Navel-gazing has become the most popular extracurricular activity in anticipation of the 2011 Players Championship at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, surpassing the old standby of predicting how many balls will end up in the drink at 17. Was the tournament better in March than it is in May? Was the course better with overseeded rye than it is with Bermuda? It is still the fifth major? Or, as agent Chubby Chandler said, is it only the 10th biggest event?
No. 1 Lee Westwood is skipping this week's Players because of a beef with the PGA Tour, as is No. 6 Rory McIlroy, who shares the same agent, Chandler. What's been forgotten is that Westwood and McIlroy have never won and rarely even contended here. Westwood has just three top-10 finishes in nine starts, while McIlroy has two missed cuts in two attempts. Asked Tuesday how their absence might impact the field this week, Phil Mickelson said flatly, "I don't think it does."
Indeed, despite all the second-guessing and hand-wringing this iteration of the Players promises to be just as compelling as any, for all the usual reasons plus a few more besides.
As expected, the course is major-championship hard, but the degree of difficulty may be ramped up even more this week, with thicker rough and temperatures in the 90s baking out the greens.
"The course looks terrific, and it looks very difficult," Mickelson said. "I played nine holes [Monday] night, and it was extremely firm greens, and the rough is longer than it has been and [it will be] difficult to advance it and certainly difficult to get it on the green."
Nearly every square inch of the course is intimidating, and even the winners end up frazzled. Henrik Stenson (2009), Sergio Garcia ('08) and Craig Perks ('02) are among those who have hoisted the crystal at Sawgrass only to later watch their games shatter into a million pieces.
The course plays no favorites. Long-hitting Mickelson ('07) and Woods ('01) have each won the Players once, as have banjo-hitting Fred Funk ('05) and Tim Clark (2010). Even former champions often miss the cut. The Stadium Course features two of the most arresting holes in the game in 17 and 18 — or three if you count 16. Like the earth itself, they are more water than land.
"The guy who wins here on Sunday afternoon will probably have played one of the toughest finishes in world golf, perhaps," said Graeme McDowell. "Dramatic, anyway. You can certainly birdie the last three holes at TPC, but you can always make a mess of them as well."
It's a placement course, which favors neither long nor short but accurate players. Players who hit fairways and greens do well; players who don't get the weekend off. "I seem to hit a lot of 3-woods," said 2004 champion Adam Scott, who is coming off a tie for second at the Masters and is a trendy pre-tournament pick to win this week.
Tour driving-distance leader Bubba Watson has missed the cut in three of four Sawgrass starts. "I've just got to man up and figure out how to play it," said Watson. "I've got to maybe take it easier off the tees, try to hit the fairways more, and then always just got to putt good."
Three players would take over Westwood's No. 1 ranking with a win this week: Mickelson, Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer. Of the three only Germany's Kaymer has ever held the top spot.
"My short game has been sharp," Mickelson said. "My driving has been much better, I feel, and I'm excited about this week. I feel like I'm driving the ball straighter than I ever have, and I'm excited to put that into play. My mindset changes after Augusta. After Augusta, it's not distance anymore, it's got to get the ball in the fairway. It'll be interesting to see if I'm able to do that this week — if I am able to put the ball in play I should have a very good week because I'll be able to attack a lot of the greens, the pins, and play for some birdies."
Tiger Woods will make his first start since the Masters, and his first since he reinjured his left knee and Achilles while hitting a shot from under a tree at Augusta National. He has not won in 18 months, and many no longer bother to politely whisper their doubts about his game. Watson, who used to play practice rounds with Woods, has said the former No. 1 is "going the wrong way."
Even Woods sounds frustrated. "I've gone through some periods like this in my career," he said Tuesday. "There were some down times but this one has lasted longer than I would like. You just keep progressing, playing through it, and I'm going to let it happen."
Rarely, it seems, has a Players been stocked with more possible winners. Donald has six top-10s, including a flashy win at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, in seven starts on Tour this year. Matteo Manassero, 18 and experiencing his first Players, is 11th in driving accuracy in Europe. Brandt Snedeker won last month in Hilton Head, and Harbour Town and TPC Sawgrass feature similar Bermuda grass.
A quick glance at the four marquee threesomes, which comprise the top 12 players in FedEx Cup points, serves as a reminder of the spectacular depth on Tour in the post-Tiger era. Matt Kuchar is tied for 17th in driving accuracy and has finished T13 and T14 in his last two Players starts. Rory Sabbatini, coming off a final-round 65 and third-place finish at the Wells Fargo Championship last weekend, may be the hottest player in the game. Or would that designation go to Jonathan Byrd, who lost in sudden-death, or to the man who beat him, the resurgent Lucas (Fear the Beard) Glover?
Charl Schwartzel has done almost as much hunting as golfing since winning the Masters, but should be equally rested and confident. Sergio Garcia is starting to find his form. Jason Day is as formidable as ever after his T2 at Augusta. Ben Crane hasn't finished worse than T6 in the last three years at the Stadium Course. Kevin Na, he of the 16 at the Texas Open a few weeks ago, tied for third at the 2009 Players and is coming off a fifth-place finish at the Wells Fargo.
Of the 145 men in the field, Woods, with all his problems, looks like one of the least likely candidates to win. "The putting is not very good, quite frankly," he said Tuesday, explaining that with all the time he's spent practicing his full swing, he's neglected his short game. This is where he failed to even finish the tournament a year ago, succumbing to a bulging disc in his neck. He is (still) all too human, limping and otherwise diminished, and the rest of the Tour is locked in a mad rush to the front of the line.