PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tiger Woods was on the golf course at dawn Wednesday, and not entirely pleased with what he saw.
The fairways were soft and wet. His ball picked up mud along the fairways. He dug deep to repair pitch marks on the green. The Stadium Course on the TPC at Sawgrass hardly resembled what Ernie Els referred to as a "little monster."
"It's better when it's firm and fast," Woods said as he walked to the third green. "That's what really separates guys out here. Because you really have to think."
Woods likes a tough test, and that's what The Players Championship is all about.
They call it the fifth major, and in some cases it is even tougher to win than the four majors that make up the Grand Slam.
All but four winners in the 28-year history of The Players Championship have also won a major, which is no coincidence. No one has ever won consecutive titles.
The field is the deepest and strongest in golf, with 48 of the top 50 from the world ranking. The course features the most difficult closing holes in golf -- an island green for a par 3, followed by the 447-yard 18th, which played harder than any other hole on tour last year.
"You're not going to scuffle it around here and shoot a good score," Els said. "You've got to play well to score well."
At the moment, no one is playing better than Woods and Els.
The Big Easy won tournaments in Miami and Dubai, then tied for ninth last week at Bay Hill. Els is so locked into his game that he had the presence Wednesday to stop his practice round after nine holes and head to the range when he felt out of sync.
Still, the advantage goes to Woods, whose game appears to be coming together during his favorite stretch of the year.
He won at Bay Hill last week for his first victory of the season, the only player in contention to avoid bogey over the final nine holes on brick-hard greens.