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Players Championship still "5th Major?"
May 5, 2010

Jeff Sluman is off the hook this week.

For the last seven years, any discussion about The Players Championship being the fifth major usually included Sluman’s observation that “When you go to Denny’s and order the Grand Slam breakfast, they don’t give you five things, do they?”

Lee Westwood of England dropped this event down a few more rungs with an opinion that spoke more of his background and tour membership than what he thinks of a tournament that has all the trapping of a major.

“I think it depends on whether you’re a PGA Tour member or not,” Westwood said last week. “I think The Players probably used to be regarded as the fifth major, and it felt that way back in the late ’90s. But since the invention of the World Golf Championships, I think it’s actually stepped back from that. They have to go in now before The Players Championship.

“So what is it, eighth on the list now?”

It was a comment that nearly sent the PGA Tour brass into cardiac arrest.

The Tour is proud of its tournament, and rightly so. The Players Championship offers the biggest purse in professional golf at $9.5 million, with the strongest and deepest field in the world, on a course that is as entertaining as anywhere in the world.

“It’s one that everybody wants to win, including me,” Westwood said.

But as golf becomes more global and boundaries become erased, not every player looks at every tournament the same way. Westwood is not a PGA Tour member. The Players Championship, as its name suggests, is the signature event on the PGA Tour.

Miguel Angel Jimenez chose not to play this year. He’s from Spain, a longtime member of the European Tour. Ryo Ishikawa, who on Sunday became the first player on a major tour to shoot 58, also declined. He’s from Japan and made a commitment to play at home.

It’s hard to imagine the World Golf Championships having more cache than The Players Championship, and not just because most of the world events are held in America. They have small fields and no cuts. The prize money is “only” $8.5 million. Two of them were regular PGA Tour events at one point.

But for some Europeans, Asians and Africans who do not belong to the PGA Tour, The Players is seen as a superb event, and a rich one at that. With the World Golf Championships, equal on every tour, they can take some ownership.

So which is bigger?

“I haven’t won either,” Padraig Harrington said. “When I win one or the other, I’ll tell you how good it is. Players will make that decision absolutely and totally on a selfish basis.”

Harrington suggested a talk with Henrik Stenson. He won a World Golf Championship in his first start as a PGA Tour member. He won The Players Championship last year when he was not a PGA Tour member.

Chalk up one for The Players Championship.

“I think this is bigger in my mind than the WGC win I had in ’07,” Stenson said. “I guess you can always debate whether it’s the WGCs or this one, back and forth. I’m lucky enough to have won both, so I can say whatever I want without being biased, right?”

Tiger Woods has won both—The Players in 2001, the WGCs just about any time he tees it up—16 world titles. The Players Stadium Course is not his favorite. He has finished out of the top 20 five times, making this his toughest tournament to conquer.

“I think this event is much bigger,” he said. “The field is so much deeper. You don’t really get that in all the World Golf Championships. And I think it’s played on a much more difficult course.”

Most of the players at Sawgrass this week would pick The Players.

That doesn’t make Westwood wrong. It’s all about having a different perspective depending on the passport.

“If this is your tour, it’s the most special tournament of the year outside a major,” Geoff Ogilvy of Australia said. “If it’s not, it surely isn’t. It’s like the BMW PGA (at Wentworth). They would all rather win that than The Players Championship. Prestige-wise, in their minds, it’s their special tournament.”

Ogilvy began his career in Europe and until he came to the PGA Tour, “I had no idea how big The Players Championship is.”

So it would be the next tournament he would want to win outside of a major? Not necessarily.

“It’s the Australian Open for me,” Ogilvy said.

The Australian Open, the fourth-oldest national championship in the world, used to be highly regarded before a few generations ago. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player are on the roll call of champions. It will always be big for an Aussie.

But there is a practical side to Ogilvy, too.

“For my career, right now, I’d like to win The Players Championship,” he said. “When I’m 50, if I haven’t won an Aussie Open, I would swap a TPC for the Aussie Open. The Players does so much for your career. But the Australian Open for an Australian, it’s huge.”

Stenson is still reeling from his runner-up finish in the 2005 Scandinavian Masters, a chance to win in his native Sweden. Perhaps the most devastating loss in Mike Weir’s career came at the 2004 Canadian Open in a playoff to Vijay Singh, a tournament that felt like a major to him and sounded like one, too.

The Players Championship is good enough so that it doesn’t need to be rated by anyone.

“It’s clearly in the top two or three fields we play,” Ogilvy said. “It’s on a strong golf course. Good players win it.”

This week, that’s all that matters.

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