There is one problem with calling the US Players' Championship the "fifth major". It has a strong course, albeit soggy one at Sawgrass after two inches of rain, a strong field, with all the top 50 players in the world present, and the richest official prize in golf. But with the first major date of the season only two weeks away at Augusta, it is impossible to ignore the hint that this week is only a dress rehearsal.
Tiger Woods, the new kid on the block, said as much. "This is a perfect way to prepare for the Masters, a good warm-up tournament before Augusta," he said. Colin Montgomerie, one of eight Europeans in the field, takes the opposite tack having come close to claiming the $630,000 (pounds 393,000) first prize that went to Fred Couples last year.
"I do not know why this is not a major championship," Montgomerie, who has finished ninth, 14th and second in the last three years, said. "It is a major tournament and the next best tournament you want to win after the majors. It is nice to know I have been in a position to win here.
"I am driving the ball very well and confident of putting the ball on the fairway. I have not been worse than 20th in six tournaments this year so, although I have not won, it has been consistent." He has been in the upper reaches of the leaderboard on each of the last three weeks on the US tour and thinks he has corrected the fault which led to him finishing with three bogeys in a row last week at Bay Hill.
His long irons, apparently, were too flat by one and a half degrees and the technicians in the Callaway van spent three hours making them more upright. The European No 1, who dispensed with the services of his long- time coach Bill Ferguson, has been followed here in practice for the first time by Denis Pugh. The former David Leadbetter man obviously had the desired effect as Monty took $100 off Phil Mickelson.
With his victory at Bay Hill on Sunday, Mickelson, at 26, became the fourth youngest US tour player to win 10 times after Horton Smith, Jack Nicklaus and Gene Sarazen. Woods, 21, who needs seven more wins in the next four months to beat Smith to the mark, is making his first appearance but won the first of his three US Amateur titles here in 1994. The soft conditions may mean a stampede of low scoring but probably helped in the burying of a time capsule of memorabilia at the nearby World Golf Hall of Fame.
Included were Woods' (cancelled) cheque from the '96 Skins Game which was donated to the National Minority Golf Foundation, Greg Norman's first Akubra hat and the Decisions on the Rules of Golf 1997, the latter being the contribution of the Royal & Ancient. The capsule will be dug up in 2047, when Woods should still be on the Super Seniors Tour.
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