A change will do the Players good

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- For years, The Players Championship has operated in the shadows, having to contend with the albatross that is the NCAA basketball tournament, as well as the fact that competitors often viewed the event as more of a warmup for The Masters.

That all will change when the PGA Tour's signature tournament moves to May in 2007.

There, it won't have to worry about fighting for attention with the NCAAs, arguably one of America's most beloved sporting events.

And it certainly won't be viewed as a major warmup, being that it is strategically placed more than a month after The Masters and a month before the U.S. Open.

Finally, the Players should stand on its own.

"I think everything is for the better going to May," said Fred Funk, who will defend his Players title this week at TPC-Sawgrass. "The weather will be good. Where it's positioned in relation to the major championships is good. What they're doing with the course is good."

It was only a coincidence, but the abundance of rain at last year's tournament -- pushing the event to Monday -- could not have hurt commissioner Tim Finchem's desire to move the event out of the last week of March, its traditional spot on the calendar for all of its time at TPC-Sawgrass.

Finchem floated the idea at last year's Players, and said he was keeping an open mind. The tour had looked into moving the tournament in each of two previous television negotiations, but opted to keep it this week.

But with the new FedEx Cup schedule being implemented next year, and an overhaul to the course in the works the day after this tournament ends, it makes sense to make a move.

As Funk said, it is expected that there will be warmer, drier weather in May, which leads to the desired faster playing surface the tour would like for the best players in the world. But even if it rains, a restoration to the course should take care of that.

The tour will spend in the neighborhood of $8 million to give the course a facelift. Length will not be added, but all 18 fairways will be scraped away and replaced with a sand base. A new drainage system will be added. And an underground air system will be installed beneath each of the 18 greens.

"We want to create one of the greatest challenges for our golfers, for the best players in the world, that we can possibly create for The Players Championship," said David Pillsbury, chief operating officer for PGA Tour Golf Course Properties. "We have to return to its original intent, which was to play firm, fast and fair. In order to do that, we have to undertake a fairly Herculean project. We need the ball to be bouncing all over the place when it lands here. And that doesn't happen. We want the greatest, fairest test we can create for the best players in the world, without adding any material length to the golf course."

Spectators will notice a few differences, all meant to be enhancements to the viewing process. Hospitality venues will be increased. Even the television experience will be improved, as the Players -- like The Masters -- will keep commercial interruptions to under five minutes per hour.

The Players Championship might not be a major championship, but starting next year, it is going to look, sound and feel like one.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.