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Pro golfers enamored with the Players Championship at Sawgrass, the 'fifth major'

The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass has the look and feel of a major tournament. It boasts the strongest field of the PGA season, it has a robust $9.5 million purse, and it has the most recognizable hole in golf, the island par-3 17th. In fact, the tournament was moved from March to May in 2007 to get it out of the Masters' shadow and into a relatively down month on the calendar.

It is often referred to as the "fifth major," although Sergio Garcia did not shake the title of "best player not to win a major" when he won the TPC last year. Still, it is a prestigious championship with an array of past champions. There have been legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Nick Price and Lee Trevino. There also have been unknowns such Jodie Mudd, Craig Perks and Mark Hayes.

While not a major, TPC is a tournament the pros circle on their annual schedule.

"It was obviously the highest point in my career," said Garcia, 29. "It was something very, very special and something that I will always remember. This is definitely one of the championships that you always look forward to winning."

Around the course

The field of 145 has combined for 500 PGA Tour victories and includes every winner on the tour dating to the 2007 AT&T National, a total of 53 different players. The field also showcases 21 winners of 44 major championships, 10 past champions of TPC and 96 of the top 100 from the 2008 FedEx Cup list. Twenty-four of the top 25 players in the world ranking are in the field, with only No. 16 Lee Westwood missing. … Only four players in the field of 74 who made the cut finished under par at last year's tournament. … No player has repeated as champion since it started in 1974.

17th hole by the numbers

4 Feet, depth of water around the island green.

6 Holes-in-one during competitive rounds (Brad Fabel, Brian Claar, Fred Couples, Joey Sindelar, Paul Azinger and M.A. Jimenez).

10 Cameras used this week by NBC.

12 Score posted by Bob Tway in 2005.

66 Score posted by amateur Angelo Spagnolo in 1985.

146 Yards from the middle of the championship tee to the back of the green.

151 Aces on the hole by amateurs and professionals from 1980 to 2007, making it the most aced hole on the course.

3,912 Square footage of the green; course average is 4,500.

120,000 Average number of balls in the water based on 44,000 rounds played per year.

Tiger and Phil

Tiger Woods is the top-ranked player in the world but talk this week is how he has lost distance off the tee and wasn't able to close at the Masters and last week at Quail Hollow. Phil Mickelson is the second-ranked player in the world and beat Woods head-to-head in the final round of the Masters. Mickelson started quickly last week in Charlotte but faded to a tie for fifth.

As usual, they will get most of the attention in the first two rounds of the Players Championship. Mickelson won TPC in 2007, and Woods was the 2001 champion. Woods has already won once this year, but his main concern this week is being long enough to compete. "It's just I've been away from the game for a long time," said Woods, whose driving distance average is just more than 293 yards, down a yard from a year ago, when he was ranked 44th on the PGA Tour in distance. "And it's going to take a little bit of time before my body gets back to where I can hit the ball the same distances. I don't hit the ball the same distance with my irons or my driver. But it's coming. Each and every week, I'm getting a little better. And the body is starting to get a little more comfortable with everything. When you're away for that long, and I have a whole new leg, it's going to take a little time."

Mickelson has won twice this year, and his driving has been just fine. In fact, when he and Woods were paired together in the final round at the Masters, Mickelson was consistently longer than Woods. "I kept having to wait for him to hit, sure," Mickelson said, eliciting laughs from the media this week.

Five best bets not named Tiger or Phil

Kenny Perry: He should be extra motivated to erase the image in people's minds of losing the Masters. While this is not a major, it is close to it with a stellar field. And he played in the final group last year before finishing tied for 15th. He should be rested after taking last week off to serve as grand marshal at the Kentucky Derby.

Geoff Ogilvy: He has won twice this year and made the cut in all nine tournaments he has played. He is first in FedEx Cup points and second on the money list with $3,076,204 earned. He makes a ton of birdies and keeps it in play, so why wouldn't he challenge?

Brian Gay: The former Gator can drive it straight, he can scramble and he knows how to win. He won by 10 shots at the Verizon Heritage. Don't be surprised to see him near the leaderboard on the weekend.

Sergio Garcia: Last year's winner is trying to become the first to repeat. He is not having the best year, but he wasn't having a great season heading into last year's Players Championship. He was second in 2007, so he clearly likes the course and knows he can win.

Long shot, Jeff Klauk: Sure, he is a rookie and nonwinner on tour, but his father, Fred, was the superintendent at TPC Sawgrass. Klauk knows every inch of the course. Nobody in the field has a bigger advantage before the first round, but he still has to play it well.

Notable nonqualifiers

Mark Calcavecchia: The former Gator has played in every TPC since 1987, but he is an alternate this year. He missed the cut in his past two tournaments at TPC Sawgrass and hasn't won an official PGA event since the 2007 PODS Championship in Palm Harbor.

Chris DiMarco: Another Gator who won't be in the field. He has been on the decline since 2007. He has only two top-10 finishes in the past two-plus years and is 241st in the official world rankings.

Rich Beem: The 2002 PGA Championship winner hasn't won since, although he is having a decent season. He was in contention at the Transitions Championship before finishing tied for 12th. But he will have a seat on the couch this week.

John Huston: The 48-year-old Palm Harbor resident jump-started his career by earning his tour card at PGA Qualifying School. But he hasn't made much of a dent this season. His best finish is a tie for 19th at the Bob Hope Classic, and he is 160th on the money list with $135,476 earned. That equals a week off.

David Duval: Hard to believe he won this tournament in 1999. After his 2001 British Open win, he has disappeared. He has missed six straight cuts this season and his best finish is a tie 55th. Ouch.

Locals in the tournament

Woody Austin (Chamberlain High)

Greg Kraft (Clearwater)

Ryuji Imada (Tampa)

Tim Petrovic (Dade City)

Michael Bradley (Valrico)

They said it

"Sometimes outside the U.S., people don't have an appreciation for how big some of the tournaments are, but I think they have a real appreciation for how big the Players is. Worldwide I think it's the biggest tournament that isn't a major." — Australian Geoff Ogilvy

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Rodney Page can be reached at page@sptimes.com, golf@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810

FAST FACTS

Players Championship

When/where/TV: Today-Sunday; Ponte Vedra Beach; 1 p.m., Golf

Course: TPC Sawgrass, Stadium Course (par 72, 7,220 yards)

Weather today: 92 degrees with a 30 percent chance of showers

FAST FACTS

Purse: $9.5 million (winner's share is $1.71 million)

Defending champion: Sergio Garcia makes par on the first playoff hole, the 17th, to defeat Paul Goydos.

17th hole: Live streaming video is available from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and Friday, 11:45 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at pgatour.com.

Pro golfers enamored with the Players Championship at Sawgrass, the 'fifth major' 05/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 7:34am]

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