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Hard to predict a champion at The Players

By Doug Ferguson
Associated Press
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. ó A corridor beneath the grandiose clubhouse is lined with black-and-white photographs from more than a quarter-century of winners at The Players Championship since it moved to the notorious TPC Sawgrass.
They have little in common except they beat the best field in golf and got very rich.
There is powerful Adam Scott, 23, and pea-shooter Fred Funk, 48, the youngest and oldest champions.
Hal Sutton captured this event twice, once as a svelte young man in his second year, later at age 41 with a paunch, sweat stains and five of the most famous words uttered on the 18th hole of the Stadium Course ó iBe the right club today!î
Past champions feature the power of Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Fred Couples, the accuracy off the tee of Calvin Peete, grinders like Tom Kite, Lee Janzen and Justin Leonard, the pure ball striking of Nick Price, the short game of Phil Mickelson.
iIt suits good players,î Paul Goydos concluded Wednesday. iIf you show up here with your best game, you have a shot to win. I donít think anyone walks out there and says, ëI canít play this golf course.í î
There are a few things about The Players Championship that fall into the death-and-taxes category.
n Woods has no chance of winning because heís not here. He had surgery on his right knee two days after the first major, giving him time to recover before the second major, making his absence a setback for the tournament debated as the fifth major.
n Every player will watch anxiously until his tee shot on the 17th hole hits the island green, if it does.
n The winner will walk away with $1.71 million, more money than any other single tournament offers on the PGA Tour.
But making a sound prediction on which style of game the Sawgrass best suits is like spinning a roulette wheel.
iEverybody can play their own game on this golf course,î said British Open champion Padraig Harrington, twice a runner-up. iThereís a lot of different strategies. Probably the greatest thing about the course is you can watch a threeball (threesome), and theyíll consistently hit different clubs off the tee.î
Power is negated because everyone can reach the par 5s in two shots, except for the ninth hole, where the entrance to the green is blocked by a massive oak. And now that the fairways have been refurbished to allow for fast, firm conditions, the par 4s are all about position. Length really only helps on a couple of holes, such as the seventh and 14th.
iYou can probably get away with probably three holes where youíd have to hit driver,î Lee Westwood said.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the variety of winners at The Players Championship is that Mickelson will try to become the first player in 35 years ó this is the 27th year at the Stadium Course ó to successfully defend his title.
Mickelson was asked why it has been so hard on defending champions.
iUntil this year?î he said to laughter. iI donít know. I have no idea.î
If anyone is a favorite at The Players, it would be Mickelson based on the trophy in his possession and his No. 2 world ranking. Of the top 25 players in the world at Sawgrass this week, only Mickelson and third-ranked Scott have won this tournament.
Not having Woods around helps only slightly.
iHeís giving us a little bit of a break at the moment,î said Scott, two weeks removed from a playoff victory in the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. iStill, thereís so many good players here this week that I think your percentages are only just a little bit better.î

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