THE PLAYERS Championship is Above Par.
All photos by PGA TOUR
If you’ve ever seen the movie Happy Gilmore, maybe you consider yourself a golf person. Or maybe you just like Adam Sandler. We support both. The thing is, Shooter McGavin was slightly mistaken when he said “This is golf. Not a rock concert.” Find yourself at some of the nationwide events put on by the PGA Tour and you’ll start to understand why. If that doesn’t sell you, then this conversation over a glass of Rabbit Hole Bourbon with Executive Director of The Players Championship Jared Rice likely will. Far more than the best golfers in the game competing against each other and themselves, (which is already impressive enough to get thousands of people in the stands) but a community-first event that works to bring people together to celebrate the sport of golf—oftentimes kicked off with a nice little concert. See, it can be both. On the 17th hole of TPC Sawgrass, we took our best swing with Jared to get a better look into what it takes to put on the flagship event of the PGA Tour and beyond. *golf claps*
Whalebone: Tell us what it’s like to put on The Players Championship. What’s the energy of Ponte Vedra like during and leading up to the tournament?
Jared Rice: Producing an event—The Players Championship—at the level that’s expected is a tremendous undertaking. And I think what’s most critical is that it isn’t one person. While I’m fortunate enough to be able to be the voice of the Championship in instances like this, I think people would be surprised to learn that there are nearly 2,000 volunteers that help us produce and deliver The Players Championship. The PGA Tour has over 800 employees and a vast majority of them contribute greatly to the production of this event.
It’s exciting in that it’s the coming together of our community and our entire organization at the absolute highest level, given that this is the flagship event of our sport that’s played at our home. The Championship on its own is the biggest by really any measure—in terms of audience, engagement across platforms, attendance, even the prize for which our players compete for—it’s really the most difficult championship to win in golf.
It’s said around town that if one is going to get business done and see friends, they are doing it here during the tournament because the community in its entirety is here. And that means a wide variety of things—there’s business being done, there are sports and golf fans out here watching the competition, and because of the fan experience we pride ourselves in delivering, there’s a diverse audience of families and the military community. Some would even say it’s the annual high school reunion for our community every year.
To say it takes over the town is an understatement. The community is here participating, but they are also participating within local businesses. Restaurants are promoting and behind the event, it’s clear when you arrive in Jacksonville International Airport that it’s The Players Championship week, our entire community is focused on being warm and welcoming and hospitable in a way that makes Northeast Florida really special.
Tell us about your Military Appreciation Day of The Players Championship and why it is so important and what it means to the community.
JR: The Tuesday of the tournament is Military Appreciation Day and not only is it the kick off of the week, it gives The Players Championship an opportunity to thank the military for their service and sacrifice. In Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, that is a little bit more pronounced in that we have four military installations within an hour and a half drive time and Jacksonville is the most requested final deployment destination in the US Navy. So we are an incredibly deep military and veteran area and we feel it’s our responsibility to recognize that.
Military Appreciation Day not only includes complimentary admission for active duty, retired, reserve and national guard members and a dependent, but the presentation of the colors on the green of 17, an F15 Eagle flyover in the missing-man formation—definitely a Top Gun buzzing-the-tower feel from how fast and low they fly over 17, and then we close the day with a concert performance. We’ve had artists from Toby Kieth to The Chainsmokers.
Describe to us how to swing a golf club for those who’ve never done so.
JR: Oh man. Swinging a golf club requires the perfect combination of somewhere in the neighborhood of 138 swing thoughts and very specific body movements. It’s a complicated thing. So the way that I would tell anybody how to swing a golf club is however you feel comfortable. It’s a life sport, it’s a sport that can be played in any number of ways—think of Topgolf, putting greens, putt putt—for anyone, not just professional athletes. And even when you look at someone like Jim Furyk, he has a pretty nontraditional swing. So however you feel most comfortable—just play your way and enjoy this lifelong game.
Tell us about the craziest hole you’ve ever witnessed at The Players—could be hole in one, someone landing it within 3 feet on the island of 17, a player that was far behind come back to take the win, etc.
