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Golf's 'fifth major': What decides The Players' status?

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

The most irritating question in sports - aside from whether Barry Bonds is on steroids or is just a grouchy, over-muscled freak from outer space - is whether The Players Championship is a major.

Is the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course truly major worthy?

The question used to come up every March. Now it will come up every May. And it's so irritating that many of us simply sigh and ask, "Does it matter?"

Well, yes, it does. Because they keep records on this sort of thing, and use them to measure the greatest golfers of all time.

For example, if they made The Players a major retroactively, Jack Nicklaus would have three more and Tiger Woods only one.

I asked around, and no one I talked to could say definitively what makes a major a major. But the factors most often cited seem to be time, quality of the field, quality of the course and, most vexing, what we shall call mystique.

Mystique. You know, when the TV announcers start talking so reverently you think they're going to start speaking in tongues.

The Players Championship is on shaky ground on the first criteria. The British Open, which started in the 1860s, is the oldest major. The U.S. Open goes back to 1895, the PGA Championship to 1916, and the first Masters was in 1934.

The first Players was in 1974, when it was known as the Tournament Players Championship. Even then they were talking about when the thing would achieve major status.

Wrong. You have to have moss growing on you to be a major. Bonus points for old white bigots drinking bourbon on the veranda or old white aristocrats drinking gin in the drawing room.

Grade: D.

As for quality of field, though, The Players has one of the best. The top 125 finishers on the money list are eligible, and there are exemption for the winners of majors and other tournaments. It's one of most prestigious fields in the world, if not the most.

Grade: A.

The course? A little harder to answer.

The Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass is one of the best-known golf courses in the world (thanks in no small part to the infamous island green on No. 17), but is it up there with Pebble Beach, Augusta National, Cypress Point, Pine Valley or Winged Foot?

Golf Digest ranks the Stadium course 79th on its list of the 100 greatest. It's not even in the top three golf courses in Florida. Can it compare with any of the U.S. Open or British Open courses?

It fares a little better in terms of difficulty, coming in 14th in the magazine's "50 toughest" roster. Having played the Stadium course multiple times and dealt with its ubiquitous water, cross-hazards and loathsome rough, I can attest to that ranking.

The slope rating, the index that's most relevant for us amateurs, is 149 from the back tees, not much less than the 155 racked up by Golf Digest toughest track, the Ocean course at Kiawah Island.

Still, there are those who rank the Stadium as inferior even to Sawgrass' other course, the Valley.

Grade: C-plus.

The last factor, mystique, is about as easy to measure as subatomic particles. A lot of it goes back to origins. How and why did these majors start?

There is a story that former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, the moving force behind The Players, was so frustrated that he couldn't control the majors that he threatened to start his own tournament opposite the U.S. Open and pour money into it to attract the stars.

Beman has denied it, but there is no doubt The Players was largely founded for business reasons.

"In the same way the PGA has the PGA Championship," the ex-commissioner told PGATour.com in an interview earlier this month, it was important for the Tour to have The Players - "not just [from] a status standpoint, but from a practical standpoint, because the Tour needed to start to build important and significant events around which they would put television emphasis."

As far as geographical mystique, don't even mention Ponte Vedra in the same breath as Augusta or any British Open site.

(Granted, I'm biased here. I grew up near Ponte Vedra and used to drag dead sea turtles behind my car on the beach, before Deane and his Mercedes-and-khaki-shorts crowd horned in. Plus I'm still peeved over a rich association of Ponte Vedra Beach homeowners trying to get me fired from a newspaper job because I scolded them for shutting peons like me out from the once-accessible beaches.)

Grade: F.

Beman himself seems a little conflicted on this major question.

"It's the best tournament that can be put on - in every respect," he told PGA Tour.com. "I consider it the best tournament in the world. The moniker the press puts on it ... it's up to them. We did all we could do to make it the best event in the world."

There you have it: Let the media decide.

As a member of the aforementioned, I hereby declare The Players - not a major.

Until next year.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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