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At the TPC, it's simply the best

The PGA Tour season has been progressing for some three months now, but for the first time, all of the top names are together at the same place in one tournament.

Tiger Woods finally will tee it up with Greg Norman, Fred Couples is in the same field as Nick Price.

The Players Championship begins this morning at the TPC-Sawgrass Stadium Course, and for what is believed to be the first time ever, each of the top 50 players from the World Rankings is entered.

"It shows you what the tournament means and how important it has become," Nick Faldo said. "I think that is what everybody wants. Every player wants to have the best fields possible. It is a good indication. If you have won, then you have beaten everybody fair and square. That is what we try for every week."

Only last year's PGA Championship and the 1993 British Open attracted more of the top 100 in the World Rankings. The Players Championship has 73 of the top 100.

"Obviously, it is a pretty tough tournament," said Woods, who is playing the Stadium Course for the first time in competition since his 1994 U.S. Amateur victory here.

"It is going to be a good measuring device to see how well you are playing because you are playing against the best."

BEAR FOR PRESIDENTS: Jack Nicklaus was named captain of the 1998 U.S. Presidents Cup team, which for the first time will take on an International team of players outside of the United States. The biennial matches _ patterned after the Ryder Cup but without European players _ are scheduled for Dec.

11-13 at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia.

When PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem asked Nicklaus to be captain, the Hall of Famer didn't need much time. "About 30 seconds," he said. "Golf has been my game. Everything that has happened to me has been in the game of golf.

"When you have an honor bestowed upon you to be captain of a team such as this, it is not a decision. You go do it, and you try to do it to the best of your ability."

MEDIA FRENZY: Norman often finds himself in the spotlight, but he hadn't seen anything like it when President Clinton was injured falling down stairs at his house on March 14. Clinton was supposed to play golf with Norman in a member-guest tournament at the Medalist Club.

"It was terrible. It was ridiculous," Norman said of the chaos that surrounded his Hobe Sound home. "There were people hiding in the bushes. They got this one photograph how the hell they ever got this photograph I will never know. They must have been camped out there in camouflage to do that."

Norman refused all interview requests associated with Clinton's accident and issued only a statement at the time. "There were dozens (of requests)," he said. "The morning talk shows, Larry King, all those people wanted to get my idea or view of what happened."

JUST WOOD, PLEASE: Davis Love III remains one of the few players on the PGA Tour to forego the way of high technology and use some sort of metal driver. Although he has experimented, Love still prefers the persimmon driver he first picked up in 1985 out of a friend's garage.

"I just figure, why bother changing?" Love said. "I've been doing great with mine. It's been there for me before. And I figure that if you combine distance and accuracy, I'm not really losing anything."

With a metal driver, Love figures he might hit the ball a little better but might lose his ability to work the ball from left to right and right to left.

"I'm saying that now, when I'm 32," Love said. "Maybe when I'm 40 I'll be swinging some 46-inch, big-headed driver, trying to keep up with Tiger Woods. He'll still be a kid."

AROUND GOLF: Although Phil Mickelson, 26, is the youngest player since Nicklaus to notch 10 PGA Tour victories, he is just the fourth youngest overall. Horton Smith was the youngest to reach the 10-win mark, doing so in 1929 at age 21. Nicklaus was 24 and Gene Sarazen 25. The purse for the TPC is $3.5-million, with $630,000 going to the winner. But it is not the highest on the PGA Tour. The season-ending Tour Championship pays $4-million. The winner receives in excess of $700,000.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.