It’s one of the top time-honored traditions in American sports culture, and THE PLAYERS Championship returns to TPC Sawgrass in Ponte-Vedra Beach, Florida through Sunday (May 13).
The event not only features some of the greatest athletes in the world, but also a tribute to America’s finest with their Military Appreciation Day Ceremony and Concert. The concert helped kick off the six-day tournament on Tuesday, with an appearance from Columbia Nashville hitmaker Luke Combs — who tells Billboard he was glad to take part in a decade-old tradition that includes Tim McGraw and Jake Owen.
“We always love getting to do stuff like this,” says Combs, whose current single “One Number Away,” hits the top five on Billboard's Country Airplay chart this week. “It’s always cool to be able to give back a little bit in the ways that we can. We’ve got some beautiful weather down here, and we’re excited.”
Combs said that being at one of the most scenic tournaments in the world did raise the temptation to haul out a golf bag himself, though he stressed the results probably wouldn’t mirror his chart success. “I’m a horrendous golfer, though I do enjoy it,” he explains, with a laugh. “The temptation is there, but I don’t want to mess the grass up.”
Jared Rice, Executive Director of THE PLAYERS Championship, says that Combs’ performance continues a tradition that he’s very proud of.
“In the past ten years, we have combined a celebration of the military with a true kickoff of tournament week,” he relates. “This year, we had Military Appreciation Day on Tuesday. We presented the colors on the 17th Green — the most photographed golf hole in the world. We present the colors, play the National Anthem, have an F-15 fly over — which always excites the crowd. We recognize some dignitaries and we always have a special surprise. In the past, we’ve awarded homes or flown sailors home early… There’s a big commitment to military and having an up-and-coming artist. Having an artist such as Luke Combs was a great way to close our opening day.”
Rice says that tipping their hat to a group of men and women who have given so much to their country is truly the least they can do: “It is not lost on us that the sacrifice that our military and their families make on our freedoms. We also recognize that while we play in Northeast Florida, we have a great opportunity to show that recognition to a large military contingent here in Northeast Florida. There are upwards of five military installations in a two-hour drive time of Jacksonville.”
Combs echoes Rice’s statement, expressing that love of those in uniform runs deep: “Both of my grandfathers were in the service. It’s one of those things that you can’t be thankful enough for. It’s an honor that we were even asked to come down here and represent the troops at this event, and let them know we appreciate them and are thinking about them.”
Combs says though he is not an expert, there’s something relaxing for him to be on the course. “Anytime that me and the guys go out on the road, it’s fun to step away from the craziness of what it is we do. I just enjoy that time being outside with my buddies,” he offers, comparing the fellowship of the game to his day job. “It’s like the thing I enjoy the most about songwriting — not only are you doing something constructive, but you’re getting to have fun with people you enjoy hanging out with.”
With three straight hits to open his career at country radio (starting with the Country Airplay No. 1s “Hurricane” and “When It Rains It Pours”), Combs’s career continues to grow by the week — and he’s grateful. “It’s been wild, and the schedule always gets crazier, but we get to do so many cool and amazing things. It’s hard to process it all. Events like this give you a little bit of time to process it all and take in the levity of what it is we do every day.”
Has he gotten used to being recognized in public yet? “I think it’s something that takes a little getting used to, but it’s also something that we all signed up for,” he says. “I think it’s something that you just have to take in stride. I would much rather people be] doing that than not. That means that people are loving the music and wanting to come to the shows. That gives me and the guys the ability to do all the awesome things we get to do.”