No Tiger Woods? No problem for us players.
Sure, next week's Players is the first significant (not the same as major) championship in a long time without Tiger, but we're already over it. We're not going to give him a second thought except when the Tiger-obsessed media grill us about him, which I expect to happen endlessly from Monday through Wednesday.
But once the tournament begins, nobody will even mention his name, which is going to be a big problem for the folks at Golf Channel. Without their franchise player, I don't know what they're going to talk about.
I admit I was as surprised as anyone that Tiger had knee surgery right after the Masters. The big question is how the injury is tied to his swing. As hard as he swings, there's a lot of resistance on that left knee. I saw a picture of Tiger hitting that helicopter, hold-on cut shot out of the pine straw on 13 on Masters Sunday, spinning out on his left leg, and the knee didn't seem to bother him then.
The Players is the tournament that, next to any of the majors, I always want to win because of the perks (five-year exemption) and the purse ($9 million, with $1.7 million to the winner). Plus, it's the best field of the year by a mile. If you're looking to move up in the World Ranking, the Players is the week to try to do it.
Most of the changes they've made to the Stadium course are fantastic, and playing in May instead of March is a big improvement because the weather is better. The gigantic new clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass is gorgeous, but for $100 million, or whatever the Tour spent on it, it should be.
My only complaint is with the greens. No major championship is held on bermuda greens, so if we want the Players to be the fifth major, why are we playing on bermuda? I don't think the greens will ever be as good as when they were overseeded bermuda. The real reason they made the change wasn't to make the greens better for the Players, it was to make them better year-round. When you're charging the public close to $400 a round, you have to have decent greens. Before, the greens were good for only about two months a year the weeks before, during and after the tournament.
Personally, I don't think bermuda is as true a surface as an overseeded bermuda or bentgrass or even poa annua that's cut down and rolled. From a player's standpoint, the greens take away from the championship a little bit.
• With Tiger out of the picture and that's the last time I'll mention him Jim Furyk is my pick to win. He usually plays well at Sawgrass, and his game has come around at last.
He finally went back to the style of putter he made all his money with, a face-balanced mallet. That club fits his stroke. He's always been a square-to-square putter, but for some reason tried a heel-shafted putter like Phil Mickelson's, which is the opposite of what Furyk's stroke is about. I wasn't surprised that Jim struggled. Now he's back to the mallet, at home he has a house nearby and threatening to win.
• A lot of guys can chase it onto three of the par-5 holes, so I think a solid putter and iron player, like Scott Verplank, has a good chance of winning. You have to work the ball into a lot of fairways, so length isn't much of an advantage. Sawgrass is a Pete Dye course and not unlike Harbour Town it's narrow in spots, and you have to keep your ball in play. I think I just described Verplank's game.
• I'd like to say something about our Masters champion, Trevor Immelman, but to be honest, I don't know much about his game. I haven't even had a chance to watch the Masters replay and see how he won. I never thought he was a great putter, because Ernie Els went off on him for using a belly putter a few years ago. Els thought that long putters should be banned.
• Two other guys to watch are Boo Weekley and the Cinderella kid of the Masters, Brandt Snedeker. Boo hits it as well as anyone on Tour. I watched him play the back nine one day at Harbour Town, and he never missed a shot. Jacksonville has as many rednecks as any other part of Florida, so he'll feel right at home.
When he putts well, Boo is tough to beat. Snedeker is a refreshing personality. I like the simplicity of his game and how once he decides on a shot, he steps up and hits it. He reminds me of Lanny Wadkins. He does everything fast. I think he'll play well at Sawgrass.
• You still have to be aware of the Fijian, Vijay Singh. He spends dawn to dusk at the Stadium course, pretty much single-handedly tearing up the practice range, and his iron game is pretty good.
Here's something you rarely say about Vijay: He's going to be well-rested. He didn't play Hilton Head or the Nelson, which I can't believe. As good as he hits it, he's always going to have a chance at Sawgrass, especially since the greens don't have a ton of undulation. On the other hand, the Stadium course is not a bomber's paradise, which may explain why Vijay hasn't won the Players, although he has come in second and third and has had four other top 15 finishes.
• Phil Mickelson is probably in the worst putting slump of his career. If you watched him at the Masters, you saw that he wasn't even hitting the hole from five or six feet. And since you know he charted all those greens, he wasn't misreading the putts.
He also double-crossed himself a lot, hitting hooks when he was trying to hit cut shots. Maybe Phil and Butch Harmon are working on something in his swing and don't quite have it down yet. It surprised me that Phil won here last year because nothing about the course seems to suit his game. That means he either enjoyed a great week on the greens or that Tiger played horribly.
• One last thing about Ponte Vedra Beach. There may not be a whole lot going on socially next week, but even if there is, most of the players won't know. A lot of guys treat this like a major, so nobody's out partying at Hooters well, except maybe one guy.
There's a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse right outside the entrance to the course that's pretty popular with the players, but the hottest spot in town is the clubhouse. Every night the Tour provides a terrific spread for players and families. The food is phenomenal: steaks, fish, chops, whatever you want, and it's free. It's a great perk; you don't have to go out and fight for a table somewhere. They even have clowns and balloons and stuff for your kids. It's a heck of a week for families. If majors were based on food, the Players would be No. 1. This is our event, and I'm proud to say that it's first-class all the way around.