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Andy North
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Jim McLean

  It's all about the finish

By Andy North
Special to

Historically, The Players Championship has been the first significantly different event of the year. But with the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship already having been played, that's not really the case.

  Each week Andy North will answer three user questions. If you have a question, send it to Andy and check back next week to see if he answers it.

Do you think that David Duval and Tiger Woods could have the same great rivalry as Nicklaus and Palmer?
-- Pat Mohr, Glencoe, IL

North: I definitely do. The tough thing is, we knew both Nicklaus and Palmer wanted to be the No. 1 player in the world, and that was the driving force for them. I believe the same holds true for David and Tiger. I think they both really want to be the best players in the world.

But the only thing I think is different in the situations is that now there's so much money involved that will one of these guys become happy with what he's accomplished and just decide being No. 1 isn't that important anymore? As for Palmer and Nicklaus, they still want to beat each other.

That's the only difference I see, but I definitely think they could have the same impact on the game and the same kind of rivalry.

I hear a lot of players on TV talk about "the slot" in their backswing or maybe just their swing. Just what is "the slot" and how does one finds his or hers?
-- John Nardini, Madrid, Iowa

North: Basically, the slot that we talk about on TV is a certain player's plane. And getting in the slot is being able to repeat the swing time after time. How you find the perfect slot, that's like how you find eternal life. If we all knew how to do that, we'd all be a lot better. It comes a lot from just tons and tons of practice, finding what plane works best for you.

Here's the simple way to do it: If you have proper posture setting up to the ball, and then you try to turn your left shoulder past the ball, you should be able to get the club pretty much where it's going to be your natural plane. And it's different for everybody.

Too many people try to swing the club with their hands and arms, and we need to swing it more with our bodies. And the more you can turn the club back with the trunk of your body and your shoulders, the closer you are going to be to that slot.

What do you think the United States Ryder Cup team has to do to reclaim the edge in the upcoming Ryder Cup matches?
-- David Smith, Durham, N.C.

North: If you look at our players 1-12, I think most everybody would agree that we probably have the deepest team, and we have had the deepest team for the last couple of times the Ryder Cup has been played. I think the big thing is that our guys just have to play at their best. If you look back at the last few Ryder Cups, our guys have played as well as they can play.

It's a terrific event; a lot is made out of it, and there's a lot of pressure on both teams. But our guys just have to play a little bit better. There's no magical formula; they haven't played quite as well as the European team.

So often match play is a different mind set than medal play, and I think our players are geared to that more. It might be because the conditions we play in are so much better than the Europeans' conditions that maybe the European players are tougher mentally than some of our guys are.

The matches have been close for the most part, but it seems as if in the last 10-12 years, the European team has made the key putt or shot when they've had to, and we haven't. Why? If we knew that answer, it wouldn't happen.

Still, because the match-play event was a different format, The Players Championship is still really the first event the players are focusing on. It has a great purse, great field, and the condition of the golf course is perfect. The players are really taken care of. The practice range is nice. It's a nice event to attend and a fun week.

The course
The TPC at Sawgrass is a golf course that over time the players have really gotten to like. They've made tremendous improvements on the course over the last 20 years, turning it into one that's very playable. It's difficult, in terrific condition, and it's a good time of year to be playing here.

The wind is the real key. There's enough water for someone to get into trouble, but it's not the typical Florida water. Sawgrass has bigger lakes, and there are no real surprises with the water. But water comes into play on an awful lot of holes.

The finishing holes are probably as interesting as you have in any tournament in the country. At the par-5 16th, you can knock it on the green in two shots pretty easily. But there's water around the hole. Some players have hit some nice shots there that have gone in the water.

And with the island green on the 17th, enough said. A lot of crazy things have happened at 17. And the 18th is a fantastic finishing hole: a tough par-4 with a lake on the left. It's a hard driving hole; even if you drive the ball well, it's a difficult second shot.

