PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The Players isn’t a major, though it’s not for lack of effort—both on and off the course. The execution, on the other hand, is in the eye of the beholder, or perhaps in that of one’s wallet.
A shiny new hospitality ticket called The Players Club provides a “super premium” experience not previously available during tournament week at TPC Sawgrass. Among the accouterments at one’s disposal inside the 70,000-square-foot clubhouse are an endless array of five-star food from chefs flown in for this week, bottomless adult beverages, access to manicurists and concierges, a $500 merchandise credit and Q&As with anyone from commissioner Tim Finchem (or former commissioner Deane Beman), to NBC analyst Gary Koch, to one of the tour’s rules officials. All it will cost you for the week is a cool $5,000.
It is also another example of the PGA Tour’s flagship event attempting to replicate the gold-standard of hospitality experiences in golf, the Masters, which in 2013 unveiled golf’s snazziest VIP treatment for the well-heeled and connected, Berckmans Place.
'It’s better than Berckmans,' said Matt Rapp, the tour’s vice president of business development. 'It’s the highest expression of hospitality in our sport, and this is the epicenter of the fan experience.'
There, you might be greeted by Hall of Fame football player Lynn Swann or former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, both members of Augusta National, at the mammoth 90,000-square-foot hospitality venue tucked amid the trees along the fifth fairway that houses three full-scale restaurants, multiple putting greens that are small-scale versions of ones on the course and a number of giant TVs so you don’t miss a shot. Similarly priced, those badges, however, are only available through members for corporations and carry even more cache.
While Augusta National does not comment on matters surrounding its membership, the PGA Tour is more than happy to puff its chest over its newest venue.
“It’s better than Berckmans,” said Matt Rapp, the tour’s vice president of business development. “It’s the highest expression of hospitality in our sport, and this is the epicenter of the fan experience.”
It is certainly an upgrade, although on Wednesday afternoon the area could hardly be considered crowded. In the clubhouse dining lounges, there were only a smattering of people, as bartenders and chefs waited for spectators to serve. In a suite overlooking the 18th green, there was only one man in the corner enjoying a cocktail on a leather sofa as he peered out the floor-to-ceiling windows watching players come through.
Once the tournament began Thursday morning, there were a few more more people stirring about, but still relatively modest.
From the tour’s perspective, the extra elbow room and lack of bodies is a bit by design, even if “several hundred” of the tickets had reportedly been sold (by comparison, some estimates peg the number of Berckmans Place badges around a thousand a day).
“In 2014, with all the tour plastic and badges and everything, we had 24,000 people per day who had access to [the clubhouse],” Rapp said. “The building was overwhelmed. The air conditioning couldn’t keep up. You had this glorious structure and a very subpar experience.”
Which is why in 2010 when Rapp sat down with Rick Anderson, PGA Tour executive vice president of global media, the message was to fix that problem.
It’s hardly the only instance where imitation by the tour should be taken as the sincerest form of flattery touch, either.
Augusta National has its azaleas and Amen Corner, and TPC Sawgrass has roses plastered all around the par-3 17th and elsewhere on the tour’s grounds.
The Masters has Magnolia Lane with its lily-white clubhouse straight ahead, while the Players has PGA Tour Boulevard, which in the near future will be reconfigured so it’s massive clubhouse is visible as the well-heeled drive up to the valet.
Even the media center has been re-done, coincidentally in the final year of the current press building at Augusta National.
At the end of the day for Rapp, however, he says it was about improving the experience and providing something akin to Millionaires Row at the Kentucky Derby, or the Royal Box at Wimbledon, more than it was about imitating the Masters.
“They got a great program,” he said. “We’re just very different.
“And we wanted to get enough people to talk about what a great experience it is. So far we’ve gotten rave reviews.”
And if you’re fortunate enough to have a golden ticket you won’t have any difficulty overhearing them.