The Players is a really big deal

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- At The Players, it feels like a major championship. The top 30 players in the world and 26 major champions are in the field. The winner gets an enormous $1.7 million check, larger than any awarded at the four majors. The Stadium Course doesn't have a Road Hole, an Amen Corner or Oakmont's church pew bunkers, but it does have the iconic island green at the 17th hole and the 18th, one of the most daunting finishing holes in golf.

Sawgrass is a democratic venue that suits every type of game from a steady plodder like last year's winner, Matt Kuchar, to bombers like Davis Love III and Tiger Woods to short hitters like Fred Funk, Tim Clark and Calvin Peete.

The Players is arguably the best and most important golf tournament in the world outside of the majors. The emergence of the World Golf Championships with their elite fields and big purses have garnered major-like attention within the game, but The Players is still the symbolic leader for status as the unofficial fifth major.

In 2007 the tournament was moved from March to May, when the tour started the FedEx Cup playoffs. For years The Players was an important preamble to the Masters; now it's on the road to the U.S. Open. Separated by a month from the Open, Sawgrass is freed to be a vital destination on the season's calendar in its own right.

"We have our four major championships, and that's that," Woods said Tuesday. "But if there was going to be another one, this would be it. This is the best field that we have.

"We have guys from all over the world playing and, next to the PGA, probably one of the deepest and stiffest fields we'll face."

More than ever, strength of field is more than just a passing statistic to add prestige to a tournament. All 145 players in the field this week have a chance to win. Last week in Charlotte, which had its own stellar field, a little-known 22-year-old rookie named Derek Ernst won the tournament. Ernst had won less than $30,000 in seven events and was No. 1,207 in the world rankings coming into that event.

He's such an under-the-radar guy that the locker room attendants at Sawgrass initially got his name wrong on a locker-assignment sheet.

Ernst shouldn't take it personally. The field this week at The Players is full of contenders without marquee names and Hall of Fame résumés.

But we shouldn't be surprised this weekend to see another Derek Ernst make The Players his first PGA Tour win.

Kuchar is the defending champion, but no winner has repeated since the tournament began in 1974. And several of the top players, including Tiger and Rory McIlroy, have struggled here in recent years.

Tiger has been in contention at The Players only twice, including his win in 2001. If this were any other tournament, outside of the majors, he probably wouldn't come back year after year.

"We're fairly fickle as golfers in that we tend to love golf courses we play well on," Graeme McDowell said. "I think it's pretty unusual that a guy loves a golf course that he doesn't play well on.

"Typically, guys stay away from golf courses they don't like and don't play well on apart from maybe ones like this where it's such a huge purse, such a prestigious event, the unofficial fifth major event and stuff. And guys want to be here, and they want to add their name to a phenomenal list of champions."

The Stadium Course has recovered well from some heavy rains late last week. There will be a premium, as there always is around here, on maneuvering your way around all the man-made obstacles created by Pete Dye.

"It's one of those courses where they've got some tough lines," Woods said, "and if you're not playing well, you're going to get exposed.

"So it make it even more important to hit the ball in these fairways to have a chance to spin the ball. You miss these greens at all, you've got some of the weirdest, funky little shots that you'll ever face."

No matter who ends up in the winner's circle Sunday night, a newcomer to the game like Ernst or a future Hall of Famer such as Woods, The Players promises to be unpredictable.

It's earned its place as the fifth major: not because of its great field, hefty purse and self-congratulation, but because it annually confounds the best players in the world as much as any other tournament in the world.