As Ponte Vedra gears up for THE PLAYERS Championship next month, officials are hoping that a slew of improvements and new spectator offerings will help them achieve what some believe may be impossible: surpassing last year’s tournament.
“We’re going to have a tough time topping last year’s finish and last year’s weather,” THE PLAYERS Championship Executive Director Matt Rapp said. “Many people have called it the best finish ever in a professional golf tournament.”
Rapp was referring to 2015 champion Rickie Fowler’s dramatic victory that saw him make four birdies and an eagle on his last six holes. As part of the preparations for this year’s championship – to be held May 10-15 – Fowler took local media on a tour of the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course last week and walked them through his climactic finish at the 16th, 17th and 18th holes.
“It’s gonna be fun to relive the memories again when I’m back here for the (2016) tournament,” Fowler said, noting that he was looking forward to eating at TacoLu while in town for THE PLAYERS.
“That’s my spot to feel like a local,” Fowler quipped.
Built with fans in mind
Building on last year’s success, officials said, THE PLAYERS has made a variety of improvements designed to enhance the spectator experience. In addition to adding a new paved cart path to the popular 4th hole, the 4th tee box has been lowered four feet in order offer better views. Double-decker viewing stands at the legendary 17th hole “island green” are also expected to be popular with fans.
“That’s going to be a game changer for us,” Rapp said.
The Stadium Course is unique, Rapp noted, in that it was “built with the fans in mind.”
“Most golf courses are built as golf courses,” he said. “This course was built to host large crowds where you can see any golfer on any hole, so it has inherent advantages no other course has.”
It’s also a challenging course. “This course tests every club in your bag, so players really need to bring their A game,” he said. “You don’t see too many repeat champions here like you do at other courses.”
On the culinary front, THE PLAYERS has added a variety of new restaurants to its lineup, including Mojo Kitchen and Ponte Vedra Beach’s popular new eatery Trasca & Co. The new William Hill Wine Lounge on the 8th green, meanwhile, will serve up a selection of premium wines for PLAYERS spectators.
For fans who want to stock up on PLAYERS merchandise, officials said, this year’s tournament will feature both an expanded merchandise center behind the 17th hole and a new location at the 18th landing. And for those fans who can’t wait until tournament week to get their goods, online shopping is available in advance at ThePlayersChampionship.com.
This year’s tournament will also feature a number of changes designed to ease traffic and parking issues. In addition to creating new walk paths, all of the ingress roads to the parking lots have been paved, officials said -- an improvement they anticipate will expedite entry and exit from the lots.
Unlike in years past, parking passes will not be sold at Publix; all passes for the 2016 PLAYERS must be purchased online and in advance. Officials encouraged spectators to make their PLAYERS plans early and get their passes online now – noting that free parking will be available to carpool groups of four people or more. Shuttles will also once again operate from downtown to THE PLAYERS in an effort to ease traffic on A1A.
Time to shine
Rapp thanked the thousands of volunteers who help make THE PLAYERS Championship happen each year, noting that since the tournament moved to Ponte Vedra Beach in 1977, it has donated some $75 million to local charities while also highlighting the community to the world.
“When does Northeast Florida get to showcase itself better than PLAYERS week?” Rapp asked. “Nothing else on the First Coast gets as much exposure and stands for excellence as THE PLAYERS does.”