May 6, 2008

A Matter of Choice

Golf World asked PGA Tour pros to identify their 'fifth major.' Their answers may surprise you

TPC Sawgrass hosts the tour's flagship event, but some players say other non-majors are more important to them.

TPC Sawgrass hosts the tour's flagship event, but some players say other non-majors are more important to them.

The so-called fifth major in professional golf can be found in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Also in Orlando, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Dallas, Fort Worth, Atlanta, Ohio and Connecticut, not to mention London and various points in Canada and Australia.

Every year, as surely as azaleas bloom in Augusta, Ga., and par is gerrymandered at the U.S. Open, discussion is renewed about which tournament, aside from the four major championships, is considered the most important in professional golf. And every year, the PGA Tour's flagship event, the Players, becomes the focal point of the debate, which hardly is coincidental but eminently logical.

The Players, begun in 1974, offers the largest purse in professional golf ($9 million) and bestows on its winners a five-year PGA Tour exemption­ -- equal to the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. Similarly, in the tour's FedEx Cup competition instituted in 2007, the four majors and the Players share the distinction of offering the most total points, 27,500, with 4,950 going to the winner. Common sense dictates that such incentives will lure the strongest field, and the world's best golfers eagerly migrate every spring to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.

"Whether you want to say that it's official or unofficial or whatever, the Players is the fifth major in golf. It's simply a major tournament in my mind," says Sean O'Hair, who contended at TPC Sawgrass last year before finishing 11th. "If I could put any trophy on my mantel, it would be the Players, and I'm sure there are plenty of guys who feel the same way."

Well, yes, there is no shortage of O'Hair's peers who acknowledge the significance of the Players. Recently, however, it has become apparent that the "fifth major" seal of approval is far from unanimous even while there is no refutation of the Players' cachet.

The parameters of the discussion were reconstituted last year when Scott Verplank, a Dallas native, won his hometown tournament, the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. As a kid Verplank had worked at the event as a standard bearer, and later he became friends with the tournament's legendary namesake. The victory, coming in the first year after Nelson's death, was both emotional and consequential -- so much so that Verplank was moved to refer to it as "my fifth major."

"I've been wanting to win that tournament for 35 years," Verplank explains. "It was the biggest event on my schedule. I grew up there. Byron meant so much to me. Emotionally, it felt like a major to me."

Verplank appropriating fifth-major status for an event other than the Players wasn't necessarily heresy. Neither was it some watershed moment in modern golf revisionism. Nonetheless, there was something liberating about Verplank's clear, visceral assertion.

Two weeks later, in the theater-like interview room at TPC Sawgrass, Australia's Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, offered that his home country's open tournament superseded the Players as the most desirable nonmajor. "Career-wise, winning [the Players] is leaps and bounds in front of the [Australian] Open, but if I ended my career not winning this tournament, it wouldn't be as disappointing as not winning the Open."

Ogilvy allowed, as did many fellow pros, that a clear-cut answer wasn't readily forthcoming. It seems the practical side of the brain recognizes a good deal, which the Players clearly is from a cash and career standpoint.

Compatriot Adam Scott, who won the '04 Players, clearly was torn when presented similar options. "That's a hard one because [the Australian Open] is a very important tournament to me as well, and being Australian, that's what I grew up always wanting to win. Is it the fifth biggest tournament in the world? No, it's not; [the Players] is."

Indeed, the Players has no trouble earning that distinction. But the questions for today's professionals have become more nuanced. Is golf's so-called fifth major your fifth major? If not, then what is? And why?

"There are only four majors, so any fifth major is whatever you want it to be," says Steve Flesch, whose recent tie for fifth in the Masters was his career-best finish in a major championship. "It's different for everybody and for different reasons. It's the tournament that motivates you and makes you nervous or excited, the one you don't ever want to miss, and only you know what that is."

Sean O'Hair and Tiger Woods

Flesch is clearly onto something. Tournament golf is a pressure-packed milieu. But a major makes your heart race faster and your palms sweat more. It simply "feels" different. For just about everyone, there is a tournament that induces similar emotions and extra nervousness, and to win that event represents an accomplishment nearly as satisfying.

For many, the choice is simply parochial. Just as Ogilvy, Scott and Stuart Appleby confer a personal seal on the Australian Open, no tournament means more to Canada's Mike Weir than the Canadian Open. England's Lee Westwood gears up with equal zeal for a major or the BMW PGA Championship, the flagship event on the European Tour. Meanwhile, Ian Poulter points his non-major schedule towards the Omega European Masters.

Not surprisingly, the issue is more clear-cut among American-born players, with many giving the nod to the event at PGA Tour headquarters. Still, heartstrings pulled others to different venues, just as they did players from a previous generation. Jack Nicklaus said that one of his greatest accomplishments in golf was winning his own Memorial Tournament in 1977, and Tom Watson always has been partial to the BMW Championship -- formerly the Western Open -- because it is where he won his first PGA Tour title (in '74) and, he says, "because at some point the Western Open was talked about by great players like it was a major championship."

NBC analyst Johnny Miller, a two-time major champion, says the Players deserves its due because of the golf course and all the pomp and what is pumped into the tournament, but he also knows how powerful the pull from home can be.

"For me, to win at Pebble Beach was everything. That was always my home course, per se," Miller says. "You always want to win where you live. That becomes a mini-major for anybody, I don't care who you are, because I think there's more emotion that goes into it, and that leads to more pressure because of the importance you place on it. I also think that winning on great courses carries a lot of weight. I think that's important to anyone. Look at the field at Riviera this year. Look at Congressional ... courses that have mojo. Guys know where winning would be meaningful to their careers."

Chad Campbell is among the latter class of players. The Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial is the most important event for him, followed closely by the Northern Trust Open at Riviera CC and then the Players. In all three cases, he says, the golf course was the determining factor.

In the former group you have men such as Verplank; Ben Curtis, an Ohio native who favors the Memorial; Cliff Kresge, who lives near Orlando and covets the Arnold Palmer Invitational; and Billy Andrade, who lists stops in Atlanta (AT&T Classic or Tour Championship), Boston (Deutsche Bank Championship) and Hartford (Travelers Championship) at the top because of residence considerations. "I'd add the Rhode Island Open, too, if I could," he says with a grin. "Now, ask me which is the hardest to win, and you have to say the Players."

Says Flesch: "The Players, no doubt, has the best field in the world. It has a better field than any of the majors, in fact. I think that has to go a long way in anyone's book when you talk about important tournaments."

It definitely goes a long way with the world's No. 1 player. "Is the fifth major my fifth major?" Woods said last month, repeating the question as he mulled over a response. "I think I would have to say yes because it has the best field. I think that's the biggest factor. It matters who you beat."

Woods, who nonetheless will skip next week's Players as he rehabilitates his surgically repaired left knee, admitted he was voting solely with his head. Restricting the question to pure practicality makes the answer rather obvious. But when it comes to gut-check factors, many players can't help but admit that there are weightier matters than big paychecks, FedEx Cup points and World Ranking points.

Prestige is where the heart is.

"I never played in one major championship where I knew what the prize money was, nor did I care. That's how you know it's a major," says three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin. "When it's all about the trophy and the accomplishment and the satisfaction in winning, then you've found your major, whether it's one of the four traditional ones or something else you point to. It's the intangibles."

"Everybody has their own choice, and I think in most regards it's something pretty personal," adds Curtis, the 2003 British Open champion. "Every guy out here wants to win any week he plays. Every win is kind of special. But I think we all have our preferences, what we'll look back on one day and say, well I won 'this,' and it'll be as big to us as any major championship."

Picks for 5th major