Rory McIlroy hits out of a bunker during a practice round Wednesday for this… (Tannen Maury / EPA )
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Looking back now, Rory McIlroy is quick to admit that skipping the Players Championship was a mistake last year.
"It wasn't one of my brightest moments," the world's top-ranked golfer said. "Yeah, I'm glad to be back."
Wonder if Bubba Watson will feel the same way next year. Or Charl Schwartzel. Or Darren Clarke.
For those who didn't pick up on the link, they are three of the last five major champions — none of whom are on the TPC Sawgrass campus this week. Nor are four others among the world's top 50.
Of those, only Dustin Johnson (back) has been on the injured list. Everyone else, to borrow the hockey term, is a healthy scratch.
As recently as five years ago, the absentee list from the top 50 rarely rose above two. TV promos boasted that the Players, which begins Thursday, annually drew the strongest field in golf. Now its turnout languishes behind all three World Golf Championship events.
Not even a $9.5-million purse can get some guys to make the trip.
"History would say that the top 50 guys come here, and it's a big event," said Luke Donald, newly deposed (again) by McIlroy from atop the rankings. "It's just a small step down from the majors."
Watch that step, though. It has some give to it.
Watson is trying to make up for lost family time in the whirlwind that came after winning the Masters. He was visibly fatigued and homesick for his wife and adopted 2-month-old son while making a title defense in New Orleans two weeks ago.
Late last week, Watson announced he was taking "at least" a month off.
"You should really be there," CBS analyst Nick Faldo said during last weekend's broadcast from Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C. "The way that course is set up, it always plays tough and breezy. He could be one of the favorites, so I would say that's a poor decision."
Hey, if a guy's heart isn't into it, what can you say? Family issues aren't going to draw a whole lot of blowback, especially in today's society.
Tiger Woods is playing at the Players and hoping to regain the form that he has lost since winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational in late March.
It's the absences other than Watson this week that indicate a more troubling trend. Overseas players no longer seem to hold the Players in such high regard.
It became a side issue last year when McIlroy and Lee Westwood went missing, possibly on the advice of agent Chubby Chandler. Now they're here (McIlroy also has changed agents), but Schwartzel and Clarke also are part of the Chandler stable.
Schwartzel went from Augusta to Malaysia, then on family vacation. He returns at next week's Volvo World Match Play in Spain — as will Clarke, Thomas Bjorn and Paul Lawrie.
One week later comes the BMW PGA Championship — the European tour's "fifth major."
As the global golf schedule has evolved, the Players finds itself in a tight spot. In trying to separate itself from the Masters with its shift to May, it moved into a slot right before the meat of the European tour's schedule.
"It just seems that it comes now in the season where there's a lot of big tournaments," McIlroy said.
The Players is still a big tournament. Now, though, it seems one of a handful.