Ever since Jared Rice stepped into the role of executive director of The Players Championship, his primary aim has been to increase the prestige of a tournament that’s unofficially labelled ‘golf’s fifth major’.
Whether that has been shepherding through course renovations, or bringing a virtual reality experience to the iconic 17th, he has been striving to build on The Players’ already formidable reputation on the international stage.
Now, after 12 years, it is back in its original March setting – kicking off a new season of championships that frame the revamped PGA Tour season.
We sat down with Rice to discuss the move, the scale of The Players and its impact on the golf calendar…
The Players returns to March – you must be delighted to have it back in that traditional setting…
It’s very exciting and when you look at the overall landscape of PGA Tour golf and the idea, here in the US, that we were focused on compressing the PGA Tour schedule – starting with The Players Championship in March really kicking off a season of championships and ending with the Tour Championship in Atlanta – that really produces this cadence of great events over a period of six months or so.
Now there’s an annual position within our wrap-around schedule but that compression is going to provide some great excitement to not only core golf fans but a more diverse audience and also allows us to finish our season-ending championship before the NFL begins.
So that’s a great position for us to be in as a sport and the flagship position of The Players Championship in March is pretty exciting too.
There is a great narrative about the PGA Tour season now and to have The Players kicking this off means there is now six months of anticipation for this tournament…
Look at how players are talking about this event and how they feel about it. Justin Rose, most recently, made some great comments about it and is really looking forward to playing the tournament.
The players are really getting excited about it. When you look at the composition of the tournament it is the most difficult trophy to win.
You have 144 players – statistically the best professional golf players in the world – at a course that doesn’t favour any one style of play. It makes it extremely difficult to win and the players get excited about that too.
We should make more about that field. It is the best in golf…
That’s by design and it’s been that way for some time and was part of the original vision by Deane Beman and Pete Dye to model out the best event in professional golf.
It’s about those players being the best at what they do. We don’t have any open qualifying. We don’t have any sponsor exemptions. There are no tournament exemptions. It’s purely FedEx Cup points based. So it’s 144 of the best players.
From a golf course perspective, you have to be at the top of your game from tee to green, be able to shape shots left or right, and it was visioned with really bringing out risk and reward on every shot for the player.
It’s a challenge and you combine that with lots of fans being able to see nearly every shot, on every hole, on any day, because of the stadium golf course, for the ultimate fan experience and competitive environment.
Have you seen a lot more interest from spectators as we move back to a March start?
Yes we have. We’ve got a very good position from a sales and sponsorship perspective. We’re seeing more national and international guests, an uptick coming into the March date. And, just from a seasonality perspective, the first quarter here is a better position to be in – from an overall corporate and travel support perspective.
So we like that position and March can be pretty great (weather-wise) when much of the US and a lot of other places around the world are still in some cooler weather. So it’s a desirable location as well.
Can you give us – an international audience – an idea of the scale of The Players?
Seeing is believing. It’s being here on site and understanding the enormity of it all and the size. It’s not that it’s unwalkable but it’s a large property and that we have a tremendous amount of infrastructure.
It was originally designed not only to be purpose built for players but purpose built for fans. So that means great views, vantage points, vistas, great lines of sight for our attendees our guests, but also allowing them to get in and around the golf course easily.
We’ve invested in that to an even higher degree this year in our new welcome experience, our new entry coming into a main staging area, and that is a true sense of arrival and first impressions.
So it’s doubling down on that fan experience and making it really the gold standard in our sport.
Talk me through, as an international visitor, what my experience at The Players would be like?
Your sense of arrival, at your first point of entry, will be special. We try to make getting here as easy as possible and that first impression being at a very high level.
You’ll find lots of activities for all sorts of fans – whether you’re a casual fan or a sports enthusiast. Kids are very welcome here, in fact children 18 and under are admitted free with a ticketed adult. We want to be very inclusive in terms of our fan base and our guests but also programme the fan experience with that in mind.
