PONTE VEDRA BEACH — The Players Championship is unofficially called golf's fifth major. But lately that depends on who you ask. The top ranked player in the world, Lee Westwood, as well as No. 6 Rory McIlroy, have opted not to play the tournament this year.
Westwood is not playing because he is not a PGA Tour member and is limited to only 10 PGA events per year. He opted to go back to Europe after the Masters instead of staying in the U.S. for the three weeks leading up to The Players Championship. It marks only the third time since 1974 that the No. 1 player has not been in the field. Tiger Woods did not play in 2008, but that was due to injury.
This is also the fifth year the tournament has been played in May. It used to be played in March, but was moved back two months in order to put a big tournament between the Masters and the U.S. Open.
While The Players Championship has the largest purse on tour ($9.5 million) and one of the most recognizable holes in golf (the island 17th), has it lost some of its luster?.
"Certainly not having the number one player in the world weakens the field," said No. 3 ranked Luke Donald. "You miss a couple of the top ten players and it weakens the field. I know Lee has played here a few times and he doesn't feel it suits his game very well. But it is still an extremely strong event."
Graeme McDowell, the No. 5 ranked player in the world, knows The Players is more than just another tournament, but it's certainly not a major.
"I've heard it called the fifth major and you expect the world's best players to be here," No. 5 ranked Graeme McDowell said. "But it's only a title that it's been given. I completely understand that guys choose not to play it. The top players in the world play against each other many times in a season nowadays. An event with this prestige to not have the world's best players here is disappointing."
Adam Scott, who won the tournament in 2004 when it was in March, believes the course itself isn't as strong in May.
"In my opinion, I don't think they've got the setup quite right for the May event," Scott said. "With the different grass I'd like to see them set it up a little differently than they do. I think I'd like to see the rough cut down a little more, get the ball running through the runoff areas, into the fairways and trees, and we could do away with the thick rough."
Don't tell No. 4 ranked Phil Mickelson The Players has lost its prestige. March or May, Mickelson believes The Players Championship is like a major.
"It certainly is in my mind," Mickelson said. "Since I've been on Tour this is one of the tournaments that I would like to win the most right along with the majors. Everybody's got their own personal deal, but I disagree with their thought process."
Tiger Woods picked up a golf club for the first time in nearly a month on Monday. On Tuesday he played nine holes at TPC at Sawgrass in preparation for The Players Championship. He played another nine Wednesday morning. Woods injured his left knee and Achilles heel during the third round of the Masters and played through it during Sunday's final round. He finished tied for fourth. Woods withdrew from last week's Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte because of the injury.
Despite his lack of playing time, Woods still has one goal for this week.
"Same as always, try to win the event," he said.
Woods looked fit and ready to go after Tuesday's nine hole practice round with long-time friend Mark O'Meara. But looks have been deceiving for the past year and a half. Woods hasn't won since November of 2009, a stretch of 18 months. And history isn't on his side this week. While he won The Players Championship in 2001, he has finished in the top 10 only four times in 13 tries and withdrew from the final round last year with a neck injury.
Woods has fallen to No. 8 in the world rankings.
"I miss winning," Woods said. "That's how you get to be No. 1."
Woods held the No. 1 spot in the world for 623 weeks. Since turning pro in 1996, he has never gone this long without a win.
"I knew I would go through periods like this throughout my entire career," Woods said. "I went through some periods when there were some down times, but this one has lasted a little longer than I would expect."
O'Meara plays with Woods often. He played practice rounds with him at the Masters. O'Meara believes Woods is close to getting back to form.
"I think he's very close," O'Meara said. "It's been a long road back, but he's an unbelievable talent. You've got to take little steps, then you start jogging, then you start running and then you start sprinting. I think his play at Augusta on Sunday was evidence that he's taken a turn in the right direction."
Poor play and injury aside, Woods said he sees reason for optimism. He said the injury has set him back, but he thinks he can peak by the time the U.S. Open rolls around in June.
"Things are starting to piece together," Woods said. "It takes time. It's starting to get dialed in."
Criticize at your own risk
Bubba Watson said last week that he thinks Woods is headed in the wrong direction. "I think he's so mental right now with his swing. Just go out there and play golf," Watson said.
Even though Woods was far away from Charlotte, where Watson was playing in the Wells Fargo Championship, he heard Watson's comments. Woods does not like other players commenting on his game, and he said he'll get with Watson this week.
"That was interesting," Woods said with a wry smile about Watson's comments. "We'll talk."
Woods' swing coach, Sean Foley, went off on Watson during an Irish radio interview.
"He has the right to his own opinion but you probably shouldn't make comments about a guy who has won 69 more times than you and you are virtually the same age, you know what I mean?," Foley said.
Watson didn't back off his comments this week, but he said he'll straighten it out with Woods.
"I didn't say anything wrong," Watson said. "I just stated my opinion. I told his people that. His camp knows that. I just haven't talked to the boss yet."
Bubba likes tournament, not course
Watson is having the best season of his five year career. He has won twice and made nearly $3 million. Despite the success, Watson gives himself little chance this week.
"This golf course is too tough for me," Watson said. "It just doesn't look right to me. I haven't played it very well. But my mind is in the right spot right now and I feel great."
Watson's best finish at The Players Championship is a tie for 37th in 2009. In his other three attempts he has failed to make the cut. In 10 total rounds at The Players, Watson has only one round in the 60s. So what is his strategy for playing better? He's not going to play TPC at Sawgrass until he has to.
"I'm trying to not play it that much so I don't think about how tough it is," Watson said. "I'm not going to play a practice round. I'm just going to hit some balls. There's really no trick to it. I've just got to man up and figure out how to play it. I've got to stay focused and not worry about how the golf course looks and how it doesn't fit my eye.
"It's hard. I want easy. For my eye, when you put bunkers and hills out there, I get distracted easily."
Tim Clark was an improbable winner last year. If he pulls off a repeat it would be close to a miracle. Clark has been sidelined with a right elbow injury since January. He last played at the Masters, where he missed the cut. Prior to the Masters, Clark played two season opening events in Hawaii.
"I'm probably 70 or 80 percent right now," Clark said. "I do feel like I'm able to play and get through it. The strength is coming back, which is a good thing. It's more just a case of in the back of my mind I'm worried about just one shot setting me off again. That's the biggest hurdle."
Part of being the defending champion is getting to raise your country's flag in the circle of champions. Clark is from South Africa, but he requested a flag of Spain be raised in the circle this year to honor Seve Ballesteros.
"I think it's really fitting to have that there," Clark said. "Seve was a hero of mine growing up."
From no name to contender
Not many people heard of Charl Schwartzel prior to the Masters. But since his win at Augusta, Schwartzel is getting recognized more often. And he has to be considered a player to watch this week.
"It was definitely life changing," Schwartzel said of his Masters win. "I don't think I realized how many people actually watched it. I realized that when I got back home (to South Africa). Everywhere I went, shopping mall, fueling my car, people remembered the green jacket. The recognition is much bigger than you get at other events."