Move to May Wont Solve All the TPC Problems

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PGA Tour (75x100)The only suspense at The Players Championship came after Stephen Ames manhandled a scary TPC at Sawgrass and the strongest field in golf.
 
And even that only lasted about 12 hours.
 
Standing on the 18th green late Sunday afternoon, his name on the richest first-place check on the PGA Tour, Ames was asked about the three-year exemption he received to the Masters. In a rare moment of indecision, he wasn't sure he would play. His kids were starting their spring break, and Ames had plans to take them to his native Trinidad.
 
'I'd rather go on vacation, to be truthful,' he said.
 
Ames changed his mind Monday morning, telling a Canadian radio station that he had talked it over with his wife and two sons, and 'we are going to go.'
 
No wonder the PGA Tour wants its showcase event moved to May.
 
It's hard to embrace The Players Championship as a major when all anyone wanted to know about Ames was whether he was going to play in a real one - the Masters - two weeks away.
 
Not that next year will solve everything.
 
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was asked where The Players Championship would fit into the pecking order of majors when it moves to May in 2007, and he quipped, 'We already think it's No. 1.'
 
Finchem has a background in politics, although this was more tongue-in-cheek that all-out lobbying. He has said the last several years, and repeated in an interview last October, that his only focus for The Players Championship is making it the best it can be - a great course, the best field, largest purse and a TV presentation with limited commercials that rivals the Masters.
 
In that respect, The Players Championship is a huge success.
 
But it cannot be perceived as a major based on the calendar alone.
 
The Stadium Course will be torn up next week and refurbished with high-tech gadgets and agronomy that will allow it to be firm and fast even if conditions are soggy and slow. It might be the closest thing to indoor golf.
 
Next year, golf will have a big tournament in April, May, June, July and August.
 
But golf in May is hardly lacking now.
 
The Wachovia Championship is held the first week of the month, and Quail Hollow is such a superb golf course that in its inaugural year, 2003, players deemed it worthy of a PGA Championship - that week. Some even mentioned a U.S. Open, although the consensus was the USGA would ruin it.
 
The Memorial is at the end of May, another world-class golf course (Muirfield Village) that is run with impeccable taste by the tournament host (Jack Nicklaus).
 
As good as they are, both are links between the Masters and U.S. Open. There is no guarantee The Players Championship will be much more than that.
 
But what hurts The Players Championship - beyond the fact a grand slam means four items, whether it's breakfast at Denny's or runs scored in baseball - is the aura desperately lacking in what otherwise is a local event.
 
And that starts with the gallery, and why they go to Sawgrass.
 
The first clue came Thursday, when the Stadium Course was surprisingly quiet. Go to any other major, and thousands of spectators are gathered around the first tee or already staking out positions on the golf course when the tournament begins.
 
David Duval, who grew up in Jacksonville, and Davis Love III, a quasi-neighbor who makes his home at Sea Island, were among the early starters Thursday. There was no more than about 500 spectators milling between the first two fairways or camped out in the bleachers. Even when Tiger Woods teed off Friday morning, there were only about 300 people ready to enlist in his army.
 
Even when the crowd swelled in the afternoon, and especially on the weekend, it was easy to distinguish between The Players Championship and a major.
 
Most of the spectators were not at Sawgrass to watch golf.
 
They were there to be seen.
 
The atmosphere at The Players Championship is closer to PGA Tour stops in Phoenix or Dallas than major championships at Olympic Club or Hazeltine.
 
Ernie Els was three shots off the lead, standing steady over a 10-foot par putt on the 14th hole on Sunday, and must have felt like he was in the middle of a cocktail party. On a mound just beyond the green were a half-dozen people, sipping beer and sharing laughs, unaware there was a golf tournament going on.
 
The 17th hole is a natural attraction because there is no other hole like that in championship golf, and everyone loves to see a train wreck. Thousands cram onto the hills to the left of the green and behind it, and behind the tee as space allows, creating a theater not unlike the par-3 16th hole at Phoenix.
 
But it becomes the main event, instead of a pivotal hole during an 18-hole test on a brilliantly designed course.
 
The reason most fans go to a major is to watch golf. You don't get that sense at Sawgrass, where golf is a diversion to pass time while standing in the beer line or waiting for the next ball to miss the island-green 17th.
 
Maybe the move to May will help in one respect. Along with refurbishing the golf course and rebuilding the clubhouse, Finchem is embarking on a national marketing campaign with hopes of The Players Championship becoming a golf tournament that fans around the country, or the world, will want to come watch.
 
That could be a pivotal step in making it feel like a major, if not look like one.
 
It deserves that.
 
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