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Inside the Ropes: Players aren't all fans of Players Championship

The SportsXchange

The debate about whether the Players Championship actually should be the fifth major has raged for years and obviously will be discussed at length this week at TPC Sawgrass, when the event celebrates its 40th edition.

Bubba Watson weighed on the subject last year when he withdrew before the tournament following a whirlwind month after his victory in one of the four bona fide major championships, the Masters.

Had it been as important as a major, he would have been at TPC Sawgrass, the flagship event of the PGA Tour.

Lee Westwood, the No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings at the time, and Rory McIlroy, on his way to becoming No. 1, passed on the tournament two years ago, with major input from their agent, Chubby Chandler.

When PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem moved the tournament from the run-up to the Masters to May in 2007, the idea was to give the Players a spot of its own and put a big tournament in five consecutive months on the schedule.

He obviously was hoping that having the Masters in April, the Players in May, the U.S. Open in June, the Open Championship in July and the PGA Championship in August might give the Players a boost in status.

Even though it remains a big event, the plan might have backfired.

"It just seems that it comes now in the season where there's a lot of big tournaments, and it sort of just, I think before the Masters, it sort of stood out," McIlroy said of the Players.

"And now in the place where it is, it's just one of a number of big tournaments coming up."

Chandler weighed in with this: "Moving it to the middle of May has made it about the 10th most important tournament in the world."

McIlroy left Chandler's International Sports Management later in 2011, and he and Westwood returned with apologies of sorts to the Players Championship last year.

But the damage had been done.

When Watson decided not to play last year, PGA Tour executive Ty Votaw said, "Some of the top-ranked European Tour players like Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy also missed the Players Championship last year, which delivered a big blow to the credibility of the event."

Westwood, who rejoined the PGA Tour last year and moved his family from England to the United States before this season, also has talked down the Players.

On his list, the event had fallen behind the World Golf Championships.

"They have to go in now before the Players Championship," Westwood said of the WGC events. "So what is (the Players), eighth on the list now?"

As far back as 2003, Ernie Els said: "The four majors are the most important. Obviously the Players Championship is our championship. The tour runs it ... but it's not a major. Never will be."

In recent years, Els has piled on by saying: "(The BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, flagship event of the European Tour) is definitely taking the place of the Players. I also feel we have a stronger field (at Wentworth) and a classic course."

That last part is an absurd statement because Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the rest of the Americans do not play in the BMW, while almost all the best players in the world make it to the Players, like it or not, every year.

If nothing else, the Players has a major feel to it.

"We obviously have strong fields at the majors, but player-for-player, this is the best field we have all year, the biggest purse we have and one of the toughest tests of golf we have," said Mickelson, who captured the Players in 2007.

"This tournament has built a real credibility. We use the same course every year like Augusta (National), so you see history being made and shots being played that you can look back on."

Woods has dominated the World Golf Championships, with his victory in the WGC-Cadillac Championship earlier this year giving him 17 of those distinctive trophies.

"I would say I think (the Players) is much bigger," said Woods, whose only title at TPC Sawgrass came in 2001. "This field is so much deeper, and it's played on a much more difficult golf course."

Oh yes, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

That could be one reason why you get so many varied comments when talking about the Players Championship, because it is played at Pete Dye's dye-abolical masterpiece.

From the beginning, the players have had a love-hate relationship with the place. Sometimes it's hate-hate.

McIlroy is only one of the latest to say he does not like the course, that it doesn't suit his game, although last year he amended that to saying he hadn't learned how to play it yet.

Then he went out and missed the cut for the third time in as many appearances in the Players.

"They ruined a perfectly good swamp," J.C. Snead said when the Stadium Course became the permanent home of the Players Championship and hosted it for the first time in 1982.

Of course, Jerry Pate didn't feel that way after winning that first tournament played on the Stadium Course, taking a dive into the lake next to the 18th green along with Dye and then-commissioner Deane Beman, the early driving force behind the Players Championship and TPC Sawgrass.

While the Players might never be universally accepted as one of the Grand Slam events, it will undoubtedly continue to be a major topic of conversation.

COMING UP

PGA TOUR: The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Thursday through Sunday.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 1-7 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 2-7 p.m. EDT on NBC.

LAST YEAR: Matt Kuchar claimed the biggest victory of his PGA Tour career when he closed with a 2-under-par 70 to win by two strokes over Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Ben Curtis and Martin Laird of Scotland. Kuchar, who made the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship his fifth title earlier this year, was one stroke behind Kevin Na at the start of the final round in the so-called Fifth Major after posting scores of 68-68-69. He stumbled out of the chute with a bogey on No. 1 on Sunday, but he took the lead by carding three birdies in the next 11 holes, and Na fell back on his way to a 76. Kuchar was lining up a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole when he saw Fowler sink a 20-footer for birdie across the water at No. 17. Kuchar, who became the first American to claim the Players since Phil Mickelson in 2007, answered by sinking his birdie putt and survived a three-putt bogey on the 17th hole.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: 74th Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, May 23-26.

TV: Thursday and Friday, noon-3 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 3-6 p.m. EDT on NBC.

LAST YEAR: Roger Chapman of England built a nine-stroke lead early in the final round and held on to claim his first victory on the Champions Tour by two strokes over John Cook at Harbor Shores Golf Club in Benton Harbor, Mich. The 53-year-old Chapman, who had only three professional victories previously, added the U.S. Senior Open less than a month later. In the Senior PGA, he built a five-stroke lead after 54 holes with rounds of 68-67-64 before closing with a 1-over-par 72, carding bogeys on three of the last five holes. Kenny Perry posted a tournament-record 62 in the final round, but all it got him was a tie for ninth, five strokes behind Chapman.

LPGA TOUR: Mobile Bay LPGA Classic at the Crossings Course at Magnolia Grove in Mobile, Ala., May 16-19.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 6:30-8:30 p.m. EDT; Saturday and Sunday, 5-7 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Stacy Lewis held a five-stroke lead early on the final day, only to be caught by teenager Lexi Thompson. However, Lewis regained the lead with a birdie on the 16th green and claimed her third victory of the LPGA Tour with a two-putt par on the final hole to close out a 3-under-par 69. Thompson, who was 17 at the time, pushed Lewis all the way to the finish, closing with rounds of 66-65. Lewis, the only player in the field to record four scores in the 60s, hit her second shot at No. 15 into the water left of the green and carded her first bogey in 24 holes. That dropped her into a tie with Thompson, but Lewis, who has won five times since, bounced back with the birdie on the next hole after a brilliant chip shot, and she closed with two pars.
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