All eyes on Tiger at Players

The Players Championship is the PGA Tour's showcase event. Hence, the self-promoting title "fifth major."

No doubt, there is a lot to be said for the tournament in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course has evolved into one of golf's most recognizable stops. The field is always strong. The list of past champions is distinguished.

There's also a $1.71 million winner's check, the richest in golf.

Here's what to look for this week:

Five storylines to watch

1. Tiger is back: By the time tournament week is over, it's a safe bet more stories will be reported and written on Tiger Woods than the eventual winner -- assuming Sunday's champ is not the world's former No. 1 player. Golf can't help being captivated by Woods' continuing saga. Will he ever return to past form? Will he ever win again? Quite honestly, Woods' not winning is quickly becoming as fascinating a story as all the victories used to be.

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Tiger Woods has never missed the cut at Sawgrass, but he has just one victory in the TPC.

2. Missing from action: The Players Championship traditionally has one of the true glamour fields. It's good again this year, but something is missing. Namely, a pair of Europeans who declined to show up -- the world's No. 1-ranked player, Lee Westwood, and rising star Rory McIlroy.

3. No. 17, the par-3 island hole: The most photographed hole in golf may not be its most popular, but it always plays a direct role in the tournament's outcome.

4. What will Rory do? After another exhibition of bad manners last month in New Orleans, Rory Sabbatini is facing a suspension from the PGA Tour. Actually, he may already have been suspended, but because players are entitled to a two-week appeals process, he will be able to play at Sawgrass. Sabbatini was involved in a verbal altercation with playing partner Sean O'Hair in New Orleans, reportedly over pace of play. Earlier this season he berated a 16-year-old volunteer at Riviera for marking one of his wayward drives with an empty soda can. Playing in the PGA Tour's home-course event, he might want to try his best behavior -- but he's Rory Sabbatini.

5. Is Players really the next best thing to a major? The question is asked every year, and there is a lot to be said for the quality of the week. But with Westwood and McIlroy missing this year, the debate will heat up even more.

Top five players to watch

1. Tiger Woods: Despite the fact Mr. Red-Shirt-On-Sunday's last PGA Tour victory came almost two seasons ago, he still demands attention. The fact he has been nursing a sore left knee and Achilles tendon problems and skipped last week's Wells Fargo Championship only adds to the intrigue. Woods has never missed the cut in 13 appearances at Sawgrass, but he has only a single victory -- 10 years ago, remembered for the "better than most" birdie putt from 60 feet on the 17th hole. Last year, he withdrew six holes into the final round with a neck injury.

2. Bubba Watson: The long-hitting left-hander from the Florida Panhandle has steadily established himself as one of America's top talents. With two wins already this year, Watson can make it three by using his length to tame the relatively short course.

3. Jim Furyk: Last year's PGA Tour Player of the Year has yet to return to top form, but no one doubts it will happen. Furyk's all-around game fits the course that pays huge dividends for accuracy and shot-making.

4. Phil Mickelson: The second of only two players in golf (you can guess the other guy) who generates attention simply by showing up, Mickelson has one victory this year. He won this event in 2007.

5. Martin Kaymer: The German, who won last year's PGA Championship, briefly held the world No. 1 ranking early this year, but now rests at No. 2 behind Westwood. With Westwood skipping the event, it's a perfect week to make a move.

Five who could surprise

1. Matt Kuchar: Kuchar grew up in Florida, played at Georgia Tech and lives in nearby St. Simons Island, Ga., so he will have plenty of support. He also has the course-management skills to take on Sawgrass.

2. Adam Scott: It's hard to call a past tournament winner a long shot, but after winning the Players in 2004 the Aussie slowly lost his game and fell off golf's radar. Recent play suggests he is returning as a force.

3. Rickie Fowler: Despite being 2010 Rookie of the Year, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy has yet to win on the PGA Tour. It's going to happen sooner rather than later, and Fowler's game loves the big stage.

4. Brandt Snedeker: Snedeker has four top-10 finishes this season. Since missing the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he has tied for 15th at the Masters, finished fourth at the Valero Texas Open and won last month at Hilton Head.

5. Hunter Mahan: Mahan has been steady as rent this year, recording one second place finish and five top 10s. He brings a solid record to Sawgrass, playing himself into last year's hunt until the final day.

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