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Players Championship may never become 5th Major

The argument is the same every spring.

The Players Championship has a great golf course that the U.S. television audience knows as well as any. The field is considered the strongest and deepest of the year, one that is not bogged down by amateur hopefuls, club pros or Charles Coody. The TPC at Sawgrass delivers drama like few other stages in golf.

Clearly, it certainly has all the ingredients of a major championship.

Another nugget of evidence came Monday morning along A1A, the coastal road that leads to Sawgrass. A man stood off to the side of the road with a cardboard sign that read, "I NEED TICKETS."

Alas, no money was exchanged. No one even stopped. Come to think of it, there was nowhere near the traffic one finds on Washington Road in Augusta, Ga., or 17-mile Drive when the U.S. Open goes to Pebble Beach.

Other subtleties separate The Players Championship from the majors. At Sawgrass, players find a copy of the PGA Tour's annual report in their locker.

Not at the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA.

"You go to the majors," David Toms said Tuesday morning, "they don't want you to know what's going on."

Jeff Sluman was asked what he does at the U.S. Open that he doesn't at The Players Championship.

"Pray for rain," he replied.

Sluman is responsible for the defining statement on the status of The Players Championship as a major when he said three years ago, "When you go Denny's and order the Grand Slam breakfast, they don't give you five things, do they? They give you four."

The argument figures to pick up more steam next year when The Players Championship moves to the second week of May, which had less to do with agronomy and a divided TV audience than the PGA Tour's longtime desire for its showcase event to be a classified a major.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem won't publicly lobby for this to be a major, although the move to May was no accident. In his eyes, golf now has five prestigious events in consecutive months, starting with the Masters in April and ending with the PGA Championship in August.

Phil Mickelson, for one, thinks the Players is almost a fifth major.

"I don't think there's any magic in four majors," Mickelson said. "There are four tournaments that tend to stand out with history and challenge and strength of field and so forth. This is becoming one of them."

No argument there.

But what -- or who -- confers status on a major championship remains a mystery.

It's not as simple as the PGA Tour declaring it one. That's what happened on the Champions Tour, which has five majors, although no one takes the 50-and-older circuit seriously.

Majors have intangible qualities to them.

If former Justice Potter Stewart were asked to join this debate, he probably would have said something like, "I shall not today attempt to define a major, but I know it when I see it."

What keeps The Players Championship from being a major is the very organization that longs for it to be one.

The majors are run by four groups -- Augusta National, the USGA, the Royal & Ancient and the PGA of America. Each run one tournament a year with a full field of golf's best players. The Players Championship, on the other hand, is among 41 events run by the PGA Tour. Ultimately, it's a PGA Tour event in a prom dress.

Similarly, the U.S. Women's Open dwarfs anything else on the LPGA Tour, and not because of the prize money. It's the only tournament in which the LPGA has no control. It isn't always tougher, but it's different. The LPGA is in charge of the other U.S. majors, and it's hard to tell them apart from the Safeway International.

That doesn't make The Players Championship anything less than what it is.

"They can dress it up as much as they want, but it's a regular event with a big purse," Toms said when asked to compare this with the majors. "It's a great event. It's the best one we have."

The "we" would be the PGA Tour. And he's right -- it is the tour's best event. But golf is more than the PGA Tour. Likewise, the tour as a whole is just as valuable as the majors.

"It's a special week," Sluman said. "Will it ever be a major? That's up to the press and time. If you look at it objectively, it's the best field, the toughest in golf. They've got everything in place. It just needs history."

Finchem has done an admirable job reminding players that this is their tournament, and a number of players say they consider this to be a major. Beyond the man trying to get tickets on A1A, there is other evidence that this is a major week. Lucas Glover was among the dozen or so players who came to Sawgrass in the last two weeks for a practice round, and the course was unusually busy on a Monday.

And the fact this "fifth major" discussion has become a rite of spring speaks to the quality. No other tournament gets consideration as a fifth major.

Still, the more people talk about it, the more it seems like the PGA Tour is forcing the issue.

"If you have to sell it as a major, then it's not a major," Kevin Sutherland said. "It's still a great, great tournament."

Go ahead and call it the fifth major, as long as everyone understands that a grand slam scores only four runs. And if you're still confused, ask Sluman to take you to breakfast at Denny's.

March 22, 2006

 




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