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The wooden sign for Lord of Life Lutheran Church on Roscoe Road touts its “open-air worship.” In truth, it is a converted former stable with a concrete floor and no permanent walls. Every fall, the friendly congregation puts on a pumpkin patch in its huge field that bleeds into the dirt parking lot. They have a second wooden sign out front with a red line that measures their fundraising goals. It’s been ticking up slowly for about a year now.
From the middle of Roscoe Road’s two lanes, Lord of Life appears to be a simple gathering place, the kind found in tiny rural communities across the American South. Turn around, however, and the world flips. There lies the faux-humble Palm Valley Fish Camp, whose blackened mahi with tasso ham gravy and collards goes for $25 a plate. The restaurant breaks up a miles-long string of multi-million dollar mega mansions along the Intracoastal Waterway in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Less than a mile to the southeast from the Lord of Life parking lot as the crow flies, the opulent front doors of the 77,000-square-foot TPC Sawgrass clubhouse stand ready to open for another Players Championship.
Every year one of golf’s brightest spotlights turns on our town. Invariably, someone will whisper “fifth major” and locals like me will die a little inside. In recent years, the media attention has mercifully drifted from that exhausting question to a more interesting one: If The Players isn’t a “major,” then what is it? By its nature, identity is a moving target. Teenagers grow up; priorities shift with age. But DNA is fixed. You can’t change where you come from. And Roscoe Road—or “the back way” in local parlance—is the clearest picture of The Players’ roots, where it’s likely going, and what makes this event so mercurial and unique among even its major peers.
When I moved here to work for PGATour.com in 2003, the accents struck me most. My friends in California would ask me how the Cuban sandwiches were, and I had to explain that I lived in BBQ country: My apartment in Jacksonville Beach was a 45-minute drive from Georgia, and three hours from the South Carolina border. Miami was five hours away, y’all. Jacksonville’s small-town, Southern vibe was ubiquitous even in Ponte Vedra, regarded as one of the “rich” parts of the area. Just a few miles west of the upscale beach clubs and mansions along the Atlantic sat LuLu’s, a more traditional fish camp along Roscoe Road, which is to say it was an overgrown shack on the water specializing in fried fish, gator tail and bottled beer.
I worked my first Players from a small portable trailer just outside the gates. One of my silly party tricks is to see eyes bulge when I tell people the entire PGATour.com team that year was under 10 people. We put in crazy hours and I loved it—my main job was manning the night shift, manually entering tee times to make sure the website was updated every morning. On the fly, our managing editor and I decided I should profile an up-and-coming Players first-timer named Luke Donald. I introduced myself to him on the first tee Thursday, told him my plan, and he casually agreed. No permission from an agent, no questions about marketing partners, no series of internal meetings with Tour communications to see if Donald fit the profile of who should be promoted that week. I walked with his then-fiance Diane, making our way around the sparse concession stands and scores of local fans more interested in ripping through their smuggled booze than first-round golf action.
My father-in-law moved his family from Louisville, Kentucky, to the growing neighborhood inside TPC Sawgrass in 1990. Dwayne and Becky still live in the same brick house. My wife and our family now live down the street. They love regaling me with stories of how Roscoe has changed. As Ponte Vedra boomed throughout the 1990s, Roscoe remained one of the last vestiges of the area’s rural days, full of hand-built homes tucked into overgrown live oaks and palm trees. Folks would go down to the old drawbridge or across the street to the shore of the Intracoastal and eat the fish they caught. The rich kids at Nease High School lived in the gated neighborhoods springing up along A1A and County Road 210; the country kids lived on Roscoe.
