The Players Championship has a $15 million purse, is televised in more than 220 nations and has the best field in professional golf. And it may never have happened had it not been for the efforts of a group of golf buddies at the San Jose Country Club.
John Tucker was a good salesman.
Ice to Eskimos good.
“John has never been very receptive to the word ‘no,’ ” said Duke Butler IV, who eventually became a fellow PGA Tour tournament director at the same time as Tucker. “He was persistent.”
How persistent? Tucker sold the First Coast on a PGA Tour event 10 years after the Tour departed. He then sold the Tour on the First Coast.
The end result is the symbiotic and highly successful relationship among the area, The Players and the PGA Tour. When the Players begins on March 12 at the Players Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass, it will mark the 55th year of the Tour on the First Coast, for which many credit Tucker for birthing.
That opinion is held by no less than former PGA Tour and World Golf Hall of Fame member Deane Beman, who listened to Tucker’s sales pitch, saw the impact of the Greater Jacksonville Open on the area and moved the Tour and The Players to Ponte Vedra Beach in 1976.
“It’s my guess that if John Tucker and his friends hadn’t started the GJO, we would have never come here at all,” Beman said during the recent First Coast Celebration of Golf Banquet at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, where the 90-year-old Tucker was honored with the award bearing Beman’s name for his contributions to area golf. “Maybe the Mayo Clinic wouldn’t have been here. Maybe the Jaguars. John had to step forward.”
That relatively modest step in 1964 eventually led to a $15 million tournament, the most lucrative in professional golf, the deepest field in the sport, and more than $100 million in charitable impact in the five-county area.
Not only have champions been crowned and Hall of Fame careers impacted, but children and elderly have gotten access to health care, students have received financial aid and hungry people have been fed.
And it all started during $2 Nassaus at the San Jose Country Club.
Small group made a large impact
It’s become almost cliche about business being conducted during a round of golf.
How’s this for proving the cliche true: The seeds for one of the world’s biggest professional tournaments and the headquarters of a major golf governing body were sown during Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning rounds of golf at San Jose in the early 1960s.
It was there that a handful of business and civic leaders in Jacksonville such as Southern Bell executives Tucker and John Montgomery, and private businessmen such as Wes Paxson Sr., Lester Varn, Gene Cowan, Ed Swanson and Paul Ambrose, started kicking around the idea of bringing the PGA Tour back to Jacksonville, where it had a stop at Hyde Park and Brentwood in the 1940s and 1950s.
With some financial help from an unlikely source, a love of golf, a strong sense of civic pride and Tucker’s relentless salesmanship, the Greater Jacksonville Open was launched.
Fifty-five years later, he has a simple explanation.
“All of us loved golf,” he said. “All we wanted was for people to see golf, to see some of the greatest golfers in the world. I just can’t believe how this thing has grown beyond anything any of us could have imagined.
Impressed at Hyde Park
Tucker was a native of Fort Pierce and a University of Florida student in 1950 when he read in the Gainesville Sun of a PGA Tour event at Hyde Park — the Jacksonville Open.
The Jacksonville Jaycees were the primary beneficiary and ran the tournament. His UF roommate had a girlfriend who was a secretary for the Jaycees so a ticket was procured and Tucker drove up for the day.
What he saw “mesmerized me.”
Tucker watched as players such as Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Chandler Harper prowled the Hyde Park fairways. He was an avid golfer but he said what he saw was in another class from playing at a club.
“It was a different world,” he said. “It was like a dream to watch them hit the golf ball, what it sounded like when they made contact. And the energy of the tournament was amazing.”
It’s something Tucker never forgot. However, five years later the tournament folded and the nearest PGA Tour golf was in Orlando.
Chasing Arnold Palmer
Tucker went to work for Southern Bell and by 1963 was a district manager. He had a growing family, got more involved in the community and like any avid sports fan, went to the Florida-Georgia game and the Gator Bowl.
However, Jacksonville didn’t have much else.
“Jacksonville was very different back then,” Tucker said. “We had less than 300,000 people.”
But Tucker, Montgomery, Paxson and other young business leaders knew of the value a golf tournament could bring to a city. In conversations over 18 holes and then in the 19th hole, they wondered by the area couldn’t once again host a Tour event.
Paxson got the ball rolling when he became the chairman of the Gator Bowl and created the early version of the Gator Bowl Pro-Am.
The goal was to upgrade the field beyond area club pros. George Olsen, the game’s executive director, asked Paxson what it would take to get Arnold Palmer, the biggest name in golf.
Tucker helped for one key reason.
“I had free long-distance calling,” he said.
Tucker eventually made contact with Palmer’s agent, Mark McCormack. He found out that getting Palmer to appear in events other than on the PGA Tour or the majors was an expensive proposition.
“We got to talking about appearance money, and that ended the conversation,” Tucker said.
However, McCormack did steer Tucker to Jim Gaquin, who at the time was the tournament manager for the PGA of America — which ran the PGA Tour.
Gaquin asked Tucker that instead of trying to get a star or two in the Gator Bowl Pro-Am, why not shoot for a bigger goal: a Tour event. And he had just the solution.
