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Andrea threatens Players Championship

DOUG FERGUSON • May 9, 2007 at 10:06 AM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Tiger Woods no longer is the most daunting name at The Players Championship. Someone named Andrea joined the strongest field in golf Wednesday.

That was the name assigned the first storm of the year, off the coast of northeast Florida and arriving just in time to rain on the PGA Tour's parade. After all, one reason the tour moved its flagship event from March to May was to avoid the kind of wet weather that has caused the tournament to end on Monday three of the last six years.

"Welcome to sunny, dry, warm Florida," commissioner Tim Finchem said Wednesday. "We never said it doesn't rain in May. We just said the patterns are different, and it's not going to rain as much."

Players won't be the only ones tested when The Players begins today with the deepest field of the year on a refurbished Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass for $9 million, the biggest purse in the golf.

Sawgrass is nothing like it was last year, when Stephen Ames blew away the competition by closing with a 67 for a six-shot victory.

Tired of a little rain leaving small rivers in the middle of the golf course, the tour spent more than $12 million to make the famed Stadium Course as close to indoor golf as the game allows.

Every fairway was stripped of its grass and replenished with soil that allows for better drainage. Ditto for the greens, which resembled empty pies shells as workers installed a vacuum under each putting surface and restored the original design, except for a few greens in which the slopes were made less severe.

And because the tournament moved to May, the common Bermuda grass was left alone.

"It looks very different," said Woods, who last saw these conditions at Sawgrass when he was a skinny 18-year-old who won his first U.S. Amateur title here in 1994.

But that was after he played it in sunshine, before anyone realized Andrea would show up and shower the course. That means the tour's plan to build a course to withstand rain might get its first big test.

Even in the on-and-off rain, the fairways looked like carpet, minus some of the roll.

"The greens stayed pretty firm," Justin Leonard said after playing the back nine. "They didn't soften any."

It probably won't be as firm, fast and frightening as some players predicted when they realized there hasn't been too much measurable rain over the last month, just the stench of smoke from wildfires in neighboring Georgia.

One other change is the mounding around the greens, which have been reduced slightly and in many cases mown down. Instead of hacking onto the green, players now have options whether to chip up the slopes or use the putter, much like at Pinehurst No. 2.

The one conclusion just about everyone drew was summed up best by former Players champion Adam Scott.

"There's going to be no faking your way up to the top of this leaderboard," he said. "Anytime it's soft, you can play bad and score pretty good. The ball won't run out of the fairway. The ball never runs into any trouble. Once it comes down to having to strike the ball well to get any spin on it to hold a green, that's when you see the guys who are playing their best."

And who might that be?

If recent history is any indication, it could be anybody.

The list of champions have ranged from the long (Woods and Davis Love III) to short (Fred Funk), from great iron players (Ames and Hal Sutton) to remarkable short games (Craig Perks).

"Anyone can win here," Woods said. "That's the beauty of this golf course. There really is no advantage to taking out driver and bombing it down there because of the trouble, but also have everything pinches in. Over the years, we all hit the ball to the same area and just play from there."

Still to be determined is the effect of the rough, which will be about 2½ inches, about half as high as it was. But the nature of Bermuda grass is that players don't know how it will react, and the targets at Sawgrass can be awfully tiny.

"The rough is much more playable than it used to be," U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said. "But that could turn out to be more difficult because you're going to go for greens out of the rough when you never used to, and you're going to bounce over the backs, and you're going to have some trouble that way.

"It's still Sawgrass, still a tough course. Just a little different."

Woods is coming off a two-shot victory at the Wachovia Championship, his third of the year, and his ninth on the PGA Tour over his last 12 starts dating to the British Open last summer. It wasn't his smoothest victory at Quail Hollow, not the way he was struggling with his swing, and coach Hank Haney again was at his side during practice rounds.

The Players has a varied and impressive list of winners, the majority of them major champions. Still missing from that roll call are Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk - both live near the course and spend most of their time in practice at Sawgrass.

Mickelson has tied for third in his last two tournaments since switching to swing coach Butch Harmon, although he didn't have a serious chance to win, either. He remains a work in progress, and his best finish at The Players was a tie for third in 2004, four shots behind.

"I think it will take some time for me to feel comfortable and confident with a couple of changes," Mickelson said. "But I'm starting to see the difference. There's no little, quick fix to years of poor driving."

About the only quick fix was to the golf course. Work began five days after Ames hoisted the trophy, and the course was open again about seven months later. Now comes the first test, likely to be observed in similar fashion.

From under an umbrella.

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