JR: In 2015, Rickie Fowler was five shots back of the lead with eight holes to play on Championship Sunday. In our sport, eight holes to play five shots—that’s a tall hill to climb. So much so, his family that was here had departed the course and gone to the airport to fly home.
While that was happening, Rickie shot a 31 on the back nine, with a birdie on 15, and an eagle on 16 (setting unprecedented tournament history with these two holes alone), followed by an unbelievable birdie-birdie finish on hole 17 and 18 to get himself into a three-man playoff for The Players Championship. That day, sudden death was an aggregate 16-17-18, and after that sudden death round, Rickie and Kevin Kisner were the two remaining.
Rickie ended up birdying 17 in sudden death to win The Players. So he came back from six shots back, he birdied 17 three times on Championship Sunday, and the total distance of his shots into 17 was under 20 feet.
People wonder if golfers can be in the zone. This is exhibit 1A that yes, they can.
Also of note, one of our amazing volunteers was stationed at JAX Airport informed Rickie’s family of his performance and was able to get them back to the golf course in time for them to watch him finish sudden death and win The Players.
Explain to us what you do in preparation for The Players. Do you actually get to watch any of the match?
JR: A day in the life for me. I’m usually on the property by 5:00 or 5:30 AM—when most of our staff arrive, if not earlier. I traditionally will drive the golf course all the way from hole one to 18 alone just making observations, looking at operational elements, taking one last look to ensure that the presentation of the property is as close to perfect as possible.
The day includes a number of media opportunities—the morning show, morning radio, talking to media about the competition and what to expect in terms of everything from traffic to weather to informing the community everything they need to know.
I’ll spend a little bit of time in our player area in the morning to thank our athletes and ensure we’ve over delivered on their expectations. And then through most of the afternoon I’m with our hospitality partners, our Proud Partner and other sponsors just making sure their experience is flawless. And that takes up most of my day.
We usually close with a staff meeting with our tournament team and our volunteer leadership team to review the events of the day, identify any areas of improvement for the next day and through about 10:30 at night, we’re actioning those items we’ve discussed and making sure that by 6:30 the next morning, it looks like not a foot was stepped on property.
You have a full cooler, a bright sunny day, an empty course. Who are you bringing with you and why? Can be anyone, past or present.
JR: My dream foursome. First I would say my dad, he’s gotta be in there. That one kind of speaks for itself with either my 15 or 12-year-old as first alternates for his spot.
Spot number two. I would invite Justin Thomas, our defending champion. Having an opportunity to get to know him briefly after his win, he is amazing, has done a lot of great things for our game, and does a ton for charity. Plus, I’m incredibly jealous of his golf swing, so I would love to see that.
And for the last spot I’d have to say John Wooden. He was the UCLA Men’s Basketball Head Coach for a number of years. He holds the record for NCAA championship wins and was a pioneer in coaching, leadership and team building. I’ve always found his positivity and his approach to genuine leadership very inspiring.
What does the gold standard mean to you? How do you hold this standard even outside of the tournament?
JR: The gold standard is a combination of three things. In aggregate, it’s a historic competition on an iconic golf course that delivers the best fan experience in our sport. As we go forward, we will be uncompromising in our pursuit to deliver the best by any measure.
It’s funny because a lot of times people will ask what we do the other 51 weeks of the year. But we start building out our Championship every year in October for an event that ends in March, the idea of constant evolution and elevation does not happen in six months.
We are thinking today about where this championship will be in 2025 or 2028. So taking the near-term or event league definition I gave you and applying that to what the future is going to look like is how we run our business on a day-to-day basis.
The other way we illustrate the gold standard is how we give back to the community. Our charter as an organization is to leave our communities better than they were before the tournament. The Players has delivered over 100 million dollars in charitable benefits in Northeast Florida since our inception more than 40 years ago. So as an organization, wherever we play, we’re going to provide economic benefit and improve the communities in which we play. That has to be at the highest and best by any measure here at our flagship event.
It’s a philosophy that makes us ask ourselves how we are going to continue to evolve and elevate constantly. We are a public trust—we have to be responsible and active listeners, participants and leaders in our community every single day.