The Masters is still two weeks away, but professional golf's championship season begins in earnest this week when the $7.5 million (no, that's not a typo) Players Championship unfolds at the TPC of Sawgrass.
There was a time when the Masters signaled the beginning of the season for the pros, and to a lesser degree golf throughout the "rest of the country." That would be golfers in the East and Midwest, who unlike those of us in Arizona, are forced into a six- or seven-month window to play the game because of the weather.
But with global warming, and the Players Championship becoming golf's biggest money event — $1.35 million to the winner — seasons have changed.
Personally, I love the Players for several reasons. First, it has the strongest field in the game. Second, the Pete Dye-abolical TPC of Sawgrass serves up almost as many disasters as the Masters. And, even though it is not officially a major championship, you could have fooled me.
The Players also represents a time to catch our breath, and look back at what has happened so far in 2004. Obviously, there has been a lot.
Perhaps the strangest story to date has been the re-emergence of John Daly, although some might argue the erratic play of Tiger Woods has been a close second.
Daly, however, takes precedence here, as he has risen from 299th in the world to 53rd, while going from oblivion on the money list to his current standing at No. 9 with a somewhat shocking $1,269,000.
What adds to the intrigue surrounding Daly is that his main goal for '04 was to play his way back into the Masters, the only major he has missed for the past two years. To do that, he must be in the top 10 on the money list or in the top 50 on the planet after the Players wraps up Sunday.
Daly is so close — yet so far away. He seemingly had his invitation wrapped up last Sunday at Bay Hill, only to finish bogey-triple bogey, a demise that dropped him all the way from third place to 10th. Isn't that just like Long John!
Now, Daly has to play well again this week, or else hope that no one jumps ahead of him on the money list, in order to qualify. After winning in San Diego in February, a victory that staked him to fifth place financially, it would be a long way to fall.
"If I don't make it back to Augusta, it's going to kill me," Daly said earlier this season at Tucson. "But the way the money is these days, I could get passed like I'm standing still if I don't keep going."
Woods is the other guy to keep an eye on this weekend. Even though he has said repeatedly that he points his season toward the Masters and the other majors, and even though he already has won once this season, the Players is the kind of marquee event he is expected to win because he's Tiger.
Actually, Woods did win it three years ago. But coming off last week's uncharacteristic meltdown at Bay Hill, where he was gunning to become the first player to ever win the same tournament five straight times, and ended up with three straight rounds over par, some doubts have crept into his game.
"It happens," he said this week of not being able to play at a high level consistently. "Unfortunately, it happened last week. Hopefully, it won't happen again (this week). But I guarantee you, it will happen at times. It's part of sports."
That Woods actually dissed his former guru, Butch Harmon, during the same news conference does not bode well. One does not need to be a scientist to see that Tiger's results were better under Harmon.
Or how about this analysis, which was afforded me by a local PGA Tour player who asked to remain anonymous.
"Tiger's ball flight does not look a thing like it did three years ago, when he was winning all those majors," the source said. "Back then, his ball flight was lower, harder and straighter, with the ball tumbling behind a slight draw. Now, his ball has an upshoot to it, and when he's just a little off, it goes left and right."
One other thing about Tiger, the source said. "When a good player starts hitting it left, which is the most common mistake by a good player, it can be fixed. When it goes left and right, that's trouble."
It does seem like Tiger has been throwing a lot of clubs lately.
There are other plots and subplots to look forward to at the Players.
It's doubtful we will ever see such hi-jinks as we did in 1982, when Jerry Pate tossed Dye and then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman into the drink at the 18th following his win. Or the chutzpah of Hal Sutton's in-your-face victory over Woods in 2000.
But, go ahead, sit back and get comfortable, and watch the big boys back off their shots — two and three times — at the TPC of Sawgrass' infamous par-3 17th. Only the Masters' notorious back nine is more compelling when it comes to reality TV.