The St. Petersburg Open was struggling. Tournament officials there were playing all four rounds on four courses and the players were grumbling about having to drive all over Pinellas County.
Gaquin also said that Palmer almost certainly would play, because the King had already established a track record of favoring Florida events.
The catch is that it took $50,000, for a purse and operating expenses, to get a PGA Tour event off the ground back then.
Tucker told Gaquin he could deliver the course — several area clubs such as Deerwood, Selva Marina and Hidden Hills were on board — along with an organizing committee and a team of volunteers.
“I called Wes Paxson and told him that we could get Arnold, but not for the Gator Bowl,” Tucker said. “I could get Arnold and 143 other players. All I need is $50,000.”
Paxson said he was floored.
“When you give John an idea, he gets a little carried away with it,” said Paxson. “But in a good way. He’s always going to upscale it.”
Starting at Selva
Tucker had a golf tournament but he didn’t have the money.
But he knew where to go: Bob Feagin, the president of the Florida Publishing Company, which printed the Florida Times-Union and Jacksonville Journal, and the newspaper’s owner, Prime Osborn, the CEO of Seaboard Coastline (which would later merge with Atlantic Coastline and the Chessie System to form CSX).
“Back then, if you wanted something big in Jacksonville, you went to Prime,” Tucker said.
Feagin was a big golf fan and a bigger proponent of anything good for the city. He raised money for Baptist Hospital, Jacksonville University, the United Fund and the symphony. Feagin was a past Gator Bowl chairman and had championed consolidation.
Tucker’s final sales pitch to Feagin: “Do this and people will like the newspaper.”
Feagin went to Osborn and got the money. Gaquin played a round of golf with Tucker at Selva Marina and was sold on the track to host the GJO for the first two years.
Tucker was the first chairman but he had plenty of help. Montgomery proved to be a natural at running golf tournaments (he later helped Jack Nickalus create The Memorial and ran Nicklaus’ golf tournament operations).
Tucker got a list of the necessary committees and volunteer jobs from his Southern Bell counterpart in Pensacola, who ran that city’s PGA Tour event. He enlisted the Junior League to sell tickets and eventually got more than four dozen businesses to either buy tickets or trade in-kind services.
GJO takes off, draws Beman’s attention
The first tournament was a hit. Bert Weaver was the winner, and Nicklaus made what turned out to be his only competitive double-eagle at Selva’s par-5 18th hole.
The tournament raised $19,000 for charity.
Tucker turned the chairmanship over to Paxson the following year under an ingenious plan: having a new chairman every year meant a new set of friends, contacts, clients and business partners to buy tickets, sponsorships and otherwise support the tournament.
To this day, the system still exists for The Players.
“Every year we’d get a new chairman, and every year we’d expand our reach,” Tucker said.
Those who stepped down formed the Honourable Company of Past Chairman — or the Redcoats. They remain active in the tournament and its charitable aspects and provide each new chairman with a wealth of resources and knowledge.
Doug Sanders won the GJO the following year. When it went to Hidden Hills, the winners were local product Dan Sikes, followed by World Golf Hall of Fame members Tony Jacklin and Gary Player.
Beginning with Jacklin’s victory — the first of two GJO’s the dapper Englishman would win — six out of nine winners eventually were voted into the Hall of Fame as the fields and the area interest grew stronger each year.
“This community has a knack for getting things done,” Paxson said. “I really wasn’t that skeptical that the GJO would be a success. It was an active community, and it supported new things.”
Beman, named the PGA Tour commissioner in 1974 after the breakaway from the PGA of America, didn’t take long to settle on the First Coast for both the Tour’s headquarters and the permanent site for The Players.
Beman was considering sites in Orlando and Amelia Island, but when Tucker heard about it, he put his salesmanship to work.
“John got wind and went on a full-scale recruitment,” said Butler, who was the director of the Houston Open at the time.
Corporate hospitality takes hold
Tucker kept making an impact after The Players replaced the GJO. He replaced Feagin as the president of Florida Publishing and after Morris Communications bought the Times-Union in 1983, Tucker left the paper and was hired by Beman to run The Players.
After Beman and architect Pete Dye realized their dream of “stadium golf” with the construction of the TPC Sawgrass, Tucker followed it up with the vision of corporate chalets and other hospitality areas.
“We had them standing in line to buy a $100,000 sponsorship for a tent with a few drinks and running water,” Tucker said. “I learned that New York advertising guys loved golf.”
The impact of combining corporate clout with golf was lasting. In 2019, more than 400 local, national and international businesses entertained clients at The Players.
Tucker eventually left The Players a few years after it moved to the TPC Sawgrass. He generally shrugs off the praise people heap on him for his pioneering efforts in getting the PGA Tour to the First Coast to stay.
Tucker said the tournament volunteers and golf fans on the First Coast should get the credit for embracing the Tour and taking the area from a pro golf desert to worldwide interest in the short 12-year history of the GJO.
“They are the greatest golf fans and volunteers in the world,” he said. “The impact on this community has been unbelievable.”
But Tucker may be understating his role.
“Jacksonville showed it could support a golf tournament,” Butler said. “But I’m not sure Deane would have come here without John’s involvement.”