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The Players Deserves Better Play

Ron Sirak Associated Press

The Players Championship is the next best thing to a major. The field is as good as it gets. The money is better. The event always produces a quality winner.

If it just didn’t get lost amid Final Four frenzy, the opening of baseball season and preparations for the Masters, it would get the attention it deserves.

Maybe the PGA Tour should move it to May. Maybe that would give it a chance to continue to develop into the fifth major championship.

Forget for a moment the NCAA basketball tournament and baseball. Even without them, there would still be the huge distraction of the Masters hanging over the The Players Championship.

Listening to the best players talk, those for whom money and merely mortal tournaments have become sidelines, it was clear their minds were two weeks away in Augusta.

It is an eerie coincidence that Greg Norman and Nick Faldo - two players who at this stage in their careers are very much in the Jack Nicklaus mode of concentrating on winning majors - missed the cut.

“This is the next best tournament we play in,” Norman said about The Players Championship before packing his bags early and heading back home to Hobe Sound, Fla.

He was comparing it to the majors, of course, and he had a specific suggestion.

“I would like to see this tournament in May,” Norman said. “Then we would have one big one every month - April, May, June, July and August.”

That would be the Masters, The Players Championship, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship.

Almost as if anticipating his failure to make it to weekend play on the TPC Stadium Course at Sawgrass, Faldo said: “Whatever happens this week, I’m quite happy with my preparation for Augusta.”

Even Ernie Els, who was in contention going into the final round, finished play one day and said: “The Big One is in two weeks’ time.”

The PGA Tour, which this year raised the total purse for The Players Championship to $3.5 million and first prize to a staggering $630,000, is well aware of the situation.

“We have been looking at May for a couple of years,” commissioner Tim Finchem said Sunday morning as he sipped a cup of tea and cast worried eyes toward the threatening clouds gathering over the final-round field.

As Finchem sees it, there are two problems with moving The Players Championship - television and the condition of the course.

“It is unlikely NBC can accommodate it in May,” Finchem said, referring to the fact that the network is busy with the NBA playoffs then.

The PGA Tour could switch the tournament to CBS or ABC, but that means the earliest it could be moved would be 1999 since the TV contracts are set through 1998.

The other problem has no expiration date. The Stadium Course was in magnificent shape for this tournament. It played a little soft because of the daily rain, but the greens and fairways were immaculate.

Finchem is concerned the course would not be as lush in May.

“The heat comes and the bent grass goes and it can go very quickly,” he said. “May is a transition month for grasses. Can we get it in shape for the championship? I don’t know.”

Finchem, however, has made one thing clear in his short tenure as commissioner: He is an aggressive promoter of the PGA Tour and will do everything he can to bring the sport more attention and its players more money.

You get the sense that if moving the tournament will help do that, he’ll figure out a way.

“We have looked at the first or second week in May,” he said in a slow thoughtful way that made you think he was mulling it over again, even as he spoke the words. “It would be a while until we make a decision. There are some definite positives to a May date.”

The Players Championship would look pretty good sitting right there in May between the Masters and the U.S. Open. It might have the added effect of getting big-name foreign players to come to the United States a couple of weeks before the Masters and stay right through the U.S. Open.

As it is now, Colin Montgomerie, for example, will play The Players Championship, Atlanta, the Masters and Hilton Head then go back to Europe until the U.S. Open.

With winners like Fred Couples, Norman, Nick Price, Tom Kite and Jack Nicklaus, The Players Championship has established itself as an event of the highest quality.

“We feel this tournament can stand on its own whenever it is,” Finchem said. “Top players will come whenever it is.” Then he looked again at the slate-gray storm clouds and said, “We’re going to play it any day when it is dry.”

The weather is something not even Finchem can control. But you get the feeling that if the best thing for golf is to move the Players Championship to May, he’ll figure a way to do it.

Wordcount: 845
Tags: column, golf

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