Step inside the ropes with the team that leads the PGA Tour’s flagship event.
It would be reasonable to expect Jared Rice and the rest of the Players Championship team to simply stop and appreciate, if only for a moment, all that they have accomplished. After all, the PGA Tour’s flagship event is finally back to operating at full capacity in 2022 just as the world enters the third year of a global pandemic.
But the reality is that there is little time for self-congratulations. While fans will wait with bated breath to see who takes home this year’s gold-plated trophy from Tiffany and Co, the team behind the scenes at the Players Championship will already be hard at work planning the 2023 event and beyond.
“I think what is so great about our team and this organisation is that, sure, there’s moments to stop and smell the roses, but we are so focused on attention to detail and perfection,” said Rice, senior vice-president and executive director of the Players Championship. “There is a positive level of blinders that are on to ensure everything we’re doing is as best-in-class as it possibly can be.”
Rice accomplishes that in part with the help of nearly 1,800 local volunteers as well as a 15-person team that includes senior operations director Todd Tatarek, tournament services manager Emily Womack, senior sales director Robert Conrad and Marsha Oliver, who lead community outreach across north-eastern Florida.
Yet while Rice and his close-knit team oversee the bones of the operation, nearly 800 PGA Tour employees contribute to the annual success of the Players. That collaborative effort was part of the impetus behind the organisation’s move into a sparkling 187,000-square-foot corporate headquarters that was built just 300 yards away from the tee at the famed island-green 17th at TPC Sawgrass.
“Every PGA Tour employee contributes to the success of the Players and plays a role in it,” Rice said. “It’s the one week a year that is at our home, and by virtue of that it’s a championship that everyone contributes to. The number of individuals that are consistently thinking about how we improve these events, both inside and outside the ropes, is really closer to that 800 number.”
Nearly 200,000 fans are expected to cross the turnstiles into TPC Sawgrass for the 2022 rendition from March 10-13, which will be a welcome sight after the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly cancelled the event two years ago. Last year’s tournament, which saw Justin Thomas take home the trophy, operated at 20 percent of normal capacity.
Figuring out how to welcome all those fans back safely and responsibly – all while still delivering on the promise of a first-class experience – has taken up considerable attention at PGA Tour Global Home, to put it mildly.
“Getting back to our expectation to be the best fan experience in golf means looking at some notes from years ago to ensure that we pick up where we had left off previously and continue that upward ascent,” said Rice, who enters his sixth year leading the tournament. “That’s a big challenge. We haven’t hosted a Players Championship in full Technicolor and crowned a champion in a normal environment since 2019.”
Not that anyone is likely to notice much of a difference. Rice likens the tournament to the PGA Tour’s “testing ground for the fan experience”, which means remaining on the cutting edge of diverse offerings and new technology.
Competition coverage will no doubt be vast, thanks in part to the new nine-year domestic media rights portfolio the PGA Tour announced last year with ESPN+. Along with that is the return of the most expansive coverage in men’s golf – in 2021, 93 cameras captured roughly 31,000 strokes covering approximately 430 rounds.
Add in PGA Tour AR (Augmented Reality) and amplified coverage of TOURCast, an interactive golf shot tracker, and there is no shortage of ways fans can feel a part of the action at the Players.
“The course was not only built ahead of its time, but has withstood the test of time, as you can still watch any player take any shot on any hole on any day, totally unobstructed,” Rice said. “That same thinking transitions to our fan experience and transitions to our technology. We pride ourselves at the tour level to debut new technology, and debut them at the Players Championship.”
Such an undertaking for an event of this magnitude – coupled with the ever-growing appeal of a larger international audience – means a much longer lead-time to plan.
By the time the first tee shot is struck at this year’s Players Championship, Rice’s team will already have an eye towards the build-out of the 2023 event. The temporary infrastructure around the TPC Sawgrass property then begins in mid-October, which is around the same time that the tour’s agronomy team begins the overseeding process on the Stadium course (overseeding is essentially a process that greens up the course for the March competition while ensuring good playability).
“By the time the calendar flips to January and the PGA Tour staff returns from the holidays, the feeling of the Players being just around the corner is omnipresent,” Rice said.
Rice said that plans for future Players Championships are already in the works for as far out as 2025. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that only so much planning can be done ahead of time, rest assured Rice and Co. believe they are nevertheless well-positioned for the future.
“What I’m most looking forward to is being in a better position than we have been versus the past two years,” Rice said, “and to show our players, sponsors, fans and volunteers the best experience in men’s professional golf. That’s what we’re best at.”