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The Players Championship, a prestigious tournament with an elite field of players from around the world, is traditionally billed as the season's "fifth major." The event features the biggest total purse on tour and is certainly a circled event on the golf fan's calendar.
But last year, the scoreboard at TPC Sawgrass looked more like the John Deere Classic than the U.S. Open. If the Players is indeed in the class of the major championships, it certainly didn't play with the difficulty of one in 2010.
Last year's event saw the field play the course to an average score of 71.734, the second-lowest mark in the history of the tournament. It was only the fourth time that the field played the course below par, and the 1,560 birdies made over the course of the week were the fourth-most in tournament history.
How did it compare to the other majors? The Masters, U.S. Open, British and PGA played to a combined average score of 7.266 shots above par per round. That's about 7.5 shots tougher than The Players. There were nine golfers at 11-under or better at Sawgrass; there were just eight at the other three majors combined.
Granted, there's much more to the prestige of a tournament than the way the course plays. But when an event is frequently thrown into the conversation with the likes of the U.S. Open, your pin placements and rough lengths will be judged against your peers.
Let's not declare Sawgrass a birdie factory yet, though. This was just the second time in the last six years that Sawgrass played easier than each of the four major courses. In both 2008 and 2009, Augusta National played to an easier score. In 2006, the PGA and Open Championships had lower scores relative to par.
While we're at it, let's debunk a myth about the famed 17th hole at Sawgrass: That island green ain't that difficult anymore. There was a time not that long ago when that wasn't the case. As recently as 2007, it was the fourth-toughest par-3 on the PGA Tour. The last two years, it's been the fourth-toughest par-3 ... at TPC Sawgrass.
The birdie percentage in 2009 and 2010 at the hole far exceeded 16 percent each year; that number was 9.5 in '07, when it was one of the 30 toughest holes -- of any kind -- on tour. As for shots going into the water, the 29 total that fell into the drink at 17 last year were the fewest since 2003.
Fun with water hazards: Among players in this year's field, no one has found the water at 17 more than Aaron Baddeley and Heath Slocum (7). Phil Mickelson has hit six in the water dating back to 2002, when the folks at the PGA Tour started keeping track.
Bonus trivia: Who has the most career birdies at 17? That would be a tie -- Corey Pavin and Davis Love III have each done it 17 times.
Three on the Tee is a look at a trio of players in the field this week that we at Numbers Game will have our eye on. This isn't a list of favorites, just three we find interesting. With that, we call to the tee:
Tim Clark: Your defending champion missed 11 weeks earlier this year with an elbow injury, but will look to get his 2011 campaign back on track this week at Sawgrass. Clark hasn't found the winner's circle again since last year's win, but he has had a handful of good finishes since last May: a T-2 earlier this year at the Sony Open, and a T-4 at the 2010 RBC Canadian Open among them.
If Clark were to (shockingly) win this week, he would make history. Amazingly, there has never been a back-to-back winner of The Players in the tournament's history. Since 1982, when the event moved to TPC Sawgrass, only five players have even finished in the top-10 the year following their victory, and even that hasn't happened since Adam Scott finished tied for eighth in 2005.
Lucas Glover: Last week, the PGA Tour unveiled its new putting metric, "strokes gained -- putting." The concept was explained in last week's version of this very blog. Basically, the new stat evaluates how many shots a particular player is better (or worse) than the field based on the percentage of players who make a putt from a certain distance.
Both the tour and the CBS television team couldn't have had a better result for the new stat, which was all over the broadcast last weekend. No. 1 in the field last week in strokes gained -- putting: Lucas Glover, your tournament winner. Glover gained a total of 10.59 strokes on the field putting at the Wells Fargo Championship -- which explains why you can be T-52 in the field in fairways hit, outside the top 25 in greens in regulation, and still win the tournament.
Question: Who is the only player to birdie the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass all four days of The Players Championship?
Answer: Paul Azinger in 1987.
Tiger Woods: Woods makes his first start this week since the Masters. It marks the 10-year anniversary of his only career victory in the event (remember: "better than most") back in 2001. He has finished in the top 10 just once since then. Woods was the last player to win The Players and a major championship in the same calendar year; Tiger won the Masters that year after taking the title at TPC Sawgrass.
Only two other players have ever won this event and a major championship in the same calendar year: Hal Sutton in 1983 (PGA Championship) and Jack Nicklaus in 1978 (British Open).
Numbers Game is a weekly stat-centric look at the PGA Tour.
Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.