Best of times for golf

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:56 AM ET

It has been many years since pro golf entered the meaty part of its season with such high anticipation.

Indeed, it may never have been like this.

Even in the golden era of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, there never was the dramatic crackle that has attended tournaments like it has in 2005.

The reason? I'll give you five: Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen.

Five years ago, on the eve of the 2000 edition of The Players Championship, veteran Hal Sutton challenged his colleagues to stop whining about how good Tiger Woods was and start doing something about it. Then, having stepped out on that precarious limb, Sutton went out and beat the great man himself in a memorable Players Championship.

MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

Now, it matters little that Woods was so shattered by his defeat at the hands of Sutton that he went on to put together the single greatest run in the history of golf, including four consecutive major championships spread over two seasons.

What matters is that the other players snapped to attention. They started working out with a purpose. They elevated their game.

"There's no question that we all needed a kick in the pants," Els said. "Tiger set the bar way high and if we wanted to beat him, we had to meet the standard."

In reality, the closing of the gap came through movement from both directions. Woods never could have maintained his amazing pace of 2000 and 2001 and he cooled off, just as other players such as Els, Singh, Goosen and now Mickelson, were figuring out how to get to the next level.

With apologies to Jack and Arnie and Gary, golf never has had a Big Five to rival this group, each of its members performing near the top of their ability. They all are capable of dominating performances any given week. The problem is getting them to tee it up in the same tournament.

That never is a problem at The Players Championship, or at the Masters two weeks hence. And when these big boys come out to play they tend to lift their sport way up high.

The Players Championship, the unofficial fifth major on the professional golf calendar, truly is the first prestige event of the year. If you can win on the Stadium Course, a little bit of golf heaven carved by Pete Dye from a snake-infested Florida swamp, against a field that includes all but a handful of the top 100 players in the world, you can win anywhere, against anybody.

Nobody knows that more than Adam Scott, the young Australian star who won his first near-major here last year. With that win Scott, in his 25th year, has emerged as perhaps the best player of the younger generation, a generation that has not yet stepped up in a big way. Are you listening, Sergio Garcia?

The fifth major label is not just hype. The atmosphere around the Stadium Course this week is major in every aspect but name.

"This is our championship," Woods said. "People call it the fifth major and it takes that kind of mentality and that kind of perseverance to win on the TPC at Sawgrass."

The players may have been a bit shocked when Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational brought out the big strap last week and, essentially, spanked their backsides. Tired of watching his beloved golf course get mauled each year, Arnie had them grow some gnarly rough and keep the fairways slow and the greens quick. It proved an effective way to protect par.

The players will get no such surprise at Sawgrass this week. They know it's going to be brutish because it always is. They've had a ton of rain in the area the past week and there is more in the forecast the next couple of days, with some drying toward the weekend.

The rough already is laid over on itself in spots and, like Bay Hill, the fairways are wet. Superintendent Fred Klauk is confident the greens will be rolling like billiard tables by the time the tournament begins.

And that's the way it should be. At $1.44 million US to the winner, this is the biggest payday of the season. Is that major enough for you?


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