Commentary

Players Championship an opportunity to claim stake as Tiger's principal rival

Tiger Woods isn't even in the tournament, yet the salient question surrounding the Players Championship is clear: Who has the moxie and drive to make the case he is clearly the second-best player in the world?

Updated: May 6, 2008, 6:38 PM ET
By Ron Sirak | GolfWorld.com

Ten LPGA tournaments have been contested in 2008, and Lorena Ochoa, Annika Sorenstam and Paula Creamer have won nine of them. Ochoa has grabbed five and Sorenstam and Creamer picked off two apiece. The injured Tiger Woods has played in five of the 18 weeks the PGA Tour has held events this year, winning three times. So as we head into this week's Players Championship and the Michelob Ultra Open -- two events on the short list of "fifth majors" on their respective tours -- the question becomes: When is a win merely a win and when is it a quality triumph?

Ochoa has skipped the two Hawaii events and the Stanford International. Sorenstam stayed home both times the tour was in Mexico and during last week's SemGroup Championship. Creamer was a no-show both times in Mexico. What has emerged as the Big Three on the LPGA have all been in the field at the HSBC Women's Champions, Safeway International, Phoenix, Kraft Nabisco Championship and Ginn Open. All were won by Ochoa. The only players to win when she was in the field were Louise Friberg at the MasterCard Classic and Creamer last week.

[+] EnlargeLorena Ochoa
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesOchoa has been dominant this year, but unlike on the PGA Tour, she has competitors palpably vying for her No. 1 position.
Woods, meanwhile, has won three of the five tournaments he has played in his injury-interrupted season, with the only guys to defeat him being Geoff Ogilvy at the WGC-CA Championship and Trevor Immelman in the Masters, both world-class players. So is this week's Players tarnished by the absence of Woods? Absolutely not. At least not if you look at it the right way.

While in Sorenstam and Creamer, the LPGA has produced challengers for its clear No. 1 player, setting up a rivalry likely to be joined later in the year by Suzann Pettersen and Cristie Kerr, the PGA Tour has yet to produce even one player who can remotely be said to be masquerading as someone who could keep the player of the year race from being all but already over.

Beyond Woods, there are no multiple winners this year on the PGA Tour. This week's Players is the fourth of at least six tournaments in a row that Woods will miss while rehabilitating his surgically repaired left knee. The earliest he will be back is May 29 at the Memorial, although it would not be surprising if he did not return until June 12 at the U.S. Open. Here's what needs to be done starting this week at TPC Sawgrass: Someone needs to make a statement that he's ready to take on a healthy Tiger Woods.

Who are the leading candidates to mount such a challenge? Well, start with the defending champion at the Players, Phil Mickelson. Lefty, Ogilvy and Anthony Kim -- last week's winner at the Wachovia Championship -- are the only winners this year on tour, other than Woods, who also have a runner-up finish on their dance card. And Kid Kim, the brash 22-year-old whose game is catching up to his attitude, is the only tour player with a trifecta this year, finishing first, second and third.

Mickelson and Ogilvy have won major championships, and they have won with Woods in the field. Kim has neither of those distinctions, yet somehow he has the feel of being the member of that trio who just might be up to the task of taking on Tiger. If nothing else, because he is young and in just his second full season on tour, he has accumulated less emotional scar tissue courtesy of Woods than those guys who have been on the receiving end of his greatness for the past dozen years.

Kid Kim is coming on. After missing three cuts in four starts beginning at the Northern Trust Open, Kim has finished second, T-19 and first -- all at events in which Woods did not play. But the point is this: Kim is using the time Tiger is on the sidelines to build some momentum and acquire added confidence. That's exactly what some other guys need to be doing.

Here's one way to view this week's Players: Look at it as a crucial test in which someone can make the case he's ready to stake a claim to the title of second-best player in men's golf. Ernie Els, Adam Scott, K.J. Choi, Rory Sabbatini, Zach Johnson and Boo Weekley also have victories in the past year. This is a big week for them; in fact, it is a big week for the PGA Tour.

If the Players produces yet another first-time 2008 winner, an opportunity will have been lost by a half-dozen or so players to take advantage of Tiger's absence and get ready for his return. The importance of this Players Championship is enhanced, not diminished, by Woods' absence.

[+] EnlargeAdam Scott
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesAdam Scott's talent and potential are undeniable, but he's still looking to discern himself from the heap of players chasing Tiger's tail.
On the women's side, meanwhile, Ochoa will be going for her sixth victory of the season against one of the strongest fields of the year on the Kingsmill Resort and Spa River course, one of the best venues of the year. The LPGA already has produced the kind of rivalry for which the PGA Tour is yearning. Ochoa is the best, clearly, but in Creamer and Sorenstam -- at the very least -- it has players who have demonstrated the guts to go after her.

Will someone emerge as that kind of player on the PGA Tour? That's the compelling question hanging over this week's Players Championship. And it just could be that Kim, the kid a decade younger than Woods, has what has been missing in Charles Howell III, Sergio Garcia, Scott and other talented former youngsters who were supposed to challenge Woods: the belief he can do it.

Back in 1997, when Els won the U.S. Open at Congressional in the first major after a 21-year-old Woods cleaned everyone's clock by 12 strokes at the Masters, it seemed as if the then-27-year-old South African would play Arnold Palmer to Tiger's Jack Nicklaus and steal a half-dozen or so major titles in the Woods Era. That did not happen.

Els, Mickelson and Singh all have won three majors with Woods on the scene -- although one of Els' came in 1994 before Tiger was on tour. But none of the three really rose to the level of true pretender to the throne. For Els and Mickelson, at least, there is still time. And for Kim, this could be the beginning of his time. We'll learn a lot about that this week at TPC Sawgrass, perhaps the most compelling non-Tiger tournament in the Tiger Woods Era.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine and author of the best-selling book "Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make you a Better Player" and the recently released "The Game Before the Game: The Perfect 30-Minute Practice."

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Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.