THE PLAYERS’ 50th Anniversary

The 5 Most Important PLAYERS Championships


The idea for a Tournament Players Championship came from the second PGA Tour Commissioner, Deane Beman, who was also responsible for moving the Tour from Washington, D.C., to Ponte Vedra Beach. (All thank Deane!)

He knew the PGA Tour could not control the Masters or the U.S. Open or the PGA or the Open Championship. But all the Tour players made those events happen and made them memorable. What Beman wanted for the PGA Tour players was a tournament that was every bit as big and important and memorable as the other biggies. While the jury may still be out in some circles, it isn’t with the PGA Tour players who have won it or with anybody who lives in Ponte Vedra. This thing is a BIG, BIG deal.

After starting the tournament, Beman decided that what the PGA Tour needed were golf courses that made it easy for fans to actually see the golfers, and that was the beginning of the TPC courses, the first one of which was TPC Sawgrass.

1974: Jack Nicklaus & The First PLAYERS

You can’t have a 50th anniversary if you don’t have a first one. Fortunately, for the championship, the first winner was already a legend, Jack Nicklaus. What a way to start a tournament legacy. 

Then called the Tournament Players Championship (or TPC), it was held at the Atlanta Country Club.  After winning, Nicklaus told the Associated Press that the victory had salvaged the year for him because he had not won any majors that season. The tournament was held in September. It was only his second victory that year, the first one being the Hawaiian Open, which was held in February. 

The way the 1974 PLAYERS unfolded, Nicklaus was never in the lead until the final day. At the end of round three, J.S. Snead was at the top. Nicklaus, who was 34 years old at the time, was three back but made a final round charge that included six birdies.

“I didn’t want to let this one get away from me once I got in a position to win,” Nicklaus reportedly said.

It was Nicklaus’ 53rd victory. He had won just over $2.2 million in his career up to that time. The title put his season winnings at $208,307. He was second that year to Johnny Miller who had earned $256,383.

Nicklaus’ first place check was worth $50,000. Snead’s second place prize was $28,500. Other high finishers included Bruce Crampton in third and Gene Littler in fourth. Littler became the eighth player to reach the million-dollar mark in career earnings with his winnings of $11,750. Arnold Palmer and Gary Player failed to make the cut.

Nicklaus would go on to win THE PLAYERS two more times, in 1976 at Inverrary CC in South Florida, which hosted the Jackie Gleason tournament for many years, and at Sawgrass CC in 1978.

Davis Love III, who would win THE PLAYERS twice, remembers the Atlanta Classic — also held at Atlanta CC — happening right in his back yard when he was young. Love’s father, Davis Love Jr., was the head professional there.

“I've watched the PGA TOUR event in my backyard in Atlanta,” he said. “Then it turned into THE PLAYERS Championship.” Love would have been 12 at the time of the first PLAYERS. Did he know he would win two of them?

Later on, Love’s father would become the head professional at Sea Island Golf Club in Georgia. He was a renowned golf instructor.

1982: Jerry Pate, The Dive and TPC Sawgrass

TPC Sawgrass actually opened for play in 1980, but it wasn’t until 1982 that THE PLAYERS — still known as the TPC — was held on it. The first time the tournament was played on the new track, it made headlines as well as enemies.

Jerry Pate had come to the course for the opening, and that day, he played 18 holes with Commissioner Beman, who explained to Pate during the round exactly how to be successful on the course. 

When tournament time arrived, Pate decided that, if he won, he would toss both Beman and course designer Pete Dye into the lake at the 18th. He won. He tossed. They splashed. The tournament and the course became instantly infamous around the world.

However, complaints about the design of the course ensued, and many have not stopped to this day.

According to a Sports Illustrated article written by former Ponte Vedra resident the late, great Dan Jenkins, some of the comments by the PGA Tour players were:

Jack Nicklaus: “This course plays all around my game and never touches it. I've never been very good at stopping a five-iron on the hood of a car.”

Fuzzy Zoeller: “Where are the windmills and animals?”

John Mahaffey: “There's no mystery here. All you have to do is hit a perfect drive, a perfect second shot and a perfect putt. What I'm still trying to find out is whether you win a free game if you make a putt on the last hole.”

Tom Watson: “Is it against the rules to carry a bulldozer in your bag?”

Ed Sneed: “Pete Dye ought to be fined for slow play.”

J.C. Snead: “This course is 90% horse manure and 10% luck.”

And those were the printable comments.

Even Jenkins got into the act, saying the course had “the severest targets in golf.” As was often the case, he was right. 

However, after the first playing of THE PLAYERS at the new course, Jenkins also wrote:

“If Pete Dye is the Leonardo of golf course architects, Jerry Pate is surely the Esther Williams of touring pros, and the two of them pooled their talents last week to elevate the Tournament Players Championship into one of golf's major events. Call it the game's fifth major if you like … but the fact is, the player with the best swing and the most potential in the game today, Jerome K. Pate, went out and Ben Hoganed the daylights out of the most demanding new layout in the world today, winning the TPC against the toughest field you could have assembled today. And if all this doesn't make the TPC a major championship, then Jerry Pate, Tour Commissioner Deane Beman and Dye can't swim a stroke.”

Jenkins, the guy who hated most everything but Ben Hogan most of the time, called THE PLAYERS a major back in 1982.

1985: Calvin Peete, First African-American Champ

Calvin Peete’s victory was important. Significantly, he was the first African-American to win THE PLAYERS. But that week no one talked about his race. They talked about his play.

