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The Players Championship – Quantitatively Golf's Fifth Major?

By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek

May 10, 2012

The Players Championship teeing off on Thursday morning is no doubt pro golf’s most transient, and most controversial, tournament of the year. The event, established in 1974 as a Labor Day climax to the summer golf season, has finally found a permanent home and prime late spring spot on the PGA Tour schedule down in the quiet beach town of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, after traversing the Sunshine State and the calendar for three decades. While the tourney may have settled down in the town also known as PGA HQ, the debate about whether it counts as the PGA Tour’s fifth major rambles on.

In 2008, Phil Mickelson, discussing the challenges of arranging his schedule, remarked in passing, “If you take the five majors, counting The Players, and the three World Golf Championships, which is eight….” Lee Westwood, however, more recently claimed the WGCs had leapfrogged the Players in pros’ minds as a must-attend event. Last year, the European tour issued a press release promoting its BMW Championship at Wentworth as the fifth major, noting that seven of the top nine players in the world were in the field. Ernie Els agreed. “[The BMW] is definitely taking the place of The Players,” he said.

But strictly by the numbers, how does it stack up to golf’s accepted majors ­– The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship?

If you’re following the money, The Players actually should be the first major, not the de facto fifth. The tournament has a $9.5 million purse and gives more than $1.7 million to its champion. By comparison, the Masters and PGA Championship purses are $8 million, the U.S. Open distributes $7.5 million, and the British Open hands out roughly $7.3 million.

On TV, even without fan magnet Tiger Woods, who withdrew on 2011’s first day of play, citing injuries to his knee and Achilles, the final round of last year’s Players on NBC earned a 3.4 share, meaning 3.4% of U.S. households watching at TV at that particular time were tuned in. The Masters on CBS is the most watched major, generating an 8.1 share for the final round this year, but The Players still managed to best ESPN’s telecast of the British Open, which last year drew a 2.6 share. (The 2011 U.S. Open on NBC pulled a 5.1 share; the PGA Championship on CBS garnered a 4.3.)

At the gate, The Players, which drew slightly over 137,000 fans over four days last year according to published reports, is a shade behind The Masters, which is reported to attract 35,000-40,000 patrons daily, and the U.S. Open, which drew 230,000 total spectators in 2011. But The Players consistently draws golf’s deepest field – the 144 leading golfers – a corps about which Hall-of-Famer Lee Trevino once quipped, “We couldn’t have a better field if they raised the dead.”

In corporate sponsors’ minds, however, it’s clear The Players hasn’t yet achieved the cachet of a Masters or U.S. Open. The exclusivity at Augusta National extends to its tiny but top-tier sponsor base – the likes of AT&T, ExxonMobil, and IBM, with Mercedes and Rolex blending into the azalea-strewn background. The U.S. Open flies the banners of USGA partners American Express, IBM, Rolex, and Lexus; the PGA Championship also claims Amex and Mercedes, and likewise touts PGA of America patron RBC and sponsors National Car Rental and Omega.

After UBS bowed out in 2010, The Players is looking for more “Proud Partners” to join PricewaterhouseCoopers, which in January renewed its commitment through 2017, and Jeld-Wen, which just pulled out of its partner status a year early and also declined to remain as title sponsor of the tournament’s massive Stadium Village near the 18th hole (even though the window and door manufacturer will continue to be a corporate partner of the PGA Tour).

Like a bomber off the tee looking to improve his short game, the partner abdication has left The Players with a defined needs-work target. While the tour found multiple sponsors to cover the estimated $400,000 it costs to construct and operate the Stadium Village, including Charles Schwab, Ketel One, Toyota, and Verizon, the dearth of top tier partners is a major concern to event organizers. Under a more positive spin, it’s a major opportunity for corporate sponsors looking to capitalize on the event’s growing presence. Adam Schupak, who collaborated with the former PGA Tour commissioner on Deane Beman: Golf’s Driving Force, reports that title sponsorship of regular PGA Tour events is $7-8 million, with the WGCs and Players Championship “in the neighborhood of $12 million.” Corporate partnerships for the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, with their attendant commitments to the events’ umbrella associations, are thought to be considerably more.

Does that make sponsoring The Players a steal? Not according to Ray Katz, managing partner of Source1 Sports. “If it’s such a bargain,” Katz scoffs, comparing how much exposure that amount of money could bring in advertising buys on The Golf Channel or broadcast networks, or in endorsement deals with multiple players in the top 100, “then why do they lose so many sponsors?”

For the moment, anyhow, sounds like classifying The Players as a major is like putting a golf cart before the sponsorship horse.

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