PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — A gust of wind won the 2008 Players Championship on Sunday. Pete Dye won the Players. And ultimately, to the great relief of everyone who hoped for a first-class winner at the "fifth major," Sergio Garcia won the Players.
Under pressure and in winds that gusted up to 40 miles per hour, he took only 28 putts, none bigger than a seven-footer for par on the 18th hole to shoot 71 and force a playoff, which he won with a par after Paul Goydos's tee shot ballooned and plopped into the water on the island-green 17th hole. Garcia's tee shot settled four feet from the flag, and the tournament was all but over. Goydos hit a nice approach from the drop area, and Garcia missed his birdie putt, but his tap-in par was good enough for the win.
"It's a lot of hard work that's starting to pay off," said Garcia, who won for the first time on any tour since 2005. "I felt so good all week long with all parts of my game."
Well, maybe not all parts.
After an opening-round 66, Garcia made nothing Friday and Saturday, taking a combined 67 putts, but lessons with short-game guru Stan Utley kicked in again just in time.
Under the gun on Sunday, he converted from medium and even long range — a 47-foot birdie putt on the par-4 14th hole — but he was most nervous on the 17th hole in regulation, when he left himself a downhill par putt he called "the longest three feet I've ever seen."
It was a welcome change, and a lucrative one, for a man whose putter cost him the 2007 British Open. Garcia earned $1.71 million for the win, his seventh on the PGA Tour.
"The only thing this tells me is to keep working hard and to believe in myself," he said. "And when I do believe in myself, I think there's not a lot of guys that can beat me."
Goydos, too, was dialed in. He made a 50-foot birdie putt on the fourth hole, pitched in from 30 yards for another birdie on the 10th, and was in control until a bogey on 18 dropped him into a tie with Garcia at five under.
Jeff Quinney shot a two-under 70 to finish third, while Briny Baird (72) and Stephen Ames (72) rounded out the top five. Sunday's scoring average of 75.176 was the highest of the week.
Garcia's heroics salvaged a strange week, typified by Kevin Stadler holing out from the fourth fairway twice in two days, a fluke that seemed like it had to be a typo when first posted in the media center Sunday. But perhaps that should have come as no surprise, since the 2008 Players began with a question no one at Tour headquarters wanted answered: What if you threw a supposed "fifth major," and everything went haywire?
Whipping winds made the golf almost irrelevant, because while 35-mph gusts are fine for the British Open, they're unwelcome at this confluence of swamp and railroad ties.
"Those [Open] golf courses are built for this," said Ernie Els, who got to one under for the tournament on Sunday before making double-bogey on the 18th hole, where he rinsed his second shot. "You can play the ball on the ground and hit all kinds of different shots. This place you've got water hazards all over the place, so you've got to put the ball in the air."
Jesper Parnevik made a 9 on the normally birdie-friendly par-5 ninth hole and shot 46 on the front side on the way to an 85. Richard Sterne also made a 9 on Sunday, on the brutal par-4 18th hole. (It played to a 4.8 stroke average.)
"It was almost close to borderline," said 2006 Players winner Stephen Ames, who had a chance to post two under for the tournament until he made a double-bogey on 18. "A little unfair, when you're hitting great shots and weren't rewarded."
Boo Weekley had addressed a putt on the ninth hole when his ball blew three feet sideways. Anthony Kim said he had to steady himself lest he get blown over.
"I probably had six putts that I'm literally changing the read by the second as I stand over it," said Ben Crane, who shot 72 to finish one over. "When greens are this fast, and you're standing over a six-footer, the read can go from right edge to a ball outside left in a gust."
Woody Austin had one of the best rounds of the day going at three under when he got to the 17th hole, where the pin was tucked in an almost impossible spot, front-right. His tee shot caught a gust and splashed down way short, and Austin looked skyward and uttered a few choice words at the golf gods before exhorting the crowd to cheer his calamity — gallows humor that went over big in the players' dining room.
"Hey, Heath, what do you think he said?" said D.J. Trahan.
"Who knows, with that guy," Heath Slocum replied.
Better to ask why such a prestigious and lucrative event seemed jinxed before it started.
Another Woody (Allen) once said that half of life is just showing up, which meant the Players was a field half-empty, a fact Garcia alluded to in his victory speech when he quipped, "First of all I want to thank Tiger for not being here."
Woods had surgery on his left knee after the Masters and spent the Players two hours south — courtside at the Orlando Magic-Detroit Pistons playoff series, to be exact. This may have explained the glut of scalpers trying to unload tickets along A1A, or the handful of major metropolitan papers that declined to send a writer to cover the event.
The absence of the best player in the world can be overcome, but before Garcia's heroics a series of unfortunate events seemed to drain the Players of any remaining magic.
Masters champion Trevor Immelman withdrew with a stomach bug before hitting a shot, and Hunter Mahan, seemingly fighting the same thing, threw up while playing the first and second holes (two Technicolor pars) and also withdrew.
Jason Gore (illness), Shigeki Maruyama (shoulder), Ryan Armour (no reason given after his first-round 81) and Cameron Beckman (back) also withdrew. Then came news that a single-engine plane piloted by Jeff Maggert's brother had crashed in Colorado, killing Barry Maggert as he tried to make his way to Boulder for his son's graduation. Jeff Maggert withdrew as well.
Those players who remained did their best to put on a big show, and no one was sharper than Goydos as he sat next to Bob Costas and delivered well-timed one-liners Saturday.
The witty veteran was even better on the course, where he made a series of big putts and was still joking with his caddie even as he stood on the tee of the terrifying 17th hole with a one-stroke lead at the end of regulation. But even Goydos knew that given enough holes the better player will almost always win, and Garcia, 28, was better. He led the field in both driving accuracy (he hit 14 of 14 fairways on Friday, a performance he called the best of his career given the blustery conditions) and greens in regulation, and as has been predicted for years, when his putter finally woke up no one could touch him.
And so Garcia can begin to forget all those rounds when he outplayed the field tee-to-green and had to watch someone else get the glory, even the most painful one. He said the wind-whipped final round at TPC Sawgrass was harder than the last day at Carnoustie last summer, and maybe it was, but for once Sergio Garcia got the soft landing.