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Pleading for the 5th

Let's face it, the Players Championship is destined to forever follow the word also, as in, "among Jack Nicklaus' 71 PGA Tour victories, there were 18 major championships, and also three Players Championships."

The highlight of Greg Norman's career were those two British Opens, but he also won a Players Championship.

You get the picture.

It's not quite worthy of joining the four traditional majors -- the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship -- but it's reached a point where it's in the next breath.

The 35th edition of the Players Championship begins Thursday at the Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach. Like Augusta National and the Masters, the Players also has a tradition "unlike any other." But this one involves a question: Is it a major?

For those who have won it, the answer is usually yes. For the rest of us, we're not so sure. But there are reasons to consider the possibility.

How many reasons for a potential fifth major? Five, of course.

Simply put: No. 17

All the great championship venues have their signature holes. On the truly great layouts, they become iconic.

At Augusta, it's the 12th hole in particular, the entire Amen Corner in general.

St. Andrews has the Road Hole.

Troon has the Postage Stamp.

The 10th at Winged Foot.

The 18th at Oakmont and Pebble. And Olympic, for that matter.

But for all its gimmickry, for all its juvenile manners and lack of sophistication, you have to admit, the par-3 17th at the Stadium Course is on the short list of golf's greatest Sunday theaters.

Why not Tim Finchem?

Let's look at who's in charge of the four traditional majors:

· The plaid-coated execs who run the Palm Beach-based PGA of America.

· The Green Coats in Augusta.

· The kilted blokes at the Royal & Ancient in St. Andrews.

· The tweed and pipe set who run the USGA.

Given that, are you gonna deny major status to the buttoned-down 9-to-5ers -- led by commissioner Tim Finchem -- who have turned the PGA Tour into the best-run and (in so many ways) most envied professional sports organization in the world? By the time Augusta National was as old as the PGA Tour, Jack Nicklaus had won five Masters.

And think about it, who knows more about putting together a world-class golf tournament than the people who do it on a weekly basis?

Plenty of competition

It's a full field of players, and you don't get in through some sort of quick-hitting qualifying format.

Generally, you earn your way into the tournament through a pattern of good play over a long period.

The top 125 from the previous year's PGA Tour money list, along with the top 50 in the current world rankings, make up all but a handful of the spots.

Sounds a little bit simple, but believe it -- that's the basis for making up the best 144-player field you'll find anywhere.

That's why there's the potential for a nondescript winner, such as 2002's little-remembered champion Craig Perks, to emerge.

But by and large, the list of Players winners is more noteworthy than the past champs of the four traditional majors.

Golden Bear 21, Tiger 14

For those of you who hate to see Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors under attack, call the Players a major, make it retroactive and just like that you add three majors to Jack's total -- taking him from 18 to 21, since the Golden Bear won three of the first five (1974, '76 and '78).

Tiger Woods, left, has won just one of them, so he'd go from 13 to 14. And worse yet, on a historical note, Tiger also loses his status as the first black golfer to win a major title -- Calvin Peete won the '85 Players during his short but highly productive run of excellent play.

Of course, this would also make major champions of Mark Hayes, Jodie Mudd and Craig Perks, but hey, if the major-title club can make room for Paul Lawrie, Ben Curtis and Larry Mize, it can live with this.

Whatever Phil says

Earlier in the year, when discussing scheduling, Phil Mickelson referred to basing the personal schedule around "the five majors." Again last week, looking ahead, he referred to the Players as a major. Of course, he was quick to point out that he might be more convinced since he won it last year.

Whatever the reasons or reasoning, the players look at the Players, at minimum, as something of a sidecar to the traditional majors. Then again, you could throw a five-year PGA Tour exemption on the Quad Cities Open and suddenly it would look rather major, but the PGA Tour doesn't do that. Instead, the Tour decides the Players Championship is where it will devote lots of attention and resources.

Plus, it's located in the back yard of the Tour headquarters. And they say it's big. Real big. Phil says so, too. And he's hardly alone. So there.

The Players Championship

WHERE: TPC Sawgrass, Players Stadium Course, Ponte Vedra Beach.

WHEN: Thursday-Sunday.

TV: Golf Channel (Thursday-Friday, 1-7 p.m., 9 p.m.-midnight) and NBC (Saturday-Sunday, 2-7 p.m.).



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