.

Kisner missed his birdie putt. Fowler, though, poured his in and won the biggest tournament of his career to date.

Were those the most exciting PLAYERS? 

While all of those were exciting, there are others that are contenders. Davis Love III’s pine straw shot on 16 on his way to victory and a second PLAYERS title. Fred Funk’s victory at age 48 with the Funks Punks in fine form. Justin Thomas’ magnificent play. Rory McIlroy’s golden shoes moment. Mark McCumber’s hometown win.

There are plenty of exhilarating moments to consider. Make your own list! Discuss with friends. There’s no right answer. Just like there’s no right answer to who was better, Ben Hogan or Byron Nelson. That’s the fun of it!