Players 'a great test'

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:56 AM ET

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Now it gets serious.

Not that anything that has happened the past few days on the PGA Tour has lacked the appropriate gravity. Exhibit A in support of that would be a quick glance at the anguished face of Englishman Greg Owen, who was one three-foot putt away from securing his golfing future on the 17th green at Bay Hill on Sunday, and blew it.

He missed the putt that would have given him a two-shot lead heading to the 72nd hole. Then he missed the ensuing two-footer, opening the door for Rod Pampling to win the Bay Hill Invitational. And Pampling walked right through that door.

Now the circus moves up the Florida coast to Ponte Vedra Beach and the Players Championship at treacherous TPC Sawgrass where the field includes 49 of the top 50 players in the world. The only name missing from that list is Kenny Perry, who underwent knee surgery last Monday and had to miss defence of his title at Bay Hill.

The field also includes 84 of the top 100, nine of the past 10 Players champions and the winners of the past 24 majors. It has been characterized as the unofficial "fifth major." That's a title that's hard to dispute and harder to win.

Sawgrass can be a brute of a golf course, especially in windy conditions, but it isn't one of those bomb-it and wedge-it places that take shotmaking out of the equation. Short-hitting 49-year-old Fred Funk solved its mysteries to win last year, as an example.

"The best player who is on form is going to win the tournament," Ernie Els said. "Accuracy is at a premium here and you'd better have your short game. Overall, it's a great test."

Pete Dye's design has some length but it doesn't rely on length. What makes it difficult are its subtle doglegs, vast fairway bunkers, narrow landing areas and plenty of water. In most cases, a 350-yard tee shot is not the play.

"The nature of the design brings us all together," Tiger Woods said. "We're all hitting to the same spots. With that in mind, it becomes a second-shot golf course and we see who can hit their irons the best."

Even at that, Funk's victory last year was a bit of a shocker, even to him. He lives just down the street and his familiarity with the course certainly played a role.

In less than three months -- June 14 -- Funk is going to turn 50 and already has made some plans to play in Champions Tour events this summer. He hasn't won on the PGA Tour since last year's Players and this past weekend's finish was by far his best result of the season.

"I had a terrible West Coast swing but I've figured some things out and I'm feeling pretty good heading into this week," said Funk, who shot back-to-back 69's on Saturday and Sunday at Bay Hill, finishing 10th.

Still, there are indications that Funk will be moving on, even despite the fact that when he won the Players in 2005, he also won a PGA Tour exemption until 2010.

"I'm having a hard time analyzing how I'm thinking because I've got the Champions Tour on the horizon and I'm excited in a lot of ways about moving over there. I'm also hesitant because I want to remain competitive (on the PGA Tour)."

Funk's biggest moment since his win here was the Skins game last fall against Fred Couples, Woods and Annika Sorenstam in California, where he collected 15 skins and $925,000 US. But nobody remembers that. All they remember is "the skirt."

Woods had bet Funk that if Sorenstam outdrove him on any hole, Funk would have to wear a dress for the rest of the hole. When that happened, Funk reached into his golf bag and produced a pink flowered skirt he wore on national TV.

"Sometimes I think I'm better remembered for the Skins skirt than for winning the Players," Funk said. He's probably right.

The only way to change that public impression is to win it twice and Funk knows that's a tall, tall order

"Sometimes I still pinch myself," he said.


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