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A MAJOR? MAYBE. BIG? DEFINITELY

Even without the world No. 1, The Players Championship has prestige.

The Players Championship is unofficially called golf's fifth major. But lately, that depends on whom you ask.

The top-ranked player in the world, Lee Westwood, as well as No. 6 Rory McIlroyopted not to play this year. (It marks the third time since 1974 the No. 1 player has not been in the field.)

Neither is a member of the PGA Tour and, thus, are limited to 10 tour events per year (including the four majors). Westwood went back to Europe after the Masters instead of staying in the United States for the three weeks leading up to the event. McIlroy previously said he doesn't like the course and wanted to work on his game.

This also is the fifth year TPC has been played in May. It used to be played in March but was moved in order to put a big event between the Masters and U.S. Open.

While TPC has the largest purse on the tour ($9.5 million) and one of the most recognizable holes in golf (the island 17th), has it lost some luster?

"Certainly not having the No. 1 player in the world weakens the field," No. 3 Luke Donald said. "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."

No. 5 Graeme McDowellknows TPC is more than just another tournament but said 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," he 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. But 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 isn't as strong in May.

"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 Phil Mickelson TPC has lost its prestige. March or May, Mickelson believes it is like a major.

"This is one of the tournaments that I would like to win the most right along with the majors," he said.

"Everybody's got their own personal deal, but I disagree with their thought process."

* * *

Tiger returns

Tiger Woods picked up a club for the first time in nearly a month on Monday. Tuesday, he played nine holes at Sawgrass in preparation for TPC, and he played another nine Wednesday. Woods injured his left knee and left Achilles' heel during the third round of the Masters and missed last week's Wells Fargo Championship.

Despite his lack of playing time, Woods still has one goal.

"Same as always, try to win," he said.

Woods looked fit and ready to go after Tuesday's nine-hole round with longtime friend Mark O'Meara. But looks have been deceiving for the past year and a half. Woods hasn't won since November 2009, a stretch of 18 months.

And history isn't on his side. While he won TPC in 2001, he has finished among the top 10 only four times in 13 tries and withdrew from the final round last year with a neck injury.

"I miss winning," said Woods, who has fallen to No. 8 in the world rankings. "That's how you get to be No. 1."

Woods held the No. 1 spot 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, includingpractice rounds at the Masters. O'Meara believes Woods, who shot 5-under in the final round of the Masters, is close to getting back to form.

"It's been a long road back, but he's an unbelievable talent," O'Meara said. "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 believes 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 he believes Tiger Woods is headed in the wrong direction.

"I think he's so mental right now with his swing," he said. "Just go out there and play golf."

Even though Woods was far from Charlotte, N.C., where Watson made the comment at the Wells Fargo Championship, he heard it. 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 aradio interview.

"He has the right to his own opinion," Foley said. "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?"

Watson didn't back off his comments this week but 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."

* * *

Fearing the course

Bubba Watson is having the best season of his five-year career. He has won two tournaments and made nearly $3 million.

Despite the success, Watson gives himself little chance to win 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 TPC is a tie for 37th in 2009. In his other three attempts, he missed the cut. In 10 total rounds at TPC, Watson has only one in the 60s. So what is his strategy for playing better?

"I'm trying to not play (the course) 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."

* * *

Defending champ

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 that, Clark played in January's two 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.It's more just a case of in the back of my mind I'm worried about just one shot setting me off again."

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 to honor Seve Ballesteros, who died Saturday of a brain tumor.

"I think it's really fitting to have that there," Clark said. "Seve was a hero of mine growing up."

* * *

Golf on TV

European Tour: Iberdrola Open, Pula GC, Mallorca, Spain

TV: Today-Friday, 9-11 a.m., Golf Channel; Saturday-Sunday, 8-11:30 a.m., Golf Channel

* * *

From no-name to contender

Not many people had 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."

* * *

FAST AFCTS

The Players Championship

When/where: Today to Sunday; TPC at Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach

Purse: $9.5 million (winner receives $1.71 million)

TV: Today and Friday, 1-7 p.m., Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 2-7 p.m., Ch. 8.

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