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Players is all about what's next

3/23/2005

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – In these days of March Madness and the Big Dance, it would be only natural to compare golf's biggest event of the month with the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, The Players Championship more closely resembles college basketball's conference tournaments; it's a whirling dervish of a week, when anything can – and often does – happen.

Is it important? Sure, but more as a preview to something bigger than for the event itself.

Stick with us on the analogy: In those conference tournaments, teams compete for a chance to earn a better seed in the main event. With a championship comes greater anticipation for the following week.

Take Syracuse, for example. It won the Big East tournament, only to have the value of that title diminished six days later by a first-round loss to Vermont in the NCAA Tournament.

Such is also the case at The Players Championship, where a high finish only increases the expectations placed upon a golfer at The Masters. The year's first major begins a mere 11 days after the final putt drops at Sawgrass. And while looking ahead is often discouraged by coaches in team sports, it looms ominously throughout this week, as players try to deflect attention from Augusta National-related questions.

"I'm not looking forward to The Masters right now; I'm looking forward to tomorrow's event here," top-ranked Vijay Singh said Wednesday. "This is where the biggest gathering of players are, and it'll be one of the biggest achievements of my career if I can win this thing. So my focus right now is to go out there and play as good as I can and see if I can win it."

Perhaps having such pressure-packed events within two weeks of each other might explain why only one player – Tiger Woods in 2001 – has won both The Players and The Masters in the same year.

Or maybe we need only look at the stiff competition.

"It's still a great tournament, probably one of the strongest fields we'll have all year," Woods said. "You play against the best players on this golf course under these type of conditions. This is one heck of a test, so it's a bunch of fun for all of us."

The fact that a former champion like Woods has to sing the praises of The Players – such speech is eminently unnecessary at The Masters – speaks volumes about where it ranks on golf's food chain. But that's not to say it doesn't have some prestige of its own. Called golf's "fifth major," the event began with a Jack Nicklaus victory in 1974 and has grown in popularity ever since. Whereas Augusta National runs The Masters, the USGA has the U.S. Open, Britain's R&A takes care of the British Open and the PGA of America owns the PGA Championship, this week is all about the PGA Tour.

And it means a lot to the players.

"The history of the place, and the drama that's gone on here, and the strength of the field, the golf course – everything about this makes this tournament stand out," defending champion Adam Scott said. "And I think all the players know that.

"It's a big deal to all of us."

With the world's top golfers reaching the apex of their games – Singh, Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson have combined for seven international victories so far this season – this year's version of The Players Championship holds the most potential of any in quite a long time.

This week's winner will overcome a terrific field and hold aloft the crystal trophy given to the champion, golf's version of cutting down the nets. And, inevitably, he'll hear the same question posed to every champion at Sawgrass: "So, what are your chances at The Masters?"

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com