No Rory or Lee, But There's Tiger & Bubba in Players Championship

By: Tony Dear


What a blessed relief that talk of the Players Championship being golf's fifth major has been conspicuous by its absence so far this year. Geoff Ogilvy's column in Golf World, in which the Aussie broached the subject of the tournament's status, was the rare exception (and, okay, we may be helping throw fuel back on the fire), but even he firmly quashed its major claims.

The very notion that golf needed a fifth major was always highly dubious, but the assertion this additional Grand Slam event should be in America, which already had three, was downright preposterous. From the 1990s all the way through to the middle of the last decade however, the PGA Tour almost got away with it, so strong was the game on this side of the Atlantic. And when Tour commissioner Tim Finchem rather cleverly moved his flagship event from March to May, built a colossal new clubhouse at the tournament's permanent venue - TPC Sawgrass, and made significant upgrades to the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course, the Players was able to virtually reinvent itself; no longer was it a Masters warm-up but a prominent stepping stone between Augusta National and the U.S. Open.

Now, however, with the resurgence of European, Australian and South African golf, plus the emergence of Asian and, to a lesser extent, South American players, the game has gone global, surely extinguishing the Players Championship's immodest aspirations.

Even so, there's no doubting the depth of either the field or the purse, or that it probably deserves to be thought of as the best of the rest. Ogilvy says as much, asserting that there's nothing wrong with being the world's most important event that isn't a major. "It's certainly a bigger deal than the World Golf Championships," he adds.

Not everyone shares Ogilvy's opinion, of course. Earlier this year, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy announced they would be skipping the Players; their manager, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, saying it was no longer a priority for them, that both would much rather win a WGC event, and that the Players had become "about the 10th most important tournament in the world."

To be fair, new PGA Tour restrictions had made working the Players into their schedules complicated for Westwood and McIlroy, whose decision to take up European Tour membership limited the number of events they could play in America to 10. However, it probably goes without saying that neither would have given up their place in the field at an established major championship quite so lightly. One can almost picture the three men sitting in a pub discussing which tournament to use as leverage - the Players being the obvious choice.

The absence of the world Nos. 1 (Westwood) and 6 (McIlroy) is a blow to the event and certainly not part of Finchem's plan. He won't want this to be the start of a trend as the Players Championship's good name is largely the result of world-class fields that have graced the tournament since it was first played in 1974, and especially over the last decade and a half.

Really though, it's nothing an exciting finish won't put right. And should that finish involve Tiger Woods, then Westwood and McIlroy's no-show will be a minor matter, if it isn't already.

Tiger's decision last week to play at Sawgrass following his withdrawal from the Wells Fargo Championship was obviously very welcome at a relieved PGA Tour HQ. The left knee and Achilles heel issues Woods blamed for his Charlotte WD have healed sufficiently for his first competitive golf since finishing tied for fourth at the Masters a month ago, and it will be fascinating watching him attempt to halt his dramatic slide down the rankings; the man who led by 11 points just a couple of years ago, and was still No. 1 until the end of October last year, now sees no fewer than seven players ahead of him.

His motivation for playing this week isn't entirely clear. You have to think he's here to begin preparations for the U.S. Open at Congressional in five weeks rather than out of love for Sawgrass, where he has won just once. Should he triumph, he'd bring to an end the longest victory drought of his professional career and take his win total on the PGA Tour to 72.

But there really is very little to suggest he will win. Not only does Woods still appear a little insecure with the swing he and Sean Foley have been piecing together for the last eight months, he also admits to having problems on the greens. (Though the Putting Average stat the Tour used until two weeks ago to measure a player's putting performance is somewhat different to the Strokes Gained stat it now employs, Woods's current 45th position is quite a drop from third - where he finished 2008 - and even 17th where he was at the end of last season.) Woods says these issues stem from his neglecting short-game practice in favor of time on the range to hone his new swing.

Adding to his problems is the fact that no one - well, no one in the world's top 50 at least - seems daunted or overawed by Tiger anymore. At Augusta, two 20-somethings and a 30-year-old snuck in ahead of him, denying Woods a fifth green jacket. Would that, could that, have happened three or four years ago?

Truth is, while Tiger has been recuperating, reviewing, revamping and retooling, a slew of youngsters, no doubt inspired by the 14-time major champion, has stolen the limelight and will not likely give it up without a fight. The last four major champions (Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer, Louis Oosthuizen, Graeme McDowell) have an average age of just 27. And waiting in the wings are 18-year-old Matteo Manassero, 19-year-old Ryo Ishikawa (not playing this week), 22-year-old Rickie Fowler, 23-year-old Jason Day, and 26-year-old Dustin Johnson, as well as 21-year-old McIlroy.

There are numerous world-class players in their 30s who certainly do remember Tiger at his best, but who don't have the battle scars of Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson, for example, and would happily take on Tiger down the stretch. Count Westwood, Luke Donald, Hunter Mahan, Paul Casey, defending Players champion Tim Clark, Wells Fargo winner Lucas Glover, Matt Kuchar, Ogilvy and the irrepressible Bubba Watson among that group.

Of them, Donald, the new No. 3, appears to have the best chance this week. But don't count Watson out. Come to think of it, watching Watson and Woods go head to head in the final round might be very entertaining. Watson has won twice already this year - at Torrey Pines in January and two weeks ago in New Orleans - and has risen to 11th in the world. The two are Ryder Cup buddies and have been regular practice-round partners for a long time, and Woods is a big fan of Watson's unconventional shot-making.

And just last week, the long-hitting native of Bagdad, Fla., questioned Woods's judgment in engaging Foley to teach him another new swing, saying he was "going down the wrong path." Power, skill and a little needle between friends: now that's a recipe for drama, fifth major or not.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.


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