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The Players At The Players Promise To Outclass No-Names

The streak ends here. For three consecutive weeks, the winner was someone who had never won a PGA Tour event. Forget about it. Not this week.

The very name tells you all you need to know: The Players Championship.

Tim Herron, Paul Goydos and Scott McCarron were stirring winners at the Honda, Bay Hill and Freeport-McDermott, respectively.

But consider the last five winners here. Lee Janzen, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Davis Love III and Steve Elkington. Consider that 15 of the 20 winners in the history of The Players Championship also won major championships in their careers.

That should tell you all you need to know about this event. Look at the field. All those named above, plus Nick Faldo, Corey Pavin, Colin Montgomerie, John Daly, Ernie Els, Ian Woosnam, Phil Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros.

About the only thing keeping this from being the fifth major is timing. It needs a little more time to pass to have enough history to be a major. Also, it comes just a smidgen too close to the Masters and too much in the midst of March Madness to get all the attention it deserves.

But make no mistake about how the players feel about this tournament.

“I consider this tournament a major,” said Janzen, the defending champion. “Everyone at the end of their career would love to say they won The Players Championship.”

It’s that pressure, in part, that makes it unlikely that one of 43 non-winners in the field of 144 will pick up the $540,000 first prize on Sunday.

“They see their fellow guys do it and they think, ‘Hey, I can do that,”’ Faldo said about how the non-winners giving each other confidence. “But maybe not here. Maybe this tournament is a little bit more pressure, a little bit more attention.”

Another factor that puts a premium on experience is the course. The best field assembled so far this year will play one of the toughest courses around, particularly if the wind whips off the Atlantic with the 30 mph gusts it’s known to have.

“This course takes some local knowledge,” Janzen said. “The winds, the holes - just about every hole here seems to be a crosswind and the wind blows pretty hard. This course really challenges.”

Of the 55 courses on the PGA Tour last year, only two played more difficult than The Stadium Course at TPC: Shinnecock Hills, site of the U.S. Open, and Southern Hills, site of the Tour Championship.

Four of the 18 holes on the Stadium Course were among the 50 toughest on tour. In last year’s tournament, the course played to a stroke average of 74.5.

All of that makes the back nine on Sunday at The Players Championship just plain fun to watch. A great field will fight a great course.

It’s a safe bet the winner will be decided on the last three holes, by a bold gamble that pays off or a blunder that gives up the lead.

Nos. 16, 17 and 18 all wind their way around water.

No. 18, a 444-yard par-4, was the third most difficult hole on tour last year. No. 16 is a 497-yard par-5 that begs the player to gamble going for the green in two, just like those two brilliant par-5s on the back nine at Augusta National.

Then there is No. 17, the 132-yard par-3 to an island green.

“It’s the only time anywhere you have a 9-iron or 8-iron in your hand and all you are trying to do is get the ball on land,” Janzen said.

That’s where the wheels came off for Love last year. He was 4 under par, a stroke behind Janzen, but bounced one into the water and made a double bogey.

“You’ve got to hit the right shots in the right places to win here,” Faldo said.

That’s why it will take somebody special, somebody who has won somewhere before.

“Norman probably has the strongest mind out there,” Janzen said. “He believes more than anybody that he is going to win, and guys who finish 125th probably don’t believe as strongly as he does. That is the difference.”

Pure talent can win a tournament like the Honda, Bay Hill or New Orleans. It takes a little something extra to beat a great field on a difficult course under a lot of scrutiny.

“I matured enough to know that I am going to make a few mistakes,” Janzen said about the process that made him a winner. “Just not to let that bother the next shot, which you have heard a million times, but …” and his voice trailed off as he articulated a simple lesson learned only from experience.

Wordcount: 788
Tags: feature, golf

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