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World's best gather for Players Championship

The Players' Championship, this week's PGA Tour event, is best known by golf fans around the world because of the infamous par-three 17th at the Tournament Players Club (TPC) at Sawgrass.

The world's most photographed hole, which features a small putting surface surrounded by forbidding black water, is a guarantor of either agony or ecstasy for the competitors.

Victories have been sealed at the treacherous island green while title hopes have drowned there.

"It's probably the one hole in golf that most people want to play, to see if they can do it," said 1992 and 2003 champion Davis Love III.

Former British and U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller, who now works as a television analyst for NBC, loves the drama at the 137-yard 17th.

"I wish they had a heart monitor and a blood-pressure machine there," he said.

Britain's Darren Clarke acknowledges the hole's five-star spectator rating.

"It's a great hole for the people to watch," he said. "Sometimes I'd love to be watching it myself."

For the players, however, the prestigious Players' Championship is simply the next best thing to the majors.

Long regarded as the game's 'fifth major', the PGA Tour event attracts the strongest field of the year, the biggest purse ($8 million) and is played on one of golf's toughest courses.

The Stadium Course at Sawgrass had countless detractors when it first staged the tournament in 1982, many of them describing the small, heavily contoured greens as absurdly difficult.

Eight-times PGA Tour winner J.C. Snead, nephew of golfing great Sam Snead, disliked the Florida layout so much he said designer Pete Dye had ruined a perfectly good swamp.

The par-72 Stadium Course has, however, been tweaked and refined over the years and is now rated highly by players and fans alike.

"I think it's a great design to let everybody compete, it doesn't take one player out of the mix," said U.S. Masters champion Phil Mickelson.

"It doesn't favour one style of game. I think that the longest hitters might have an advantage on some holes, and the short, straight hitters might have an advantage on other holes."

Three-times major winner Ernie Els agreed.

"This is our tournament," he said. "This is the Players' Championship and this is the way we want to see golf courses look like.

"It's a great list of champions, and most of the champions that have won here have won major championships. This tournament means a lot. It's got one hell of a field and it's a hell of a golf course."

Former world number one Tiger Woods, who won the title in 2001 after finishing second the year before, considers the Players' the hardest tournament of all to win.

"This is the best field we have assembled all year," he said. "It's a big week for all of us, and one that we're really excited about as players.

"You have to be precise here. When you're playing well on this golf course and hitting your irons well, it's amazing how easy it seems, because the ball seems to funnel into the holes.

"When you're playing poorly, every single shot repels, because you're missing the slope by maybe a yard or two, and that's all it takes. It's similar to Augusta in that nature."

Mickelson, like Els, has never won the tournament and would dearly love to add the Players' crown to his trophy cabinet.

"It's an incredible event," said the American left-hander. "We have all the top players in the world, and that's what makes this tournament so unique.

"We obviously have strong fields at the majors but, player-for-player, this is the best field we have all year, the biggest purse we have and one of the toughest tests of golf we have. It makes for really a great showcase for this game."

One factor that does not benefit the Players' Championship is its scheduling two weeks before the U.S. Masters, the first of the year's four majors. For some, this makes the Florida event a bit like a dress rehearsal for Augusta National.

Try telling that, though, to the likes of Woods, Mickelson and Els.


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