The role of tournament chairman is an important and prestigious one at THE PLAYERS Championship. Known as “Red Coats” for the red blazers they wear around the golf tournament and at special events, they oversee the legions of volunteers that help put on THE PGA Tour event every year in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Red Coats are volunteers themselves, and put in many hours during the year they serve. They work their way up to the position by holding leadership roles in various volunteer committees over a period of about 10 years. Once someone has been Red Coat, they are a Red Coat for life. They join the organization’s alumni advisory group and continue to wear their red blazer to events and the tournament. They also participate in the annual ” Red Coat Rideout.” THE PLAYERS raises millions of dollars every year for area charities, and during the Rideout they all fan out to drive around and visit those charities to officially deliver the checks.
This year’s Red Coat is Andy Baggs, who oversaw about 2,000 volunteers.
But not many people know who served as the first Red Coat, or even when the role started.
Fred Robbins does. He served as Red Coat in 1975, and is the Red Coat historian.
He says Red Coats have been around since long before championship was named THE PLAYERS. The first tournament chairman served at the first Greater Jacksonville Open in 1965, which was what the professional tournament in Jacksonville was called in the beginning. In 1974, it became the Tournament Players Championship and then later The Players Championship ( the first two words in the name were not capitalized at first).
Joe Tucker served as tournament chairman that first year in 1965, when the championship was held in Selva Marina Country Club in Atlantic Beach, Robbins says. But as far as he knows, Tucker didn’t wear a red blazer. He says the tradition of wearing one evolved during the first years of the tournament, which moved around to various country clubs in the Jacksonville area.
The idea for the Greater Jacksonville Open began with Robert Fagan, publisher of the Florida Publishing Company, then the publishing company of the Florida Times-Union, Robbins says. “He decided that we ought to bring professional golf back to Jacksonville.” A tournament called The Jacksonville Open was played in 1918, but no tournament had been held in the area since the 1940s.
Volunteers from around the First Coast served at the Greater Jacksonville Open, which was held in the early years at Selva Marina, Deerwood Country Club, and Hidden Hills Country Club.
Wesley Paxon served as the second tournament chairman in 1966, Robbins says. He was followed the next year by John Montgomery, and then Lester Varn.
Robbins doesn’t remember the exact year that tournament chairmen began wearing red blazers, but “I have a couple of photographs from the early 1970s when the past chairmen are all wearing red coats,” Robbins says.
By 1975, when Robbins was chairman, he says wearing them “was in full swing.” That year, when the tournament was held at Hidden Hills, PGA TOUR commissioner Deane Beman attended “and liked what he saw, with all the volunteers and that we gave to charity,” Robbins says. THE PGA TOUR decided to move its national headquarters to Ponte Vedra Beach. They took over the tournament in 1977, and held it at Sawgrass Country Club until 1982, when it was first played at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, its present location.
The tournament has grown over the years. When Robbins was Red Coat, he oversaw about 600 volunteers. Over the years, only two Red Coats have been women. Most Red Coats are still living.
At the end of every PLAYERS, after the winner receives his trophy, the Red Coats all line up for a colorful ceremony during which the current Red Coat presents a red blazer to the next year’s tournament chairman.
It’s a ceremony that reflects a lot of pride.
Serving as tournament chairman “is a big deal,” Robbins says. “You work hard being a Red Coat.”