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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – From the back of the room one could almost see PGA Tour chief of operations Andy Pazder lean into the answer. Almost, but then Pazder is too cool for that.

Besides, Pazder has heard Rory McIlroy answer all manner of Player Championship questions, but this one stood out. Maybe it’s because golf’s “fifth major” looms next week, or perhaps it’s because the golf gods are transforming what is often referred to as the strongest field in golf into, well, something south of that.

Whatever the reason, when the Northern Irish lad spoke of TPC Sawgrass all of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was listening.

“This year I'm playing here, taking next week (Players week) off, and then playing Spain, Wentworth, Memorial, week off, U.S. Open,” McIlroy said on Tuesday at Quail Hollow. “I mean, if I played The Players it would be my sixth week of seven, which is a lot of golf for me.”

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy is 0-for-2 in cuts made at The Players. (Getty Images)

That McIlroy regards TPC Sawgrass with all the affinity of a trip through a TSA line is also at play.

“I don't feel that comfortable on the golf course yet,” said McIlroy, who is 0-for-2 in cuts made at the Stadium Course, a statistic that either explains or exaggerates his decision to skip this year’s event depending on what side of the aisle one sits.

McIlroy’s miss, however justifiable, is hardly isolated. In order The Players could be void of the world’s top ranked, the game’s top draw and last year’s top dog.

Like McIlroy, current world No. 1 Lee Westwood is out. As 2010 members who let their cards lapse, the European two-ball are limited to 10 Tour starts this season and The Players, an 11th-hour move by the circuit to woo Westwood and McIlroy to TPC that failed.

The politics of a global game aside, McIlroy and Westwood based their decisions not to travel to north Florida next week based on what’s best for their games, a competitive litmus test that should be applied more often if truth be told.

But that reality won’t make next week’s tee sheet any stronger.

The tournament may also be missing Tiger Woods, who by all accounts is back home at Isleworth nursing an ailing knee and Achilles and hadn’t hit golf balls since Augusta National as of last Tuesday. Not that Woods needs much of a reason to pass on the 2-hour drive north to TPC Sawgrass.

Woods hasn’t won the Tour’s flagship event in a decade, has just one top-10 since that 2001 victory and withdrew last year with a bad neck. They don’t hold majors on TPC courses and Woods knows that.

This is the same man who played the 2008 U.S. Open against doctor’s orders but doesn’t seem to have the same machismo when it comes to next week’s Players. It wasn’t Jack Nicklaus’ three Players’ tilts hanging on the wall back home in California.

The last Players domino seemed to begin its tumble on Monday when defending champion Tim Clark withdrew from the Wells Fargo Championship.

Clark, slowed this season by an elbow injury, is hardly a marquee stopper, nor can the Ponte Vedra Beach powers control who ends up on the DL, but it doesn’t help a tournament already embattled by circumstance and serious injury.

The European rise in the world ranking and The Players’ field troubles are not mutually exclusive. Simply put, players from the Continent are conditioned to think of the Players as a regular Tour event with a slightly hipper rap. It’s a truth complicated by the expanding importance of the World Golf Championships.

Asked on Tuesday whether he would rather win The Players Championship or a WGC, world No. 2 Martin Kaymer didn’t hesitate: “The World Golf Championships, and preferably the one at Firestone because it's a fantastic golf course and a beautiful place. Yeah, obviously to play well at the others would be nice, but I think I would prefer the World Golf Championship event.”

Chubby Chandler, the president of International Sports Management which represents Westwood and McIlroy, once referred to The Players as the “10th major” for players from the Continent, and if Kaymer’s math is any indication, Chandler has it about right.

There will be a worthy champion crowned next Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, a sprawling crowd amassed around the famed 17th hole and a solid field with an estimated seven of the top 10 players in the world – by comparison this week’s Wells Fargo Championship features five of the top 10 – just not three or four of the most important names in golf. And maybe three out of four isn’t bad.

But the vacancies in the Sawgrass players’ lot will echo what many have figured for years, it will not be the media or the Tour or even the fans that will decide if The Players is ever anointed true “fifth major” status – it will be the players. Given the current climate, the frat brothers have not reached a consensus just yet.


Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggardGC

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