Rude: Players leaderboard features biggest names

Sergio Garcia pumps his fist after making birdie on the eighth green during the second round of The Players Championship.

Sergio Garcia pumps his fist after making birdie on the eighth green during the second round of The Players Championship.

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12:20:01 AM ET. 04/17/2014




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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Someone finally spray-painted The Players’ leaderboard with a bunch of big, bright, bold names. Imagine that. Q-rating all over the marquee at the TPC Sawgrass.

Sergios, Tigers, Westwoods, McIlroys, oh my. Cue the Wizard of Oz scene and soundtrack.

This is where Hall of Fame types in recent years usually have come to, if not die, then at least hide. Consider the Big Five of last decade–Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen. They may have won 178 PGA Tour titles and 27 major championships, but they have contended, remarkably, only six times combined in 85 previous Players.

Mickelson is the lone major champion to have won here since Davis Love III a decade ago. This might be golf’s so-called fifth major, but it doesn’t regularly attract the game’s upper crust to the top of the scoreboard as the traditional four corners of the Grand Slam do.

Hence, it is the most difficult tournament to forecast, one where the method of picking names out of a hat is almost viable. Don’t laugh. The TPC has served up 28 different winners in its 31 years.

The reason is a golf course that both Woods and world No. 2 Rory McIlroy describe as “tricky.” The TPC Sawgrass, unlike say Augusta National, is an equal-opportunity rewarder at which players for the most part are asked to drive into the same areas. A Pete Dye diabolical design with difficult angles, it demands precise shots off the tee and into greens and often leaves players with tricky pitches and chips. Annually it exposes incomplete games.

“It’s a golf course that suits all different kinds of games,” Westwood said Friday after shooting 66 for 9-under-par 135, two strokes behind the early lead of 2008 winner Sergio Garcia and one back of Woods. “It’s thrown up so many different winners with different sorts of characteristics in their game. I’ve seen Tiger win here, I’ve seen Fred Funk win here. You can’t get two more different golf games.”

Such divergence is not lost on McIlroy.

“It's a golf course where you look at the field and you're like, anyone can win,” he said. “It doesn't really suit any type of player.”

And so the PGA Tour slogan extends to its crowned jewel. At The Players, anything is possible. And that often means a stretch run without the biggest of boys.

Woods, who counts 14 majors among his 77 Tour trophies, has contended twice in 14 previous Players, and not since his victory here a dozen years ago. Missing the cut this week in his 20th tournament here, 2007 champion Mickelson also has been in the mix but twice–the first time in 2004 when he tied for third, four shots back.

“Over the years I haven’t played my best here,” Woods said Friday. Then he gave insight as to why: “This golf course is – it’s funky. It has its own little quirks and anything can happen around this place. You get some weird bounces ... some weird lies.”

Meanwhile, Els and Singh, both outside the cut line Friday, would love to have records of T-Dub and Philly Mick. Els has never contended in 20 TPCs, his best a tie for sixth in 2008 when he finished six shots behind. Singh has bettered eighth place but once in 21 events, a dozen years ago, when he lost to Woods by a stroke.

Goosen, another multiple major champion, also has been conspicuous by his lack of success. The two-time U.S. Open winner has finished higher than 14th just once in 13 tries. And even then, in 2006, he was six strokes back in a distant second to Stephen Ames.

You would think a fairways-and-greens grinder like 16-time winner Jim Furyk might succeed here in his hometown, but even though he has three top-5s here, he has never finished closer than six shots from the lead. And three-time major winner Padraig Harrington hasn’t bettered 22nd in 10 appearances aside from his pair of seconds in 2003-04.

McIlroy, who opened with 66 this time, missed the cut in his three previous starts. His scoring average coming in was 74. Not that there weren’t reasons, often pertaining to preparation. One year he played here after a trip to Las Vegas, another after celebrating his 21st birthday. And last year, well, he just played poorly, no excuses.

“Even the lay‑ups are tough out here,” McIlroy said. “Visually it's a tough track.”

And it’s not a track for everybody. Suffice it to say, if The Players weren’t so big and lucrative, if it were just another Tour event, if everybody didn’t feel they had to play here, then many players would skip the visit to northeast Florida.

“We play golf courses that suit our games and don’t go to places that don’t,” Westwood said. “Here, you feel you have to play it. So many are playing a tournament at a golf course that doesn’t suit their game.”

As the list of scores shows, year after year.

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