The Players Championship is the PGA Tour’s signature event – a flashy, easy-to-promote tournament played in the Tour’s front garden, over a track that literally has “stadium” in the name. The field strength is unimpeachable, the event usually crowns a big-name champion, and Pete Dye’s hazard-strewn former swamp can often be counted on to perform closer to a baked-out mid-August links course. See last year’s Saturday carnage or the travails of Zac Blair on the trampoline-like 17th this year for proof:
We see big numbers every year at 17.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 12, 2017
So the Players is a big deal, and with good reason. But despite all the glitz, the event falls slightly short in one category: history. The tournament started in 1974, so yes, it’s been around for more than 40 years. The Stadium Course at Sawgrass has hosted since ’82, back when the original Big Three of Palmer, Nicklaus, and Player could still be seen striding the fairways. Still, it’s not a blue-blood tournament on the circuit. I equate The Players roughly to Chelsea Football Club – an English soccer team that toiled in relative mediocrity for most of its history, then swiftly rose to become a freespending world power in the past two decades after being purchased by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Both are high-powered, Hollywood-caliber names, but poke around a bit in their past and the foundations look a touch crumbly.
That’s where Colonial comes in.
Photo: Fort Worth Star Telegram
The PGA Tour has been returning to the banks of the Trinity River in Fort Worth, Texas for 71 years. Currently called the Dean & Deluca Invitational (shoutout Bob Ducca), the Tour’s event at Colonial Country Club is the longest-running non-major event to be held at the same site.
Colonial was designed in part by Perry Maxwell, a highly prolific architect whose crown jewel was Tulsa’s Southern Hills, and who also made renovations to Augusta, Pine Valley, and National Golf Links, among others. The course opened in 1936 and played to a then-gargantuan length of 7,035 yards (par 70) when it hosted the 1941 U.S. Open. Five years later, Colonial hosted its inaugural PGA Tour invitational, won by the hometown boy Ben Hogan. Since then, the event has become one of the most iconic on Tour for several reasons.
First, obviously, the years of tradition. Hogan won five times here, and called the club home after he retired. The tournament has been played here every year since its inception aside from 1949 (course flooded) and 1975 (when Colonial hosted the aforementioned Players Championship). Champions receive a custom Royal Tartan plaid jacket, first awarded in 1952. Winners include Snead, Sanders, Palmer, Casper, Weiskopf, Trevino, Crenshaw, and we’re not even into the ’80s yet. Big guns win here.
Second, the track. Colonial isn’t a tricked-up Mickey Mouse affair that demands blind shots and rewards lucky bounces. It’s long, tight, and demanding. Precision is rewarded, and wayward efforts are punished. Ben Hogan once mused that “a straight ball will get you in more trouble at Colonial than at any course I know.” The course’s dog-legged fairways require shots worked in both directions, and recovery efforts often need to negotiate thick, snarling tree limbs. In short, it’s not easy.
Third, the event’s unique stance on who gets to play. It’s one of five invitational tournaments on the tour (Arnold Palmer, RBC Heritage, Memorial, and Quicken Loans being the others), meaning the event gets some leeway in field selection. Along with the regular assortment of touring professionals, the 125-man field is chosen by a variety of interesting methods. Some of the better ones:
Colonial winners prior to 2000 and in the last five years
Colonial Winners in top 150 of prior year money list
I like this because it eliminates random recent tournament winners who aren’t consistently good.
Playing members on the last named U.S. Ryder Cup team
Current PGA Tour members who were playing members on the last named European Ryder Cup team, U.S. Presidents Cup team, and International President’s Cup team
Fine, not just ‘Merica
Two players to be selected by the current and former champions of the Colonial tournament (Champions Choices)
THIS is an idea I can get behind. Almost like a European Tour exhibition mixed with a video game “choose your character” screen. We need to blow this out into a hybrid of Selection Sunday and a Bachelor rose ceremony, swapping out the champagne for whiskey and the roses for tee gifts. Dave Stockton is the only player to win the event after getting in as a Champions Choice, in 1967.
