Almost every serious sports fan will tell you that the best way to experience any event is in person, with your athletic heroes merely steps away. But unless you play in an adult hockey or basketball league or are good enough to play professional football or baseball (not likely), then you’re watching superhumans compete in a sport that you can’t participate in. Not so for golf, where anybody with a set of clubs and twenty bucks can tee it up at a local mini course and hack your way from tee to green just like the big boys do.
Attending a golf tournament in person is a way to watch players who are much better than you deal with the same sort of obstacles that you might encounter in one of your rounds with three buddies, and you might even learn something from them along the way. One of the absolute best tournaments to be part of the gallery is the annual edition of The Players Championship, returning to the TPC Sawgrass course in Ponte Vedra, FL March 12-15, 2020. Here are a half dozen reasons why you need to move a trip to The Players to the very top of your sports bucket list.
It’s an easy trip with plenty of activities in the surrounding area.
The trip to Jacksonville from Nashville is just a little more than an hour if you grab one of Southwest Airlines direct flights, and you can usually get a pretty good fare if you shop in advance. JAX airport is easy to get around with two smallish terminals and efficient baggage claim and car rentals. Or take an Uber from JAX to Ponte Vedra in less than an hour for less than the cost of a rental. You won’t necessarily need a car to get around Ponte Vedra and the surrounding beaches anyway.
Speaking of beaches, you can smell the salt air from the course when the wind is blowing. If you end up sharing your tickets with friends or just don’t want to attend the tourney every day, there are plenty of great things to do in Ponte Vedra and the nearby towns of Jacksonville Beach, Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach. With wide sandy stretches that are perfect for a waterside stroll and some of the best bodysurfing waves in the country, a trip to the beach is a fine way to pass a day.
Or you can shop at the fun boutiques or visit a wide variety of bars and restaurants ranging from cozy little seafood shacks to full-on dance clubs with pumping music and lively DJs. For a singer/songwriter experience closer to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, seek out Blue Jay Listening Room where performers appear in an intimate environment. You will have to do a little seeking since it’s hidden away on the second floor in back of a strip mall, but it’s worth the hunt!
For even more entertainment advice, check out the official Visit Jacksonville website.
TPC Sawgrass is a course you can get familiar with.
Whether you’ve played a hundred rounds at Sawgrass as part of a video game or you just watch The Players on television every year, the course is one that definitely sticks in your memory. Of the five most prestigious tournaments in professional golf, three of them play at different locations in rotation every year. While the British Open, US Open and PGA Championship take place on remarkable courses, viewers may only see them for at most four days on television once a decade, so it’s hard to develop familiarity with the intricacies of each hole.
The Masters is, of course, played at Augusta National each April, so hard core golf fans can play every hole in their mind after years of watching the competition. But unless you’re really rich or know someone with tickets, or you’re really lucky and win a lottery for a badge, the odds of any of us civilians actually walking the sacred grounds of Augusta are pretty slim. The Players, though, has taken place at Sawgrass every year since 1982 when the PGA constructed the stadium course to be the home of the organization’s championship. They paid special attention to designing the course with optimal viewing spots for fans while creating a very challenging track for the pros to play on. Long-time fans have had decades to pick favorite holes like the (in)famous island green par 3 17th hole which has been the site of so many famous shots through the years. The risk/reward of the 18th hole with its design encouraging pros to cut the corner over the water has led to many thrilling finishes to the tourney over the years.
Other holes might not be so famous, but they present their own sorts of dramas. #13 is a short par 3, but it yields more three-putts than any other hole in the entire PGA season. The fourth hole isn’t long for a par 4, but it’s full of ways to get in trouble and requires precision driving to find the green in regulation. As you’d expect from a course so close to the ocean, Sawgrass has plenty of sand and water all over the course. Oh, and those water hazards have been known to have alligators in them. No pressure.
TPC Sawgrass is a course you can actually play.
