By DOUG FERGUSON
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – What some bill as the fifth-best golf tournament looked more like an open house Monday.
One by one, players pulled their courtesy cars to the front of the 77,000-square-foot clubhouse at The Players Championship and were pointed in every direction. Volunteers guided them to the locker room, to a players-only dining room where not even their agents were allowed, and to the “Tunnel of Champions’’ that led them out a back door to the refurbished Players Stadium Course on the TPC Sawgrass.
Most of them didn’t know where they were.
“I’m a little lost,’’ U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said. “It’s such a big building.’’
And despite the new look at The Players Championship, one thing hasn’t changed: No one is quite sure what it is.
The fifth major?
That won’t get too many arguments because the golf course is superb, the field is the strongest and deepest of the year and the purse for this year’s tournament will be $9 million, the richest of any tournament in the world.
But there are only four majors, which is why Jeff Sluman’s famous line from four years ago still holds true.
“When you go to Denny’s and order the Grand Slam breakfast, they don’t give you five things, do they?’’
One reason The Players moved from March to May was to give golf a major event every month, starting with the Masters in April through the PGA Championship in August and even the FedEx Cup finale in September.
But even with a new clubhouse and a refurbished golf course meant to play firm and fast in any weather, there is still enough evidence to suggest that one of these is not like the other four.
Tiger Woods, coming off a two-shot victory at the Wachovia Championship, won’t arrive until Tuesday. Woods arrives no later than Monday for majors, sometimes even Sunday.
Major championships attract fans from all over the country who come to watch. The Players largely remains a local event, drawing most of the crowd from county limits, and a lot of them come to be seen. The PGA Tour is starting a campaign to attract more fans from outside the state of Florida, although this will take time.
And it probably doesn’t help that The Players is held a week after the Wachovia Championship, which drew seemingly endless comparisons with a major championship last week, especially after Woods said he was “ecstatic’’ to have won considering the quality of the golf course against the strength of the field in such difficult conditions.
More than one player was asked at Quail Hollow what the difference was between last week and this week.
In every case, there was a pause for contemplation before a nod was given to The Players.
But they had to think about it.
All this feeds into a broader problem at PGA Tour headquarters: The Players is its showcase event, but the conversation seems to always be what the tournament is not, rather than what it is.
“I think enough fun has been made of their place in the golf kingdom,’’ Sluman said over the weekend. “There are still only four majors, but it is an unbelievable golf course with bar-none the best field in golf.’’
Shouldn’t that be enough?
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has said that he only wants The Players Championship to be the best it can be, and he has stopped at nothing to accomplish that. The Tour wants the tournament to be known as “The Players,’’ similar to “The Masters.’’ Television coverage will include only four minutes of commercials every hour, just like the Masters.
The winner of The Players gets as many FedEx Cup points as the winner of a major. In the World Golf Hall of Fame ballots, The Players is listed in bold print alongside the four majors.
“Nobody likes being force-fed,’’ Sluman said. “I think everybody associated with the tournament needs to let it take its course. It will find its spot wherever that ends up in five, 10, 15 or 50 years. But just let it happen.’’
Ogilvy called it the fifth-best tournament in the world, which probably is what The Players Championship is. But what inevitably followed were more examples of what it’s not.
“It’s not a career-defining win,’’ he said.
Fred Couples and Davis Love III often get labeled as underachievers for having so much talent and only one major championship to show for it, even though both have won The Players twice. Ogilvy also felt that while winning The Players was as physically challenging as winning a major, it was not as psychologically demanding.
“I’ve gotten so tired of that six, seven, eight years ago,’’ Jim Furyk said. “Is this a major? Is it not a major? My answer was simply, ‘Does it matter?’ It’s a good, strong field. I would say it’s by far the strongest field in golf, year in and year out. And it’s probably the best way to market it.’’
Carl Pettersson offered the best answer when asked his definition of The Players.
“It’s our championship,’’ he said.
That should be enough.