By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PONTE VEDRA BEACH Florida (Reuters) - With reigning champion Tiger Woods skipping this week's Players Championship where any of four golfers could replace him as world number one, there is a palpable sense of expectation at the TPC Sawgrass.
Top-ranked Woods has been sidelined since having surgery for a pinched nerve in his back at the end of March and, in his absence, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Masters champion Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar all have a chance to dethrone him.
Add to that the fact that this week's $10 million event boasts the strongest field in golf in what is widely regarded as the unofficial fifth major, and you have all the makings of a tournament for the fans to savor.
Since 1982, the Players Championship has been held on the par-72 Stadium Course, the diabolical Pete Dye layout which has continually frustrated contenders over the years while also rewarding good play by golfers of all types.
"We have such strong fields here," American world number eight Phil Mickelson, the 2007 champion, told reporters while preparing for Thursday's opening round in the PGA Tour's flagship event.
"A lot of top players have won this tournament, have played their best golf and I think this course can bring that out.
"It's not easy to win this tournament, and it seems to bring out the best players."
Australian world number two Scott has the best chance this week to dislodge Woods from the top spot, needing to finish no worse than joint 16th at the TPC Sawgrass.
Asked whether he felt he had a greater opportunity to win when the game's leading player was absent from the field, Scott replied: "There's no doubt he plays a huge impact on the feel of a golf tournament.
"He is obviously the No. 1 player in the world and one of sport's biggest people. The tension he draws is massive, from gallery to media. It's obvious when he's not around, I think.
"But I don't see it as just a wide open opportunity to have a chance because he's not here. There are so many guys winning events now that you've got to look past just No. 1. The list is long here this week and other guys are going to play great."
The TPC Sawgrass is usually presented in impeccable condition for the players but there had been some concerns coming into this week over three of the greens, due mainly to cool weather in March and chemical problems.
"They're fine," left-hander Mickelson said of the greens on the fourth, 11th and 12th holes which were closed during Monday's and Tuesday's practice rounds. "They're very playable. Everybody has got to play them.
"Now, they're not going to be able to be firm and fast like they normally are. They're softer, a little bit slower and that's going to lead to lower scores."
British Open champion Mickelson has been grouped with fellow American Dustin Johnson and Spaniard Sergio Garcia, the 2008 winner at the TPC Sawgrass, for the first two rounds.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)