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Weird Cool

More than a Tour stop, less than a major, the Players Championship has evolved into an event unlike any other, and everyone's fine with that

Recite once in themorning and again at night: The Players Championship is not a major; thePlayers Championship is not a major. ¶ Your confusion is understandable. Afterall, there was Johnny Miller in the NBC broadcast booth, in coat and tie allthrough the sweltering weekend, talking about the rock-hard greens that wereturning brown before our eyes. He could have been at Southern Hills or Oakmont.And there was Tiger in a Saturday-night interview, smelling napalm and victoryin the humid North Florida air and declaring, "This is like our fifthmajor." Somewhere, Tim Finchem was doing a jig. ¶ The whole five-majorthing would fit nicely with our own duffing lives, right? The season is Aprilthrough September, until football comes on TV and life as we otherwise know itgrinds to a halt. For the spring and summer, the gents go one biggie per monthfor six straight months:

The Masters(April). The Players (May). The U.S. Open (June). The British Open (July). ThePGA Championship (August). The Ryder Cup (even-year Septembers).

Everythingelse—your World Golf Championships, your FedEx Cup playoffs, your Fall Seriestournaments—gets you from one place to the next, and sometimes not even that.You need those events, of course. You can't have a Big Man on Campus without awhole worshipful student population to prop him up, right? Still, we know whichones count. Winning a Fall Series event doesn't even get you a free trip toAugusta. But losing in the final of the U.S. Amateur does.

That's where themajor confusion begins, with the Masters, a tournament started as a littlegolfing get-together by Bobby Jones, the great amateur. The Masters became amajor ... when, exactly? You can't put a date on it. Jones's victories in the1930 U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs became the GrandSlam after he completed them. Yet Jack Nicklaus's career major total is, thesedays, always said to be 18, with his two U.S. Amateurs lopped off but his sixMasters and five PGAs counting. Things change.

And none of thisreally means anything to Kevin Na, who was born in South Korea 25 years ago,skipped his senior year of high school to turn pro at 17 and finished in a tiefor third last week at the Players, five shots behind the winner, Sweden'sHenrik Stenson. Na said, "I've shown I can compete in a major." Thefifth major. Hal Sutton never won the Masters, but he won the 2000 Players andonce said he got more goose bumps driving down PGA Tour Boulevard than he didMagnolia Lane.

You'd think it'san American thing, this whole fifth major business, but really it's not. IanPoulter of England, who finished in second place last week, said,"Everybody talks about this as the fifth major. And I think with the field,with the World Ranking points and the winners on that trophy, you have torespect that. I think it is."

But can you havefive majors? On the Champions tour five events are officially designated asmajors, but even the players find those designations laughable. (Tom Watsonlikes to say, "You can't have a pro-am and be a major." Three of thefive senior majors have pro-ams.) You don't have five majors in anything. Notin tennis (four there). Not in horse racing (three). Not in U.S. politicalparties (two).

Of course, itcould be that the Players is some sort of hybrid, not a major but not a routineTour stop, either. Jim Furyk said last week that the Players got a big upgradewhen it moved from March to May three years ago and that now it is somethingelse. "In my heart it's the fifth biggest event," said Furyk, the 2003U.S. Open winner. "And that's why I call it a championship."

The move to Maymeans that TPC Sawgrass plays much firmer and faster than it did in March, muchmore like—this will sound like heresy to some—a British Open course. And yetthe Pete Dye design, built out of a drained swamp, is nothing like any BritishOpen course, with its many ponds and coarse bermuda rough and the par-3 17thplayed to an island green. (Number 17: gimmick hole or genius? Both!) TheStadium course is the quintessential American target golf course: hit somethinghigh in the air (and Stenson hits it as high as anyone since Nicklaus) and getit to stop, first on a fairway, later on a green.

So what you havenow at the Players, or at least as it played on Saturday and Sunday, is astrange combination of target golf and bump-and-run golf—as if you moved aFlorida resort course with bermuda grass to the east coast of Scotland. Playinga majorish championship on bermuda grass, David Toms noted, is anotherdistinguishing feature of the Players and a reminder that many majors, mostparticularly the Masters before 1981, were played on bermuda greens.

In tennis the fourmajors are played on distinct surfaces, and you could certainly say the same ofthe first four biggies of the men's golf season. Augusta makes you switchgears, between extreme power and extreme finesse, from one shot to the next.U.S. Open rough and baked greens will turn your head to mush. The British Openwill make you play low, boring shots that defy the heavy sea wind. The Playersmixes elements of all three, really. In its own way, it's one of a kind.

"It'sweird," somebody said on Sunday night to Ty Votaw, one of the PGA Tour'sexecutive vice presidents.

"Weird in whatway?" Votaw asked.

"Weirdcool," came the answer.

"Weird cool,we're fine with that," Votaw said. "The PGA Tour has never claimed thatthe Players is the fifth major. What we're trying to do is make the tournamentbetter every year than it was the year before, and in the 36 years of theevent, we've done that."

