PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- As soon as there was enough light to play Tuesday morning, Tiger Woods began his practice round at Sawgrass, where you don't have to look too far to see there's a great deal at stake out there in the fairway grass.
Besides the PGA Tour-record $9 million prize money of The Players Championship, the stakes continue to grow this week for Woods, and everyone else chasing him.
This is certainly no tournament to be taken lightly, not with 48 of the top 50 ranked players showing up in the 145-player field.
But with Woods at peak form and Phil Mickelson apparently getting closer to straightening out his swing, the PGA Tour's most compelling players can take a status check with the U.S. Open just five weeks away.
Woods remains in his pre-eminent position. He has played six tournaments, won three of them, including last week at the Wachovia, and tied for second at the Masters.
After he finished his practice round, Woods acknowledged the Players Championship as the so-called fifth major, then rated the degree of difficulty of pro golf's greatest prizes, the four majors.
Woods said even regular tournaments are difficult.
"It's not easy to win. Look at the fields, how much deeper they are now. And because the fields are so much deeper, it's harder for a player to gain the experience at a younger age.
"Once you get on tour, how many times are you going to be in contention on Sunday afternoons? You're going to fail, but when is the next time you're going to get back there?"
For Woods, he has been back there plenty. His two-shot victory Sunday at the Wachovia was his 57th PGA Tour victory, and with 12 majors, he leads all active players. Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els each have three major titles.
Mickelson's journey back into prime time has come along faster than he probably expected. After he tied for 24th at the Masters, he tied for third at the Nelson and tied for third again last week at the Wachovia. Mickelson is a combined 19-under in his past two events and said the coaching he has received from Butch Harmon is beginning to pay off.
According to Harmon, he is trying to shorten Mickelson's swing at the tee and build a swing that will hold up under pressure. Mickelson is 143rd in driving accuracy, hitting about 56 percent of the fairways, but he's a solid 12th in driving distance and averaging 296.8 yards off the tee.
"I thought I was going to drive it better than I did, and as it turns out, it takes a little bit of adjustment to have confidence with it under the gun when fairways are tighter and firmer and crosswinds and so forth."
Thomas Bonk writes for the Los Angeles Times.