Top Players Ready for Sawgrass

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Twelve tournaments. Twelve winners.
 
The first three months on the PGA Tour were similar to last year, when the biggest names were on top of their games, but no one - not even Tiger Woods - dominated golf.
 
'It just gets exponentially harder to win,' Davis Love III said Wednesday.
 
It doesn't get any easier this week.
 
All the best players are assembled at The Players Championship to face the first major test of the year, and perhaps to sort out who the top contenders are with the Masters just around the corner.
 
Woods seems like a logical choice, except that his only victory was the Match Play Championship, and he is coming off his worst finish on the PGA Tour in five years.
 
Vijay Singh was closing in on No. 1 until he missed the cut at Torrey Pines, then went two more tournaments without finishing in the top 10.
 
Phil Mickelson started his year with five straight finishes in the top 10, including a victory in the Bob Hope Classic. Masters champion Mike Weir repeated at Riviera. Ernie Els won another playoff at Waialae.
 
Seven of the top 10 players in the world have won.
 
None has dominated.
 
'There's a lot of guys playing great golf out here,' Love said. 'And it's hard to separate yourself.'
 
The Players Championship, which starts Thursday, has its strongest field ever with 80 of the top 100 in the world.
 
The Stadium Course on the TPC at Sawgrass looks as tough as ever, especially given the firm greens during practice rounds and dry conditions that are expected to last through the week.
 
'I can only imagine what they're going to be like on Sunday,' Chad Campbell said. 'It's going to be a hard test.'
 
Adding to the luster is the announcement Tuesday night at a players-only meeting that the richest purse in golf got even richer - $8 million, with $1.44 million going to the winner.
 
'There was a gasp in the room,' Love recalled. 'I don't think we were expecting that number.'
 
Love achieved rare separation last year, when he had a superb closing round of 8-under 64 in cold, blustery conditions to win by five shots.
 
But he has been reminded that no winner in the 30-year history of The Players Championship has ever repeated.
 
'I'm just trying to get lost in the process of golf and not think about results, not think about what I've heard for the last three weeks - that no one has ever won the championship back-to-back,' Love said. 'I've won twice. I just have to put the years together.'
 
Told that 12 players won the first 12 tournaments of the year, Love replied, 'I hope there's 13 different winners after this week.'
 
Love is among the top 10 players without a victory this year, although he is No. 4 on the money list. The others are Retief Goosen and Jim Furyk, who showed up Wednesday with a plastic brace on his left wrist from surgery Monday. Furyk will be out for at least three months.
 
Of the dozen winners this year, only Woods has to answer questions about what's wrong with his game, although his performance last week at Bay Hill was peculiar - after four straight years of winning, he went three straight rounds over par and tied for 46th, 18 shots behind Campbell.
 
The strongest and deepest field in golf tees off Thursday on a course that was reviled when it opened in 1982, but since has commanded the utmost respect.
 
The rough is a uniform 4 inches, and players got a sense of what they were up against by watching maintenance workers hose down areas of the rough around the green, making it even thicker.
 
The wind has blown up to 20 mph during the practice rounds, leading Els to suggest it could be an even tougher test than at Augusta National.
 
And they still haven't filled in the big pond that surrounds the 17th green.
 
The par 3 is the signature hole at The Players Championship, the penultimate hole on the ultimate target course that more often than not decides the tournament.
 
Woods has two historic moments there - a 25-foot birdie putt that led to his comeback in the 1994 U.S. Amateur, and a 60-foot birdie putt that broke three directions in the third round of his Players Championship victory in 2001.
 
Mickelson, always thinking aggressively, referred to it as a birdie hole.
 
'It's only 135, 140 yards,' he said. 'Guys have hit tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of 9-irons that distance and knocked it close or on the green. It's the penalty for the miss that is much more severe.
 
'I equate it to walking a balance beam,' he said. 'You can walk a balance beam no problem a foot off the ground. But raise it to 10 stories, it looks different.'
 
The rest of the course is like walking a tightrope, which is why this tournament - unlike the majors - rarely produces surprising winners. Only five winners cannot list a major among their credentials, and the only real shock was Craig Perks in 2002, the only guy to make The Players Championship his first tour victory.
 
But that's what makes this so hard to win.
 
Unlike the majors, all 149 players in the field are capable of winning.
 
'It just identifies the player who's playing the best, who has the whole package going,' Weir said.
 
Related links:
  • Leaderboard - The Players Championship

  • Full Coverage - The Players Championship

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