“For a week, I played in the best field in golf, and emerged victorious,” Peete told the Florida Times-Union. “And it was the first time my father had walked 18 holes and watched me win a tournament. It wasn't just my victory. It was also his.”

“Calvin was the bridge between the time African-Americans couldn't play on the PGA Tour and Tiger Woods,” Pete McDaniel, author of “Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf,” told the Florida Times-Union. “He was the best of all of the early African-American players and conducted himself with incredible dignity and class.”

The final round of that year’s PLAYERS was a contest between D.A. Weibring, Hale Irwin and Peete. They were tied for the lead after round three. Most would have put money on Irwin, who had already won two U.S. Opens, to beat the other two.

“I thought if I shot under par on the back nine, I could win,” Weibring told Sports Illustrated. “I did what I wanted and still lost by three shots.”

“I could have had every good bounce and break there was, and I couldn't have beaten Cal,” Irwin said to the same publication.

Something that’s not often mentioned is that Peete was perhaps the only person with a disability to win THE PLAYERS. His arm had been broken in his younger days, and it did not heal properly. As a result, he couldn’t straighten it. Whether that helped or hurt his golf game, we will never know. It did restrict his swing. But the result was that Peete was a very straight hitter. According to stats, Peete was first in driving accuracy and second in greens in regulation the year before his PLAYERS victory.

As the winner of THE PLAYERS in 1985, he took home $162,000 for winning. Peete’s score of 70-69-69-66-274 was 14-under par, breaking the record set by Fred Couples in 1984 by three shots.

“The crowd was fantastic,” Peete said about the fans. “Let me tell you, the gallery at THE PLAYERS is as good as anywhere in golf, Augusta National included.”

1987: Sandy Lyle, First Foreign Winner

Sandy Lyle was one of a small group of big time European players who created a wave of victories in majors and in the Ryder Cup beginning in the 1980s. Golfers like Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and Lyle were a force to face.

 In 1985, Lyle became the first British winner of The Open Championship since Tony Jacklin. Then there was THE PLAYERS in 1987. And in 1988, he won the Masters.

Lyle’s PLAYERS title came in a sudden death playoff with Jeff Sluman, which included a shocking development created by a spectator.

Sluman and Lyle were on the second hole of a playoff, on the Island Green, and Sluman had a six-foot putt to win. Just as Sluman addressed his putt, an overserved spectator jumped into the water. Sluman backed off, started again and missed the putt. The two went on to the 18th hole, which was won by Lyle.  That gave him the tournament title.

“I had the 1-iron going and kept the ball in play and felt good about my game,” Lyle said.

Sluman did not blame the spectator. Golf Digest caught up with both of them him in 2022. The jumper was Hal Valdes. In 1987, he was a student at Florida State, and he and a friend decided to attend the tournament. When asked what he was thinking to have done that at the time, he indicated thinking wasn’t involved.

“We had been out all night, and we got there, and then we were at a corporate tent all day,” he explained to Golf Digest.

They were definitely not sober at this juncture. Then, his friend made a bet with him. It was along the lines of: I bet you $500 you won’t jump in. 

“Back in 1987 in college, that was probably three months worth of living,” Valdes noted. $500? No brainer. In he went.

Sluman got confused about what was going on because he was focused on his putt. The fans saw Valdes and started to boo him. Sluman said he didn’t even hear the splash or anything else until the booing started.

He told Golf Digest, “To this day, I don’t know if he slid, belly-flopped in. I didn’t hear anything. All of sudden I just hear this whistling and booing so I step back.”

So, it was the booing that caused him to back off, not the spectator.

Lyle won in the first year that THE PLAYERS total purse was $1 million. His share for the victory was $180,000.  

2001: Tiger Woods “Better Than Most”

It’s impossible to have a top five of anything in golf without Tiger Woods. He won his first of two PLAYERS titles in 2001, part of the year-long period when he won the U.S. Open, The Open Championship, the PGA, THE PLAYERS and the Masters in that order.  It’s called the Tiger Slam because it wasn’t the traditional Grand Slam, but as Woods noted, he had all the trophies on his mantel at one time. No one else has done that.

The “better than most” putt didn’t come in the final round, but it was a predictor of the finish.

Woods began the third round of the 2001 PLAYERS six shots behind Jerry Kelly. And it was late in that round, at the 17th hole, that he hit his “better than most” putt, a 60-foot, triple-breaker for birdie.

“There has been nothing, as far being a sheer, scintillating moment [in THE PLAYERS], like that putt,” NBC golf anchor Dan Hicks said in a story published by Sky Sports.

Later, Woods explained how he knew where to start the putt. It was all thanks to Fred Funk.

“The truth is that I had a little teach before that putt,” Woods said. “We had a delay there on the 17th tee, and Fred Funk was playing right in front of us. He hit it up on the top shelf, and he four-putted the hole, and so I saw how as it came over the rise and as it started going to the right, how much it picked up speed.”

After sinking the miraculous putt, Woods finished round three tied for second with Vijay Singh. They were both two back of Kelly.

As though that wasn’t enough drama, the final round on Sunday was halted for weather with the leaders having nine holes to play. The tournament finished on Monday.

Of interest to some was that Woods won the previous week at Bay Hill in Arnold Palmer’s tournament before coming to Ponte Vedra for THE PLAYERS.  

The 2001 PLAYERS was Woods’ 26th career PGA Tour victory.