Top 15 finishers and ties from previous year’s Colonial Tournament
If The Players had done this, #FreeDuke wouldn’t be necessary.
12 sponsors exemptions — 2 from among graduates of Web.com Tour finals, 6 members not otherwise exempt, and 4 unrestricted
*Googles “Anthony Kim + Dallas” *
Members in the top 125 non-member category whose non-WGC points for the previous season equal or exceed the points earned by the player finishing in 80th position on the prior year FedEx Cup points list
It’s an absolute murderer’s row. Everyone who’s anyone has won this tournament. In addition to those mentioned before, Zoeller, Nicklaus, Wadkins, Lehman, Watson, Mickelson, Garcia, Perry, ZJ, Scott, and Spieth have added their names to the Wall of Champions.
Photo: Jordan Spieth Golf
Notably absent: Tiger Woods, who only played the event in 1997; and Dustin Johnson, winner of a PGA Tour event each of the past 10 years.
Notable Moments and Finishes
First of all, let’s take a look at the winning scores from the first ten years of the tournament and the last ten.
These guys are good (TM)
Jordan Spieth broke out the scuba gear and dropped down into the bathypelagic zone, going 67-66-65-65 for a 17-under finish and a three-shot victory over Harris English. Spieth is a Dallas native, and got revenge for his 2015 finish where he lost by 1 to Chris Kirk.
Adam Scott beat Jason Dufner in what was surely the lowest-key playoff in PGA Tour history. Fun fact: Scott was # 1 in the world at this time, marking the only time in tournament history that a World No. 1 has won the event.
Boo Weekley beat Matt Kuchar by a shot in what was surely the lowest-key regulation finish in PGA Tour history.
Zach Johnson plumbed the depths of the Mariana Trench with a tournament-record 259. His 21-under included back-to-back 64s; on Sunday he was one of only two players to card a 6-under round. The Iowan most likely thinks of Forth Worth as “Fort Net Worth”: ZJ is the career earnings leader at the Colonial tournament with just over $3.4 million.
Completely blocked out by trees on the 18th, Lefty somehow hoisted a wedge way up and over everything, then took a leisurely jog back to the fairway in time to see his ball end up pin high. Routine birdie and a one-shot win.
Kenny Perry lapped the field, cruising to victory with a 69 to finish at 19-under, 7 strokes clear. This matched his winning score from two years earlier, proving that when Perry gets going at Colonial, it’s best to stay out of the way.
Annika Sorenstam became the first woman in 58 years to play in a PGA Tour event when she teed it up at Colonial in 2003. Although she missed the cut, going 71-74 for a +5, she acquitted herself admirably considering the unfathomable amount of pressure she was under. The tournament set a record for fan attendance that week at 200,000, which is wild considering Sorenstam only played two days.
A bit of trivia: players who Sorenstam beat over those two days include Bob Estes, the previous year’s Players Champion Craig Perks, and future U.S. Open winner Geoff Ogilvy.
Photo: The Ben Hogan Award
In 2002, tournament officials began the practice of presenting the Hogan Award (given to the nation’s top collegiate golfer) at Colonial during the week of the tournament. D.J. Trahan out of Clemson was awarded the honor in ’02, and has been followed by a few guys named Haas, Moore, Fowler, Cantlay, and Rahm, among others.
1998 and 2000
48-year-old Tom Watson notched his final PGA Tour win at Colonial in 1998. Two years later, 29-year-old Phil Mickelson fired a 63 on Sunday to capture the title. In between these two massive victories, Olin Browne won by a stroke over such luminaries as Paul Goydos, Jeff Sluman, Fred Funk, Tim Herron, and Greg Kraft. Hey, it can’t be great every year.
Nick Price came buzzing out of nowhere to win the 1994 event. After starting the day seven back, Price carded five consecutive birdies on the back 9 on Sunday to sneak into a playoff. Another birdie on the first playoff hole, and the Zimbabwean had himself a new jacket. It remains the largest deficit overcome to win the event.