Sawgrass is a solid golf course from start to finish, but I'm not sure there's any scarier finishing holes than the last two. If you need a par-par to win the tournament, it's not easy to do, particularly if the wind is blowing. On 17, even if the wind isn't blowing, it's a scary hole, even though it's just a 9-iron. But if the wind starts gusting and you're hitting a 7-iron, the hole becomes even more frightening. And for 18, it's a hole you really have to hit two good shots on. It's a terrific finish.

You have to drive well. Sawgrass has more rough now than it used to have. You have to play smart. The course has a nice combination of short and long holes. There are some holes you have to lay up on; the fourth and sixth holes, for example, are shorter par-4s where you don't have to hit drivers.

The second, 11th and 16th holes are par-5s where you can get on the green in two shots if you have to. On the ninth, you can't reach the green very often in two shots. All those holes have water around the greens, so you have to be careful. Again, if you can't make it to the greens and you're a good wedge player, that's very important.

The field
It's not one of the longer courses the guys play, but it plays pretty long at times. Historically, it hasn't been necessarily the bomber who's done well. It's been guys who can really control their ball. It's a tough golf course if you miss the greens.

The bunkering is difficult; there are a lot of mounds and knobs and edges of the green so the ball will kick down away from the green. Look at the two players who played the best last year: Lee Janzen led for the first three rounds, and then Justin Leonard shot a really good score on Sunday when Janzen played poorly and ended up winning.

Janzen and Leonard aren't bombers. They are pretty straight guys who control the length of their shots, which is very important. Length is always good, but the TPC is a course where you don't have to hit the ball really long to do well. It's more of a precision course. You have to keep the ball in the right positions.

The Players Championship is a little like last week at the Bay Hill Invitational because you have to consider the players who live in the area. Vijay Singh plays the course and practices there a lot. Fred Funk could do very well there. They are two different types of players, but they've both played well already this year.

David Duval has basically taken three weeks off, but I would suspect he's coming back ready to rock 'n' roll. I think he'd be tough to beat this week. Sometimes it's good to get home, rest and refocus. I'm sure Duval has spent the last week to 10 days really working on his game. I would think he's really pointed toward this event, being in his hometown and particularly after getting off to such a great start earlier in the year.

And when you talk about precision players, I would almost consider Duval a precision player even though he has great length and strength. He's one of those players who has a terrific short game, and that's really important at Sawgrass. He has to be the favorite.

Again, when you're playing at home, there are a lot of the distractions; sometimes guys react very well to it. Mark McCumber lives right across the street. But for some players, there's so much junk going on they'd rather not be playing at home. Regardless, having a lot of experience on that course is important, especially if the wind blowing.

Tip of the week
I've always thought it would be fun to put heart monitors on players. I always thought that doing it with a hockey goalie would be terrific, to see what his heart rate would be when the players are in front of him as opposed to the other end of the rink.

It's the same thing at No. 17 at Sawgrass. You walk over there, and does a guy's heart rate change? Suddenly, you have this really tough shot.

When you're playing a difficult shot like the 17th hole, where you have to hit a perfect shot -- you can't be long or short or left or right -- pay attention to what the players do. I'm sure they'll take a deep breath or they'll do their practice swing and go through their normal routine. That's probably the most important thing you can do in playing a hard shot. You have to make up your mind and be fully committed to that shot, and then just go through your normal routine, and not make such a big deal out of it.

Try to focus on playing the shot and not all the problems that can be caused by not playing the shot well. When the average player faces a shot like that, he's scared to death and starts trying to do something he's not capable of doing.

It's like a good free-throw shooter; he does the same thing every time. But under pressure, if he bounces the ball five times when he normally bounces it three times, you can bet he's going to miss it.

The same thing is true in golf, at the 17th hole: If you're used to taking one practice swing and then you get over it and waggle it once, look up and then hit it, you better do that. If you put three waggles in there, something bad is probably going to happen.

Even for the best players in the world, the 17th hole is a scary shot. You just have to work hard to stay in your routine and play it like it's a normal shot. If that green had sand around it instead of water, a player would probably never miss the green.

The Players Championship breakdown

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