Once boasting the strongest and most competitive field in all of golf, with so many big names missing this year, including the defending champion, has the Players Championship lost the right to be branded as the fifth Major?
It’s still the PGA Tour’s flagship event staged over an iconic TPC Sawgrasswith one of the most famous finishing stretches in all of golf, but there’s no doubting the field is lacking from previous years.
Most notably, of course, is the fact that for the first time since 2014 the reigning Players champion won’t be defending his title, with Cameron Smith part of the LIV Golf party banned from playing PGA Tour events.
The entire top three from last year’s leaderboard are missing, with Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey also part of the banned LIV Golf group, and five of the overall top 12 won’t be teeing it up in Jacksonville this week.
Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer are all previous champions who will be absent, while you could argue any tournament without the likes of Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka is weaker for their omission.
WHAT MAKES THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP A SPECIAL EVENT?
In truth, I’ve never really liked the fifth Major tagline anyway, so would not be too sad to see it go – after all the Majors are the Majors, right? There’s four of them in the men’s game and that’s just fine, we really don’t need to be adding a fifth one, even unofficially.
And maybe now with the new designated events assembling the PGA Tour’s best players more regularly, not to mention the big-name LIV absentees, dropping the boast of it having the strongest field in golf doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall spectacle.
Justin Thomas echoed the sentiments of many of the players this week, when discussing what the tournament means to them and the lack of LIV players this year.
“I do not think that this tournament will lose that separation,” said the 2021 champion. “It’s a special week. It’s our championship. It’s our tournament. It’s a place I look forward to coming every year.”
And one way in which Thomas can explain the magnitude of the event is in the nerves he felt when tackling that incredible finishing stretch, which in itself is an almighty challenge even when the tournament isn’t on the line.
“To me, the nerves that I had playing the last couple holes here versus the last couple holes at another tournament that I’ve won is different,” he added. “You have more nerves and it means more at this because it’s a bigger tournament.”
ICONIC SAWGRASS THE SECRET SAUCE THAT MAKES THE PLAYERS
And so removing the taglines, if looking at what really makes a tournament what it is, you’re looking at how seriously players take it, the standing of it within the game, it’s history and most likely the course it’s played on.
Would Augusta National be quite such an iconic course if it held the Masters on rotation or even once every five years or so? Probably not, as the allure of it is that we know all about the venue, and the history of the tournament is entwined with that of the course.
We’ve seen Green Jackets won and lost around that closing stretch, hopes dashed in the water at 12, fortunes made by chip-ins at 16 and highlight reel recoveries out of the pine straw that beggar belief.
And it’s a similar story with TPC Sawgrass, notably with the island green on 17 that has even the strongest knees in professional golf knocking at the thought of having to step up on that tee box and find what must look like an ever-decreasing land mass in what seems like an ocean.
Then we’ve got the 18th with yet more vast gallons of water down the left but bailing out often leads to tree trouble down the right – it’s one of the strongest mental tests in golf, and we’ve seen it make and break golfers down the years.
Isn’t that what makes a tournament? The drama, the excitement, the history and tradition of years of success and failure over an iconic 18 holes – that’s what makes a tournament, and this tournament, so special.
And as Thomas put it, it’s their event, it’s the PGA Tour’s flagship and after coming under such a huge attack from LIV Golf and circling the wagons recently, perhaps this year more than any other it carries that extra significance – regardless of who is or isn’t playing.
Did it diminish the Open when Rory McIlroy hurt his ankle and became the first champion in 61 years not to defend his title? Was the Masters second-rate because Dustin Johnson fell down the stairs in 2017?
The fact is a tournament of this stature stands by itself, it should be bigger than its field, and even though in an ideal world we’d like to see all the big names playing, the Players will provide plenty of excitement, has plenty of big names and will no doubt include a thrilling finish.
Whether you want to call it a fifth Major or not.