Just 10 years before my in-laws arrived in Florida, then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman broke ground on the heavily wooded, snake-infested bog that would become TPC Sawgrass. He famously bought it for $1 because no one thought it could be developed. We joked that the old clubhouse was straight out of the ’70s, from its outside looking like a spaceship from some campy movie to the garish green flowers on the musty carpets inside. It had to go. People from outside the area wondered why commissioner Tim Finchem and his team went with a “Mediterranean Revival” architectural style for the new clubhouse that opened in 2007, but hey, it was their prerogative. If you looked down Roscoe Road at the time, a similar phenomenon was happening: It wasn’t a gated neighborhood, so there were far fewer building restrictions, and wealthy people began creating palaces to their particular tastes. Hand-built homes on big plots started going away, and Spanish-style red roofs shot up alongside clean, white modern lines. A residential arms race that would make Bravo reality TV show viewers blush was on. It continues today.
From the columned balconies of the new clubhouse, Finchem and his team also envisioned a different kind of Players. They dreamed of an event on par with golf’s biggest, with fans worldwide journeying to Ponte Vedra; during my years in communications at the World Golf Hall of Fame, I was in meetings where executives discussed the logistics of how to lift the Players to “major” status. But on the ground during the tournament, that thang was still a local hootenanny. The Jags may play on Sundays, and the Players may get the most eyeballs, but Jacksonville’s heart will always belong to college football. The Florida-Georgia game (or Georgia-Florida according to my Bulldog neighbor) ain’t called the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party for nothing. And for years, that tailgate spirit imbued every day of The Players. Tickets were easy to come by; someone usually had an extra floating around or you could get them cheap when checking out at Publix. All you had to do was head up to the mass of humanity stacked up between 17 green and 18 tee to see folks you knew, and someone would hand you a beer or shot of booze from the bottle in their sock. The tiered grassy area behind No. 4 green is a fantastic place to watch incoming groups; it was also a quieter spot to take an afternoon nap for those who hit it too hard in the morning.
Meanwhile, Finchem and the Tour pulled every lever at their disposal—more television coverage, more marketing far beyond Jacksonville, more money for course maintenance, more money into the purse—to raise the stature of their signature event. International visitors soon began rubbing polos with folks from Middleburg and Palatka. There were some growing pains as Tour officials grappled with what they had created. “Would the Masters do that?” was a frustrated phrase I heard more than once from my friends inside HQ.
But people mellow with age, get more comfortable in their own skin. The Tour has since wisely recognized that The Players is more welcoming and an easier ticket than the Masters, and nicer on the wallet than a U.S. Open. So it tries—sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much—to ride the line of being golf’s most fun big event while stamping out those rowdier days. You can see this manifested in things like the progressively open cell phone policy, the Tuesday concerts by No. 17 and social media posts of happy people at the tournament—without drinks in their hands. In the early days of the new clubhouse, the lawn facing No. 18 was a popular ticket and turned into yet another day drinking hot spot. Now it’s closed off as part of a $5,000-per-person corporate hospitality clubhouse experience.
There is a chicken-and-egg question in all this: Didn’t the rise of the PGA Tour, that clubhouse and the money poured into marketing The Players spark the boom around it? Of course Ponte Vedra doesn’t look the way it does today without one of the biggest sports organizations on the planet based here. But so many other factors outside of the Tour’s control also contributed, many of them boiled down to the fact that developers realized the open land around Ponte Vedra was enormously valuable. St. Johns County is the No. 1 public school district in Florida by several measures. There is water everywhere, cost of living is relatively cheap and the people are great. A modern bridge replaced the drawbridge in 2002, and Nocatee, just west of it, is one of the fastest-growing planned communities in the nation.
So more people and more money keep piling in. The Tour’s gleaming new headquarters had to work with St. Johns county commissioners in order to build taller than the area’s zoning. And yet, across the street is a chicken wing place with pinball machines and cheap drinks called Mr. Chubby’s. The Players is, hands-down, my favorite golf tournament on the planet. I also love $1 chicken wings. Identity is a moving target.
Every morning my 4-year-old daughter and I rock 80s jams on our way to school as we barrel down Roscoe. I always check Lord of Life’s fundraising sign and those few remaining wooden homes. Sometimes my daughter will ask how many people can fit in one of those houses on the other side of the street.
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