The Players Championship
The Players Championship
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It's no major, but The Players Championship comes close

Justin Leonard has won an Open. He has also won The Players Championship.

Like most players on tour, he's not about to lump the Players in with one of golf's most time-honored tournaments.

"There's no reason to compare apples to oranges," Leonard said. ``But this is one hell of an orange."

The Players tournament, which began today with Leonard trying to defend his title, has provided its own special moments over a shorter period. And it seems only the most seasoned players have been able to muster a victory here recently.

Leonard, Fred Couples, Steve Elkington and Greg Norman are among those to win the tournament at the 6,896-yard Stadium Course at Sawgrass this decade.

As much as the course, with its signature 17th par-3 island hole, it is the field, the timing and the stakes that set this tournament apart.

"I think I probably put it right where everyone else does, as the fifth most important tournament you want to win," said the tour's hottest player, David Duval, who grew up just a long iron away in Jacksonville.

"It is getting closer and closer to being thought of as a major, but isn't quite there. But I think certainly as the players see it, it is awful close in their eyes."

Forty-nine of the top 50 players in the World Golf Rankings thought so. Only 14th-ranked Jumbo Ozaki chose to skip it.

At stake is a $900,000 first prize and $5 million in total prize money, tying this with The Tour Championship in October as the richest regular tournament on tour, majors included.

A victory also brings with it a five-year tour exemption, a nice gesture, but one few of these players would need.

There's also the idea of gaining momentum with the Masters just two weeks away, although most golfers shy away from drawing a direct correlation between tournaments.

"I think it is a good form guide," England's Lee Westwood said. ``But it doesn't really matter, does it? It's not like you carry this week's score into The Masters. But, yeah, similar kind of greens. There will be similar speed by the end of the week, similar firmness, I would imagine."

With very little rain over the last week, the greens were running slick on Wednesday.

Course managers tinkered with some areas of rough, after whispers that parts of the course might have played too easily in recent years.

But hardly any player would agree that this course, or this tournament, needs toughening.

Leonard had what he called "a nice cushion" going into the final three holes last year and ended up beating Glen Day and Tom Lehman by two strokes apiece.

Even with the big lead, the finish was unnerving.

"It could take you an hour to play that 17th hole," Leonard said.

He believes players must bring the same mindset into this tournament as they would at a major.

"This golf course plays like a major championship course -- it is firm, there is a lot of rough and the greens are fast and wherever you hit it is trouble," Leonard said.

One other hint.

"Some timely 30-foot putts seem to work fairly well," he said.


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