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Players Championship begins Thursday

  |   March 26, 2003 at 4:05 PM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla., March 26 (UPI) -- Tiger Woods, who won by 11 shots last Sunday when he was very ill, should be in the peak of health Thursday when the PGA Tour's flagship event begins at the TPC Stadium Course.

Woods, the winner of three of his four starts this year, is scheduled to embark on his opening round at The Players Championship at 7:40 a.m. EST.

His task has been made somewhat easier this week by the absence of Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, the No. 2 and No. 3 players in the world rankings. Els, who recently injured his right wrist while hitting a punching bag at home in London, has withdrawn as a precaution to ensure he will be healthy for the Masters.

Mickelson pulled out to be with his wife, who gave birth to their third child on Sunday.

But Woods still will have to overcome one of the strongest fields of the year, one that includes 47 of the world's top 50 players.

"It's the highest tournament in the world next to the majors," Woods said. "I don't think it ranks up there in the majors' category now. It's one step below."

History, Woods said, prevents the Players Championship, which started in 1974, from being a major. After leaving no doubt where he stood on that issue, he explained what makes the tournament so difficult.

"This is the toughest course we play all year, especially if the wind blows," he said.

Major or not, the quality of winners over the past decade has been of the highest order. Between 1991 and 2001, every winner also had, or was soon to have, a major trophy in his possession.

Last year's champion Craig Perks has been the exception.

Since Greg Norman won here in 1994 with a record score of 24-under-par, the PGA Tour has made the course considerably harder, with higher rough and, when possible, firm greens.

Lee Janzen's winning score in 1995 was 19 strokes higher than Norman's. Since then, the winning score has fluctuated between 3-under and 18-under.

The talk on tournament eve was about the firmness of the greens and how low scores might be hard to come by.

"If the weather stays (dry) like this for the whole week, it won't allow a lot of low scores," said Robert Allenby, who predicted the winning score would be in in single figures in relation to par.

While the Players Championship has produced a storied list of champions, it usually offers up an outsider who comes within a whisker of victory only to come unglued at one of the final hurdles -- usually the island-green, par-three 17th.

Phil Blackmar in 1991, Len Mattiace in 1998 and Scott Gump in 1999 were among those who almost pulled off spectacular upsets before having their hopes drowned at the 17th.

Woods, who is recovered from the food poisoning he contracted Saturday night, has a relatively mediocre record in this event, with just one victory in six starts.

And while Woods is the favorite this week, Colin Montgomerie does not think the course, which demands precision approach shots to tightly-tucked pins, will favor Woods as much as last week's venue at Bay Hill.

"He was very ominous last week, very ominous," said Montgomerie. "But this course is slightly different, more exacting than some we play, and I'll be interested to see how he does here."

Not that Montgomerie expects Woods to struggle.

"He's by far the best player who's ever played the game, in my view," he said.

David Toms, who was beaten by Woods in the final at the Accenture Match Play Championship four weeks ago, agreed.

"As far as what Tiger does, it never ceases to amaze me," Toms said. "He thinks he's supposed to win. He wins all the time, so it's like second nature to him. He does whatever he has to do to get it done."

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