The so-called Big Five struggles like crazy to collectively excel on a consistent basis on a golf course that has been refined over time, but one that Tom Weiskopf once called an outdoor 'pinball machine.'
Tiger Woods, the No. 1 player in the world, is the only player in The Big Five to have won this tournament. And he only did so once, in 2001. Only 17 of Woods' 36 competitive rounds at this golf course have been under par. The wise guys can argue over whether a golf course that takes the driver out of Woods' hands is a good thing or a bad thing. But make no mistake, Woods has to think, on almost all the Sawgrass par 4s, about the wisdom of pulling the Big Dog from the outsized quiver that caddie Stevie Williams lugs so seriously.
Vijay Singh, the No. 2 player in the world, not only has never won but he has just two top 10s to his credit in 13 tries. Too often the highlight of the week for Singh, who lives near the course, is the lavish bash he throws at his home for his friends Monday night of tournament week. But the fact remains, Singh has never led after any round at this venue.
Retief Goosen, the No. 3 ranked player, has made just two of seven weekends at Sawgrass. He has posted zero top 10s and only two of his rounds have been in the 60s.
There is really no good reason for any of this. But it breeds hope for players like journeyman Craig Perks, who won in 2002 when he needed just one putt on the last three holes Sunday. The course is relatively short at 7,093 yards. Which is why Fred Funk, who hit more fairways and more greens than anybody else in the field last year, was able to capture the title at the advanced age of 48.
Meanwhile back at The Big Five:
World No. 4 Phil Mickelson has missed four cuts in 12 tries and, like Singh, has mustered just two top 10s. Worse, in 2003, he five-putted the 10th green. It is interesting to note that Mickelson's best finish at The Players - a T3 in 2004 - was the same year he won the Masters. But there is nothing to predict Mickelson playing especially well, by his standards, come Thursday.
Finally there is Ernie Els, who has slipped mostly because of knee surgery, to No. 5 in the world rankings. The Big Easy hasn't had a top 10 at Sawgrass since 1997, which makes this tournament The Big Difficult for him, too. Els shot an 80 in the third round here seven years ago.
The spin doctors would have us believe this is all about parity and, they would say, isn't that a wonderful thing. Another theory, subscribed to by Padraig Harrington - who almost won this thing two years ago - is that at least a few of the top players are looking ahead to the Masters two weeks down the road while still in Ponte Vedra Beach.
The pundits won't have that theory to kick around anymore starting next year when The Players Championship moves to a new slot on the schedule, the third week in May.
Meanwhile enjoy the drama and the theater that this event almost always delivers. And never, ever take your eye off the 17th hole.
But bet the Big Five at your own peril.
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