Good luck getting a tee time at Augusta National unless you’re in the top 1% of the top 1%. (That’s okay, most of us couldn’t sink a putt on those devilish greens anyway.) While it is an expensive splurge, amateurs can actually book a round at Sawgrass. Probably the best way is to plan to stay at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort right next door to the course where they offer “Stay and Play” packages with preferred tee times. You’ll have to play with a fore caddy who follows you along on your round, but they’re worth every penny for their local knowledge reading putts and suggesting distances, and you might pay for their tip just from the wayward shots you make where they find your ball for you. They’ll also watch for gators.
It really is the Players’ championship.
Since it is organized by and played on a course owned by the PGA, the actual players on the tour consider this an extremely important tournament to do well in. In fact, last year’s winner Rory McIlroy has enjoyed one of the most successful careers in professional golf over the past decade, but he said after his win, “If I went through my career and hadn’t won this tournament, I would have felt like I was missing something.” Only the best players in the world are invited to participate in the tournament, including current Majors winners, the top 125 in the PGA standings and the top 50 in the world rankings. The Players Championship offers the largest prize purse in golf at $15 million with the winner taking home a smooth $2.7 mill, so that doesn’t hurt when it comes to attracting an elite field.
The tournament honors the armed forces and loves country music.
Tournament organizers bend over backwards to show their appreciation for America’s armed forces, offering free admission to Active Duty, Military Retirees, Military Reserve, National Guard, and military spouses along with accompanied dependents. They also set aside a special hospitality and viewing areas for the military at a prime spot on the course near the 16th hole. The private tent offers free food and soft drinks to military personnel at the Birdies for the Brave® Patriots’ Outpost presented by United Rentals.
Fans can attend practice rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday, and those are great opportunities to see the best in the game up close and personal. Dedicated autograph zones are set up around the course where players sometimes sign for kids for long after their practice rounds have completed. (Leave that for the kids, though. We don’t want to see your autographed Ricky Fowler visor showing up on eBay the next week!) Of the two practice days, Tuesday is probably the best since it’s also officially Military Appreciation Day.
Every year, tournament organizers hold special recognition ceremonies for the military, including aircraft flyovers, bands and donations to various armed forces-related causes. The event kicks off as soon as the practice rounds are over at 5:00, and the highlight is a huge concert in the stadium surrounding the 17th hole. Fans ring the hole as bands play from the tee box, and in past years country music acts have shown their patriotism by playing at this show. Past participants include Toby Keith, Jon Pardi, Tim McGraw, Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Jake Owen, Big & Rich, Sam Hunt and Luke Combs. For this year’s Military Appreciation Day concert on Tuesday, March 10, they’re breaking the country mold for a year by featuring a performance by The Chainsmokers.
There’s plenty to at the tournament other than just watching golf.
Even if you don’t care about every shot or even who’s winning, a trip to The Players Championship can be one heckuva good time. As soon as patrons walk through the main gates, they can try a shot on a scaled-down replica of the 17th hole to experience the knee-knocking nervousness of a shot to the island green. If you’re more into the social scene, you never have to unplug at The Players because they allow phones on the course unlike at some other major tournaments, and there are charging stations at a couple locations on the course. Shop for TPC-related clothing and swag at gift shops around the course at TPC Sawgrass, including some stylish togs courtesy of the tourney’s partnership with Vineyard Vines.
Feel free to send your golf fanatic friends to follow their favorite players around the course while you take advantage of the amazing food and drink options at The Players Championship. Craft beer fans can sample brews on tap at the Bier Garden presented by Hoptinger behind 16 green while wine lovers can pass the afternoon at Wine & Dine on 9 presented by Meiomi Wines or at the Wine Lounge presented by Meiomi Wines on 8 green which offers both fine wines and great views of the action.
Foodies can discover great local bites at several locations including Tacos on 12 (get the fish taco from TacoLu!). Trucks on 10 featuring some of the area’s best mobile food vendors or Taste of Jax with four tents serving food from Jacksonville-area restaurants. For a quick pick-me-up, grab some mini donuts from Mini Bar at Sawgrass Square. After you’ve eaten and drunk your fill, consider grabbing a ride home from Uber at the dedicated rideshare area near the Couples Entrance to the course.
It’s not too late to make plans for this year’s edition of The Players Championship or to start looking ahead to next year. Fore!