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Players a Major in everything but name

The Players Championship has all the trappings of a major. The trick is getting everyone to consider it one.

"When you go to Denny's and order the Grand Slam breakfast, they don't give you five things, do they?" Jeff Sluman said. "They give you four."

In golf, the Grand Slam consists of only four majors, which makes the PGA Tour feel like a side order of grits.

The most powerful organization in golf doesn't have a major, only a tournament that looks like one.

The Players Championship is played on one of the toughest courses, the TPC at Sawgrass, with an island-green 17th hole that might be the most infamous in golf.

The field is perennially the strongest and deepest of the year.

Fluke winners? Not here. Only three players in its 29-year history have not won a major.

And for a tournament with so little history -- all but nine PGA Tour events have been around longer -- The Players Championship is rich with the kind of shots that are easily etched in golf lore.

Tiger Woods' victory in 2001 is remembered for his 60-foot birdie putt on the island green that broke three directions. Greg Norman was 24 under par in 1994 when he made only one bogey all week.

Augusta National has the Masters.

The U.S. Golf Association has the U.S. Open.

The Royal & Ancient offers the British Open, golf's oldest championship.

The PGA Championship belongs to an organization of club pros, the PGA of America.

And the PGA Tour has ...

"The highest tournament in the world," Woods said, "next to the majors."

That was never more evident than when Ernie Els decided to withdraw Tuesday because he injured his right wrist two weeks ago hitting a punching bag.

No doubt the Big Easy is hurt. He couldn't make a good pass at the ball last weekend at Bay Hill, where he closed with rounds of 72-77.

Still, at a major championship, Els would have waited until his tee time Thursday, or maybe even the first nine holes, before calling it quits.

Woods delivered an even stronger message about the status of The Players Championship when asked if he prepared for it like a major.

"No, I don't," he said. "I play the week before, which is Bay Hill, and generally I don't play the week before a major."

When he won The Players Championship two years ago, Woods spent time on the practice range working on shots that would come handy at the Masters. He holed an eagle chip on No. 2 in the final round, and said it reminded him of a shot he once had at Augusta.

The Players Championship will never be mistaken for the John Deere Classic. It offers the biggest purse in golf, $6.5 million this year, and the players consider it their tournament, which is how it got its name.

"It's getting more and more like a major," Brad Faxon said. "I don't think you can just put a label on it as a major."

The PGA Tour is doing its best.

It changed its criteria for the World Golf Hall of Fame ballot to state that a player must have 10 victories, two of them in either the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship -- or The Players Championship.

Fred Couples suddenly went from one major to three.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem decides what the majors are for the 50-and-over circuit, and he recently decided the Senior British Open would be the fifth major. Anyone who has won any of the four majors -- or The Players Championship -- is eligible.

The LPGA Tour also designates its majors. There have been seven in the history of women's golf, although never more than four at a time.

Senior and women's golf can do that because not as many people care.

Ask Phil Mickelson which major he would like to win the most, and he always says the next one. Greg Norman would pick the Masters. Els fulfilled a lifelong dream when he captured the British Open.

The Players Championship is not on anyone's list until he is sitting next to the crystal trophy and posing with an oversized check with seven digits.

The winner would trade it in a heartbeat for a green jacket or a silver claret jug.

Is this a major?

"It's very close," Darren Clarke said between puffs on his cigar.

There isn't a single player among the 144 in the field at Sawgrass who wouldn't feel that winning The Players Championship wasn't a major accomplishment. But ask any of them to pick between the Players and the PGA Championship, and it's no contest.

"The PGA, every time," Padraig Harrington said. "It's really not even a question. I'm not saying this might not be harder to win. But there are four majors, and there is this one."

For now, that might have to be good enough.


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