Zach Johnson,winner of the 2007 Masters, was paired with Furyk on Sunday. Two winners ofmajors paired together on a Sunday in a big tournament. After Furyk made histhird birdie on the back nine, Johnson started to wonder if he was playing with"the guy who would win the tournament." About the only time you'll hearplayers talk like that is when they feel as if they might be witness to alittle golf history.

But howhistoric—how significant, how memorable, how emotional—is a win in the Players?That's really the question. Have you ever seen a player cry after winning thePlayers? Jeff Rude, a senior writer for Golfweek and a Hall of Fame voter, sayshe gives a win in the Players more weight than an ordinary Tour event whensizing up a player's career, but that doesn't mean the Players is a major, orclose to it. "It's a 21st-century golf tournament," Rude says. It's thenew kid on the block. A peculiar, hybrid May event, the Players is still atoddler. And 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, for one, feels the Playerslost something by moving from March to May.

That's significantbecause players, more than sportswriters or marketing campaigns or anythingelse, really say in the end what is and what isn't a major. They know. Furykdidn't say that deep in his heart the Players is a major championship—he saidit was a championship. Tiger didn't say the Players was the fifth major. Hesaid it was like a fifth major, and he is a man precise in all things.

And then there'sPhil Mickelson, winner of three majors and the 2007 Players Championship. Youlikely know the Potter Stewart quote about pornography, in which the SupremeCourt justice says it's hard to define "but I know it when I see it."Mickelson, in his own way, has a litmus test for majors. When he's done playingin a major, he's so worn out, physically and mentally, that he spends thefollowing week in bed. After finishing 55th at the Players, Mickelson said he'snot going to spend this week in bed. Nope. He'll be on the range getting readyfor the second major of the year, the U.S. Open at Bethpage.

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"It's a 21st-century tournament," Rude says.It's the new kid on the block.

Tortoise And the Bear

Masters champ Angel Cabrera was Na happy with hisslow-playing partner

There was an odd and interesting pairing last Saturdayat the Players: Angel Cabrera, the XL-sized Masters champion who, in thetradition of John Daly and Craig Stadler, plays superfast golf, and thesuperslender Kevin Na, a 25-year-old Californian who calibrates and analyzesand goes through a checklist before making a swing, in the tradition of BenCrane and Sean O'Hair.

Cabrera, from Argentina, speaks limited English, andthere was almost no conversation between the two golfers, but Na had no problemfiguring out what was on Cabrera's mind. More than once Cabrera gave Na theinternational signal for Your play is too slow: marching briskly ahead thenanosecond after the other guy has played his shot.

"I could tell that he was getting frustrated,"Na said on Sunday, after tying for third, "but there wasn't anyplace for usto go. I tried to tell him that. The right pace is when you're keeping up withthe group in front of you, and that's what we were doing. I think he wasfrustrated because he was playing so poorly." Cabrera shot 77 in the thirdround and closed with a 71 to finish 14th.

Slow play is the bottomless pit of golf topics, onethat gets discussed constantly, like the weather, but about which nothing isever done. Last week at the Players, without the wind ever really coming up,the pace of play was glacial. The Thursday and Friday rounds, played inthreesomes, typically took 5½ hours to play. On Sunday, when 70 of the bestgolfers in the world played in twosomes, rounds still routinely took more thanfour hours. The slow play made the telecast feel sluggish. In the hot weatherespecially, slow play gave the crowd behind the 17th tee more reason to focuson drink and less reason to stay involved in the golf.

An official put Ian Poulter and Brian Davis on theclock on Sunday, as they played the par-5 9th hole, for being out of position:They were eight minutes behind the group in front of them. The twosome thenproceeded to play the 9th in an eagle (Davis) and a birdie (Poulter), and bythe par-5 11th they had to wait six minutes before teeing off. "It was akind of frustrating situation to be put on the clock for two [holes],"Poulter said, "but I guess there was a hole clear, and the official wasdoing his job."

On the LPGA tour, officials have figured out aneffective way to get players to play more quickly: penalize them not withmodest fines but by adding strokes. On the PGA Tour, officials have the rightto assess a stroke after a player receives two bad times in a single round, butBush 41 was president the last time such a penalty was invoked.

In the meantime Na was asked if he had learned anythingby playing with the 2009 Masters champion, about speed of play orotherwise.

"He's a big guy," Na said pleasantly, "whohits it a mile."

PHOTO

Photograph by FRED VUICH AND JOHN BOEDDEKER/NBC

ROCK AND ROLL The move from March to May changed playing conditions at the Stadium course, which was firm and fast last week.

PHOTO

ROBERT BECK (CABRERA)

MOVE IT! Cabrera almost sprinted off the tees—golfer body language that clearly told Na (below): "Get the lead out—or else!"

TWO PHOTOS

FRED VUICH (NA)

[See caption above]

PHOTO

ROBERT BECK

THE MIDDLE GROUND Woods put his stamp of approval on the Players, and gave himself some wiggle room, by saying the event is "like a fifth major."