PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship should consider changing the name of its course to the TPC Mystery.
The reason The Players is talked about as the next best thing to a major is because the field is the strongest and deepest in golf. Until the PGA Tour recently created a spot for the Senior Players Championship winner, anyone who teed it up at TPC Sawgrass had as good a chance as the next guy.
The mystery is trying to determine whose game best suits the golf course.
The list of winners is impressive, though it doesn't offer concrete clues except that two-thirds are major champions. More curious is how infrequently some of the game's best players are even in the mix late Sunday afternoon.
Start with Tiger Woods.
He was runner-up in 2000 to Hal ''Be the right club today'' Sutton. He won in 2001 with that putt on the island-green 17th that was better than most.
And that's it.
He tied for 10th one year and finished eighth another. Woods has played 15 times in his career, and he was at the height of his powers for more than half those years, when he could fall out of bed and contend. But at Sawgrass, he's had only two serious chances at winning.
''There's no course that less people have worked out than this one,'' Geoff Ogilvy said upon leaving Sawgrass last year. ''You get one or two chances in your career, and you take them. It's a tournament Tiger has played 15 times, and he's only contended twice. There's something odd there. Maybe that's the genius of the golf course. Or maybe that's the flaw of the golf course.''
But it's not just Woods.
Phil Mickelson has won 41 times on Tour, second only to Woods in the last 25 years, with four major championships. He won The Players in 2007, right after switching over to Butch Harmon as his swing coach. And that was the only time he seriously contended at Sawgrass. He tied for third in 2004, but he was five shots behind Adam Scott.
Vijay Singh, with 34 wins and three majors, was runner-up to Woods in 2001. In his 19 other appearances, he never finished higher than eighth. Singh won 17 times from 2003 through 2005. He didn't record a top 10 at The Players those years – he missed the cut in 2003 – and broke 70 twice.
Ernie Els, another four-time major champion in the Hall of Fame, never had a good look at winning The Players.
Those are the ''Big Four'' of their generation. That's a collective 72 appearances, two wins and only four chances at winning.
''No idea,'' said Padraig Harrington, who has ideas on everything. ''I'm not sure how you would put it down. You pick four players, and it's not like all four have the exact same game. Only four chances between them?''
Johnny Miller never had much luck on this golf course, making only two cuts in eight attempts. It was still enough to give him an appreciation of Pete Dye's creation.
''It's just a nervous tournament. It's a nervous week,'' Miller said. ''That's why a lot of guys hardly do well here. It's a course that you have to tippy-toe around, and that's why Tiger ... he won it, but he's struggled here. And Phil has struggled here, and he won it once. You just get a little glimpse of it once in a while when you can play well, and the rest of the time it just eats your lunch. It's really a fun event. You don't know what's going to happen.''
There are examples of top players who do well at The Players. Davis Love III, one of the game's best in his prime, won it twice. So did Fred Couples, and he had a couple of top 5s. Both have had plenty of weekends off at Sawgrass. But this is not a course they own, not the way Love owned Hilton Head or Couples had Augusta National and Riviera.
Americans would call it ''quirky.'' British players would call it ''fiddly.''
A universal word might be ''unpredictable.''
The objective a few years ago was for players to define the golf course in one word. The choices ranged from dramatic to demanding, from thrilling to uncomfortable. Ogilvy, perhaps the most knowledgeable among players when it comes to golf course design, couldn't think of a word. Four days later, while playing the final round, he walked off the 14th tee when he saw a reporter who had asked the question and said without prompting, ''Annoying.''
It can be that for the best of them.
There are a few things on which players would agree. While power is always an advantage in golf, length is not a big issue here. And the key to Sawgrass starts with getting the ball in the fairway. After that, it's a guessing game. Some say a great short game is critical. Others would say the penalty of missing the greens is so severe that not even the best short game can save you.
''It's such a fine line and such a penalty, when you do miss a shot,'' Bo Van Pelt said. ''All those guys have great short games, but on a course where your ball is in the water or you've short-sided yourself, it doesn't matter how good your short game is. You're not going to save the shot. The penalty on a miss is so severe that if a guy is barely off, it can really cost him. You make a big number, and you're out of the tournament.''
Couples said he was playing a practice round recently with a young player – he didn't give his name – who asked about the secret to Sawgrass. Couples told him not to worry about distance and to get the ball in play. And then he added this twist:
''When you get an 8-iron, 9-iron, wedge, don't go at the flag,'' Couples said. ''You don't need to be aggressive. Because for every time you hit close, you'll just miss, and it will ricochet down an embankment.''
It's never a bad idea to listen to Couples talk about Sawgrass. Remember, it was Couples who once was asked the best way to approach the island green at No. 17. His answer: