Players Championship prepares for graduation day

For at least a decade, the question that has refused to go away concerns whether The Players Championship is the fifth major. That debate will gain even more momentum next year when the tournament moves to May and it is contested on a rebuilt Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. The new date and the new playing characteristics for the course will focus even more attention on the Players, and will intensify the discussion as to its status.

Major or not, one thing is clear: The Players Championship has become a must-see tournament that commands as much attention as any event played on one course this side of Augusta National.

This week's 26th edition of The Players Championship is a farewell of sorts, but it is also a commencement exercise for a tournament that beginning in 2007 will graduate to a new, even more pronounced, level of prominence. Next year, this tournament will be played in May, and that has several ramifications that can only be good for the flagship event of the PGA Tour. While the Players may never be regarded in quite the same way as the four Grand Slam events -- remember, in 1934 The Masters wasn't yet a major either -- the move to May will further its relentless drive to carve out a niche of its own that is rivaled by few other tournaments.

Why is the move to May a good thing? First off, it takes The Players Championship away from the NCAA basketball tournament. Let's face it, March Madness is a big deal and, while the hardcore golf fan will still be riveted to the Players, the more casual observer -- the fan that golf needs to capture to grow -- will not have as much competition for his or her attention. Baseball is not yet in full swing in May and the NBA playoffs, once a formidable opponent, haven't been the same since Michael followed Magic and Larry out the door. It is a month The Players Championship can own.

The other good thing about the May date for the Players is that by then the golf season is in full swing in all parts of the United States and Europe. People will really be thinking golf. Late March is that awkward time when basketball is ending, baseball is starting and football fans are thinking about the NFL draft. Unless the NHL increases its fan base about a zillion percent in the next 14 months, the Players will find its biggest competition for attention coming from horse racing -- the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. And you get the feeling commissioner Tim Finchem will take that over college basketball any day.

And then there is the tournament's current proximity to The Masters. Coming with just one week between it and that rite of Spring in Augusta, it is way too easy to view the Players as a warm-up for the Masters, when in truth it is much more important than that. The May date will place the Players midway between The Masters and the U.S. Open, enhancing its reputation as a unique event and getting rid of that silly jinx notion that it you win the Players it means you won't win The Masters.

Perhaps most importantly, the new spot on the schedule will semi-formalize the Players' position as the fifth major. Beginning next year there will be The Masters, Players, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in sequential months from April through August. Just the fact that each of those months is dominated by a major event, and that the Players is the most major of the events in May, will make it, well, major. The calendar may help the Players in a way it could never help itself. As they say in real estate, it is all about location, and the May date is a much better location for the tournament.

And then there is the matter of what is going to happen to the Stadium Course immediately after this year's event. The top 12 inches of topsoil will be stripped away on every hole and replaced by sand and some underground drying systems similar to those at Augusta. That means that pretty much no matter what the weather, the course will play firm and fast, and the stats show that those are the conditions that make the Pete Dye masterpiece play the most difficult. Throw in the heat that begins to bake up in north Florida in May, and you will have playing conditions that sort of combine The Masters and the U.S. Open. Not a bad combination.

Now, not only will the Players Championship have a major championship-caliber field -- as it always has -- but it will also feel like a major in terms of the way the course plays. In fact, with all the changes that have happened at that Alister Mackenzie/Bobby Jones track in Georgia -- which, after its latest renovation, this year will play about as long as a Dickens novel -- it could be that the Stadium Course will out-Augusta Augusta.

Enjoy this year's Players Championship, and smile when it is over knowing that next year it will be even better.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine. His book, Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make You a Better Player, written with Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, is now available.