I can’t believe we don’t have photographic evidence of this, but Ian Baker-Finch stripped down to his boxers to play a pitch from the water to the left of the 18th green. When asked if the Tour would fine IBF, commissioner Duke Butler famously answered, “Fine him? For what? For lack of a tan?”
Texas was not kind to Payne Stewart in the mid-80s. Only two years into his storied career, Stewart had already picked up a win in 1983 before falling in a playoff in the 1984 Colonial event to Peter Jacobsen. In 1986, Stewart again lost in a playoff, this one after the event was shortened to 54 holes due to weather. In the intervening year, heartbreak befell him at the nearby Byron Nelson: Stewart came to the 18th needing only a bogey for a victory. He took double, fell into a playoff, then promptly doubled the first playoff hole to lose the event.
It goes without saying, but the fact that we never got to see Stewart slip into that Tartan jacket is a crime against the fashion gods.
Gene Littler won the thing with a score of 283: 3-over par. It was the first over-par finish since Arnold Palmer’s win at +1 in 1962, and remains the last one to this day. I’m not sure what kind of Biblical plague came through on Saturday, but only three players finished under par, and Ray Floyd won the day’s high score with a 78.
Dave Hill didn’t have to deal with Saturday’s issues, because he was DQ’d after his second round. Hill had shot 85, and on his last hole had pulled out the old hand wedge, picked his ball up from a greenside bunker, and tossed it on the green. This led to much hilarity and Hill signing an incorrect scorecard, which was the official reason for the Blizzard.
At the following week’s Memphis Classic, Hill was informed that he’d need to pay a $500 fine for “conduct unbecoming a professional golfer” before being allowed to tee it up. He paid, then promptly sued the PGA Tour on antitrust grounds for a cool $1 million. The Tour responded by putting him on probation. Hill re-raised, increasing his suit to $3 million. The matter was then settled out of court, and Hill’s probation was lifted. Phil Hellmuth would be proud.
Photo: Courier Post Online
In an unprecedented display of early #TourSauce that must have verged on indiscreet to some genteel Texans, noted ladies’ man Al Besselink played the final four holes of his Saturday round with a red rose between his teeth. His reasoning? It was a way to tip his cap to “the loveliness of Texas women in general and Fort Worth women in particular.” He may as well have written his hotel room number on the seat of his pants. The next day, locker room attendants presented Bessie with 50 roses sent by female admirers. Who needs Tinder?
Let's take a trip down memory lane …
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 22, 2017
Arnie’s swing defined the term “sexual and violent.”
Another legend of Texas golf, Byron Nelson grew up in Fort Worth and worked alongside Ben Hogan as a caddie when both were teenagers. In a nod to Nelson’s roots, tournament organizers made sure he struck the inaugural tee shot in every tournament from 1948 until his final event in 1966.
Odds and Ends
- Enormous thanks to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, from whom I pilfered many of these moments. Great retrospective on the tournament here.
- These history pieces are really just an excuse for me to go down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. You have GOT to read about Dave Hill, the one who sued the Tour after throwing his ball onto the green. This guy would have blown Twitter up weekly and made Bubba’s antics look like child’s play. A sampling: signing a scorecard in the 1966 PGA Championship that included a 108 on the 18th hole.
- That dude Al Besselink with the roses? He was an absolute legend, one of the gambling, skirt-chasing, swashbuckling characters that gave the early PGA Tour some serious flash. Bamberger’s article on him from 2002 is a must-read.
- More great stuff has been trickling out from the #BlogCabin. Porath’s Players recap is solid, as is Andy’s “Woke Yolk” entry on the Fried Egg.
- This story from Ryan Lavner about a college tournament features a 3 foot putt that ended with a competitor swimming in a greenside pond looking for his ball.
- Speaking of The Players (as I did at the beginning), some very snark-filled discussions have popped up on Golf Club Atlas and Geoff Shackleford’s site about the merits of the new, drivable 12th at Sawgrass. Shack v Doak 2017.