PALM HARBOR -
From the players to the tournament officials, it seems everyone has something to prove this week at the Transitions Championship.
A winner's check of $990,000 is the big prize as a field of 144 golfers tee it up Thursday at Innisbrook's 7,340-yard Copperhead course, a par-71 track that annually ranks as one of the most challenging tests on the PGA Tour.
"The golf course here is incredible,'' said George McNeill, who won the Puerto Rico Open last week and tied for second here in 2008, two shots behind winner Sean O'Hair. "As long as we keep playing here, I'll keep coming back.''
This is the fourth and final year for Transitions Optical as the title sponsor and the PGA is in the process of working with tournament executives to land another major corporate partner.
"Obviously, the Tampa Bay area is a tremendous golf market for us, with a long history of supporting professional golf,'' said Andrew Pazder, executive vice president of the PGA Tour. "This event fits in perfectly with the Florida swing and we're absolutely confident that when the 2013 schedule comes out, this tournament will be right where it is.
"Transitions has been a model title sponsor for us and we'll find the right fit with another company.''
While event officials search for corporate support, a solid field hopes to meet an array of personal challenges.
Gary Woodland, who posted his first professional victory here a year ago in his initial Copperhead event, has struggled early in the 2012 season with only one Top 25 finish in his first six events.
"Last year, I was riding a lot of confidence coming in here and I was playing well,'' said Woodland, who is still adjusting to a new golf swing. "I can hit more shots than I could last year at this time and last week (Cadillac Championship) was the first week I've made putts this year. Now I know the swing is not far away.''
McNeill, a Florida State graduate who lives in Fort Myers, is determined to earn his first invitation to The Masters by winning at Copperhead.
Because the Puerto Rico Open is considered an "opposite'' event, played the same week as the Cadillac Championship in Miami, the winner does not automatically qualify for next month's opening major at Augusta, Ga.
"It's their rules,'' McNeill said Wednesday. "That's the way they've always been. Until they change it, I'll just kind of sit back and wait.''
For Lucas Glover, the time for sitting and waiting is over.
Making his ninth consecutive appearance here, Glover hasn't played since spraining knee ligaments and a tendon when he fell off a paddle board before the PGA's opening event of the year in Hawaii.
"Swing-wise, I'm 100 percent and have been for a few weeks now,'' said Glover, who finished fourth at Innisbrook in 2007. "It's just the walking and fatigue that walking brings. If I had to pick a golf course or tournament to start my year, it would be this one … I have good vibes when I get here.''
For 21-year-old Brit Tom Lewis, this week's assignment is all about making a successful debut on the PGA Tour after winning the Portugal Masters last October in only his third start as a professional.
"This course sets up for me well,'' said Lewis. "I'm hitting the ball well, so there's no reason why I can't perform. As long as I leave this week with learning a little bit about where my game is and what I really want from it, that's more important than really performing.''
PGA TRANSITIONS CHAMPIONSHIP
WHEN: Thursday through Sunday
WHERE: Copperhead Course, Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, Palm Harbor
TV: Thursday-Friday: Golf Channel, 3-6 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday: Golf Channel, 1-3 p.m. and NBC (News Channel 8), 3-6 p.m.
TICKETS: Available at Publix or online at transitionschampionship.com
COURSE LENGTH, PAR: 7,340 yards, par 71
FIELD: 144 players
PURSE: $5.5 million
WINNER'S SHARE: $990,000