We know that golf fans are going to see those great points, those great areas, and find the special place that’s great for them. I hear fans say ‘well you’ve got to get out to four green and let your feet dangle over the railroad ties and watch them take second shots and shots for birdie’.
Other fans will say ‘you’ve got to see the tee shot on 15 tee – it’s like hitting it through a hose’.
So for the core golfer, there are great, great viewing positions but, for fans that are here for any number of other reasons, we have great food and beverage, gathering areas and activities in and around the golf course to keep their attention.
A special tournament needs a special golf course and you’ve got one here…
I find it interesting, looking back at the history of the tournament and the ground itself, that it was really built ahead of its time and it has stood the test of time. Maybe no other tournament has been played at one location other than one other.
That really goes to show the staying power of this course and how it has challenged our players over the years.
There are some great stories that I love to hear – about how this was hundreds of acres of swamp land and an amazing challenge for Pete Dye to craft this land and make this swamp land into a pretty amazing golf course that tests our players even today.
There are some amazing holes on the course. Clearly it’s a fantastic finish and there’s one of the most iconic holes in golf at 17. Talk to us about some of your own experiences of playing those holes…
I actually get goosebumps a little bit at 16, 17 and 18. It’s an amazing journey within the entire golf course itself.
There are some great holes and great challenges. It’s a beautiful layout. It’s hard.
I’m not on tour. I work for The Players Championship but I’m not on tour. It’s hard. It’s an amazing challenge.
On 16, on that tee shot, you have risk and reward but it comes fully into view when you have your second shot.
Do you want to lay up? You think about what Rickie Fowler, Davis Love III and Fred Couples have done over the years to really make a move on 16 – eagles or tap in birdies to put themselves in great position to win.
All of this while looking over at number 17 – the largest green on the golf course but we know it’s wrought with challenges no matter when we play the tournament. March or May, the elements fully come into play.
Then you move over to 18, which is an incredibly difficult tee shot. It’s one that if you hit it straight, technically, you would probably be penalised because you’d be in the pine straw with a driver.
So the idea was to shape your shot, so that you were in a better position to make birdie on 18.
That’s not easy to do with a large body of water all down the left hand side. So all that combined with the amount of fans that are out here, that are rooting on players, makes it a pressure packed environment.
How large would the team be during The Players – in terms of volunteers and so on?
The enormity of the focus of the PGA Tour, and our entire staff, to put on this event to that gold standard level means it is not just the full-time staff.
We have approximately 15 full-time staff people. We have 2,200 volunteers that are out on the golf course. We have a clubhouse staff, an agronomy staff that is working day and night to prepare this tournament. We have volunteers that come in to help our full-time agronomy staff to keep the course in top condition.
Plus there are nearly 700 PGA Tour employees that are not only based here in Ponte Vedra, but in our London office, and our China office, and our offices around the world to support the tournament during the lead up periods and, obviously, during tournament week.
This tournament has a huge economic impact, not just in the surrounding area but elsewhere…
From a North East Florida perspective it’s the largest economic impact in our community by a factor of three.
From a charity perspective, what is probably most powerful is that, last year, we had a charitable impact of nearly 9 million dollars to North East Florida charities.
Over the last eight years we’ve had about 50 million in charitable impact to community charities. That is an amazing impact and benefit for our community – to think about what has happened over the last eight years and how much more can be done going forward.
The model which the PGA Tour is built around means that we also are able to provide some great charitable impact to needy groups by coming out here and having a great time.
What are your favourite moments from The Players?
The one that would stand out in the not too distant past was Rickie’s comeback, when I was part of The Players Championship staff at that moment. To see that comeback not only was a great illustration of his talent, and really being in the zone and determination to win, it was a great lesson for perseverance. I’ve used that personally with my family, and my little guy, so that was a great show.
Last year, it was Webb’s dominance. There was a point in time where a lot of the field was making a run at him on Sunday.
His consistency from tee to green, accuracy, great putting, perseverance – having had some trouble on Friday in a few spots – playing amazingly well on Saturday and, on Sunday, never letting up was a great show.
Historically, we have some great milestone victories over the years.