Woods favored to repeat as Players champ

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla., March 20 (UPI) -- If you didn't think The Players Championship was the PGA Tour's fifth major, just listen to Tiger Woods and Johnny Miller.

The marquee event gets under way Thursday at the TPC Sawgrass, a course Woods calls potentially the most difficult on tour and where Miller has likened play to a car accident.


The sport's incomparable star, Woods captured last year's event by a stroke over Vijay Singh but knows how difficult it is to win at Sawgrass, which has been compared to a U.S. Open layout because of its narrow fairways, high rough and firm greens.

"If it's hard and fast, it's the toughest we'll play all year, without a doubt," said Woods, who is trying to become the first repeat winner in tournament history.


Woods also said a soft course would translate into receptive conditions, something that could come in handy at the par-3 17th, one of the most renowned holes in the world.

The "Island Hole" is the most entertaining on the course. It's 137 yards to a green surrounded by water, with wind playing havoc with the world's best players.

"Any golf hole you get to the tee and you think, 'Just hit it on the green,' from 150 yards, it has to be good," said Spanish star Sergio Garcia, who hasn't finished better than 48th in two starts here. "It gets around your head."

The 17th isn't the only hole players have to worry about. The 7,093-yard course is surrounded by water hazards, including the par-4 14th, which cost Singh the tournament last year.

"The key is to keep it out of the water at the end of the golf tournament, try to make a par or two and not make any mistakes," said David Duval, a Ponte Vedra resident who won this event in 1999. "Pretty simple."

"The Players is fun for the viewers at home because we alternate between car accidents and really pretty shots," added Miller, an NBC analyst who never won this event during his playing career."TPC at Sawgrass provides a lot of excitement that way."


Pretty shots should abound, especially since the tournament includes 48 of the top 50 players in the world. Combine the field with the course and the $6 million purse and you get the tour's unofficial fifth major.

"There's no doubt about it, The Players Championship is the fifth major," Miller said. "It's the fifth most important tournament in the world. There is an aura. Players want to win here."

Woods is the favorite to walk away with the $1.08 million top prize. Last year, he posted a winning score of 14-under-par 274, thanks in part to a remarkable 60-foot, multiple-breaking birdie putt at the 17th hole in the third round.

Last week, Woods became the first player in history to win three different events three years in succession by claiming the Bay Hill Invitational. He also won this tournament last year as preparation for his second career Masters title.

"Obviously, this is starting to look a little bit like last year, when Tiger used his win at Bay Hill as a springboard to win here and at The Masters," NBC analyst Gary Koch said. "But Tiger would be the first to tell you he's not playing as well as he was last year."


Woods' three-shot win at Bay Hill was his first in 6 1/2 months. At 26, he became the youngest player in history to 30 career titles, but he knows a 31st won't come easy this week.

"People call it the fifth major," he said. "It takes that kind of mentality and that kind of player and perseverance to win at the TPC. It's just a very difficult test."

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