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Rain unlikely to sink '5th major'

The newly renovated TPC Sawgrass course should withstand the elements.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - When it was announced last year that the Players Championship was being moved to May, one of the big benefits was supposed to be better weather.

Gone would be the frequent rain delays that plagued the so-called fifth major during March, along with the occasional chilly mornings in northeast Florida.

Naturally, it rained off and on here yesterday and the forecast for today's first round and the rest of the week is, well, more of the same.

"Welcome to sunny, dry, warm Florida," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem deadpanned.

Umbrellas aside, Finchem is not about to let a little lousy weather - technically, subtropical storm Andrea - rain on his parade. He and the tour have worked too long and hard for that.

Since the 2006 Players Championship - now referred to simply as "The Players" in most promotional material and logos - everything has changed and, in some ways, nothing has.

Aside from the later date, which repositioned the Players from two weeks before the Masters to plug a big-tournament gap between the Masters in April and the U.S. Open in June, there are the $50 million in improvements.

Most readily visible is the $30 million, 77,000-square-foot clubhouse, which was completed only days ago and lords over the course like a castle. Inside, among the posh accoutrements, are a few of Pete Dye's framed original scribblings of the holes and the layout he envisioned.

On the golf course - already one of the most demanding on the PGA Tour - they dropped an additional $20 million.

Most of those changes probably won't be noticed on TV: a tee moved, a few trees planted, a green re-sloped. The real changes are subterranean, designed to improve playing conditions.

Because the TPC Sawgrass was built on a swamp in 1980, the ground beneath it gurgled with trouble, especially when it rained. For drainage purposes, what they did over the winter was essentially dig up the entire course - every tee, fairway and green - to remove tons of "sludge" and lay down a one-foot-thick layer of sand.

They also installed one of those SubAir systems that is used at Augusta National, an elaborate network of tunnels beneath the course that enables them to vacuum out water and circulate air.

"The goal was to kind of GoreTex the course," Brian Goin, executive director of the Players Championship, said yesterday.

The Players gets additional benefits from the later date. For starters, now that it is played during daylight-savings time, there won't be as much of a mad rush to finish early, before dark.

"We can finish at 7 o'clock now," Goin said with a smile.

More important, the Players no longer will compete for headlines and SportsCenter time with the NCAA Final Four. Also, no longer will it be viewed as a tune-up for the more important Masters, which had been played two weeks afterward.

"I haven't heard one person say they are getting ready for the U.S. Open," Goin said.

The intention, of course, is to raise the profile, image and quality of the Players, long regarded as the fifth major.

This is a touchy subject with Finchem and other Tour types. Though the Tour runs most tournaments in the course of a year, it doesn't run any of the four majors: Augusta National Golf Club runs the Masters, the U.S. Golf Association runs the U.S. Open, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club runs the British Open, and the PGA of America runs the PGA Championship. That's a constant thorn in the side of the folks at the Tour, whether they admit it or not.

Yesterday, after rattling off all the enhancements to the Tour's showcase event, Finchem tiptoed around the subject of whether the Players ought to be, or ever will be, considered a major.

"I've been answering that question for 13 years, and I think I have been consistent in that we don't put ourselves in the middle of that debate," he said.

It's an issue best left to the players, the media and the fans, Finchem said.

"If at some point our players felt strongly, or the golfing public felt strongly that there needed to be some adjustment to the stated hierarchy of tournaments, I suppose we would address that," he said. "I don't sense the need to do that now."