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 Rory McIlory of Northern Ireland with THE PLAYERS Championship trophy after the final round at TPC Sawgrass on March 17, 2019. PGA TOUR pic.
Rory McIlory of Northern Ireland with THE PLAYERS Championship trophy after the final round at TPC Sawgrass on March 17, 2019. PGA TOUR pic.

KUALA LUMPUR: It is the gold standard on the PGA TOUR, a championship that ranks “Better than Most” and continues to spark debates if it should be inducted as one of men’s golf majors.

Staged on an iconic venue designed by the legendary Pete Dye and boasting the strongest field in the game and a mind-blowing US$15 million prize pot, the 47th staging of THE PLAYERS Championship on March 12-15 returns with all the shine, gloss and prestige associated with the PGA TOUR’s flagship tournament.

Irish superstar Rory McIlroy will defend the prized trophy with the sole aim of becoming the first man in history to repeat as PLAYERS Champion, remarkably a feat never achieved previously by so many other greats before him.

THE PLAYERS has also become a symbol of inspiration to many golf stars from across Asia, with South Korea’s K.J. Choi, who coined the phrase “To be the best, you’ve got to play with the best”, and Si Woo Kim emerging victorious in 2011 and 2017, respectively.

Choi, arguably the most successful Asian golfer with eight PGA TOUR victories under his belt, said: “THE PLAYERS victory was one of the most significant and dramatic moments for me. A lot of Korean fans cried and cheered that day and I remember it perfectly.”

Nicknamed “The Tank” for his single-minded purpose in the game, Choi’s vast success in America continues to inspire other Koreans and Asians such as Kim to dream big. Three years ago, the 24-year-old stunned an elite field at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass following a three-shot win. “I feel a sense of pride any time I’m at TPC Sawgrass. It’s a very special place for me,” said Kim.

Another strong assembly of Asian stars will join the world’s best this month including President Cup International Team members Sungjae Im, Byeong Hun An, both from Korea, Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan and Japanese ace Hideki Matsuyama who has two top-10s at THE PLAYERS in 2017 and 2019 and strongly tipped as a potential PLAYERS Champion.

McIlroy’s views on THE PLAYERS’s stature in the game is noteworthy. “It means a lot because it is our tournament and I think your peers recognize you for that achievement. It's an event that everyone wants to win. Very proud, very honoured to call myself a PLAYERS Champion,” said the 30-year-old, whose victory last year propelled him to a second FedExCup title.

Australia’s Jason Day, a former World No. 1 and 2016 PLAYERS Champion, thinks the event should take its rightful place alongside the Masters Tournament, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Open Championship. “I want it to have major status. It would be good. When you come to an event like this and you're playing in a tournament on a large scale, it feels like a major.”

Retired NBC golf commentator Johnny Miller provided a slightly different twist. “There should only be maybe five championships in golf, PLAYERS Championship, and then the majors … and the rest of them can be tournaments.”

Even for the newcomers in the game, the stature of THE PLAYERS is not lost on them. Thai rising star Jazz Janewattananond, who is poised to make his debut, chimed in: “Everyone says it’s the fifth major. It’s a big event. I have heard the golf course is really tough. I’m also excited to play that 17th hole,” said the 24-year-old.

Jazz should be careful for what he wishes for as the iconic par-3 17th hole has delivered high drama and defining moments since THE PLAYERS was first played there in 1982. Countryman Kiradech Aphibarnrat suffered at the infamous hole, finding water twice en route to a quadruple bogey during the final day in 2018 as he dropped out of the top-10 of the leaderboard.

It was also on this very green that another TV pundit, Gary Koch, immortalised a moment of magic that would become “Better than Most” during the 2001 PLAYERS. Tiger Woods, who was chasing leader Jerry Kelly then, was faced with a monster 60-foot birdie putt in the third round which he needed to negotiate a triple break. As the ball left Woods’ putter and tracked towards the hole, Koch began his play-by-play commentary - “Johnny (Miller, his co-commentator) that is … better than most …”.

As the ball reached a slope about 20 feet from the hole, it veered hard right and the massive crowds around the stadium-like atmosphere began to buzz. Koch goes on to say “ ... better than most ...” again and when the ball dramatically disappears into the cup, he lets out a third and final “… better than most!” shout-out as Woods broke into an unbridled uppercut celebration. The golf legend would go on to win his first PLAYERS title by one shot.

Whether THE PLAYERS is “Better than Most” or should enjoy major status, the views shared last year by Justin Thomas, the 2017 FedExCup champion, probably makes the most sense. “I don't care what it is, if I win it, I'll be pleased,” he said.

“I mean it has all the characteristics, if you will, but to me THE PLAYERS is THE PLAYERS. Everybody knows it's a huge event, everybody knows it's a major. Can you go wrong calling it one or not calling it one? There's every person in this field who would be very, very content with holding the trophy at the end of the week.”

* Chuah Choo Chiang is Senior Director, Communications for the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur.

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