PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — All week, the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass looked like it might come down to the handful of highly ranked players who were in position to enhance their careers. As it turned out, the tournament came down to 44-year-old, 75th-ranked, slightly arthritic David Toms trying to play 31 disaster-free holes in one day with the Tank, 34th-ranked Korean K.J. Choi, right on his heels.
Choi made par on the first hole of sudden-death, the island-green 17th, and Toms three-putted from just inside 23 feet. Choi collected $1.71 million for the victory, his eighth on the PGA Tour.
"For some reason, I felt very comfortable out there," said Choi, who made his acceptance speech in English but used a translator with the press.
"He plays good, focused golf on tough courses," said Andy Prodger, Choi's caddie for a dozen worldwide victories. "I put it in his head that he was going to win this week because he's been playing very well."
Coming into the Players Championship, where his best result was a tie for 16th place in 2006, Choi had tied for third in New Orleans, tied for eighth at the Masters and tied for sixth at Bay Hill. Said Steve Bann, his Australian swing coach for the last six years, "A win was coming."
Toms led for most of the day but, clinging to a one-shot lead, opened the door by going for the green in two on the par-5 16th hole, only to watch in horror as his utility wood from 226 yards found the water.
"I probably should have laid up and hit a wedge up there and made par at the worst," Toms said. "But I felt like I could get it on the green and take maybe a two-shot lead there and put a lot of pressure on him. So that was the mindset, and I just hit a bad shot."
Toms bogeyed, and Choi pulled even with a par. He took his first lead with a birdie putt on 17 from just outside 10 feet that swung hard from left to right and dove into the cup on its last revolution. That set the stage for Toms to force the playoff with an improbable birdie on the difficult 18th hole, where he hammered a 180-yard approach out of a sand-filled divot to 17 feet and holed the putt. Choi caught the left edge with his five-foot par putt, and the players were shuttled back to the 17th tee for the playoff.
"When David Toms made that putt on the 18th for birdie, it was as loud as something you'd hear at the Masters," Choi said.
Choi and Toms both shot 70 after beginning the final round a shot behind 54-hole leader Graeme McDowell, who imploded with a 79.
In the playoff, Toms and Choi both found the green with their tee shots on the nerve-racking 17th, but Toms hit his birdie try too hard. He never gave the six-foot comebacker much of a chance, and Choi tapped in to win. "As a fellow player, I know how that feels," Choi said. "I felt bad for him."
The victory was Choi's first since the 2008 Sony Open in Hawaii.
Paul Goydos, the glib, 46-year-old Southern Californian who lost a playoff to Sergio Garcia here in 2008, birdied the sixth, ninth, 10th and 11th holes to get to 11 under, just two strokes behind Toms. He birdied the 16th and parred 17 and 18 to finish at 11 under, two shots out of the playoff.
Sunday's action started early, with 34 of 74 players returning to the course at 7:45 a.m. to complete a rain-delayed third round. Toms started his day with a birdie on the sixth hole to go to 11 under and played mostly stress-free golf to finish that way. But he began to notice something: He took 29 putts and missed a handful of five- to 10-footers.
Choi resumed his third round on the 11th hole and went two under to finish off a 67 and also get to 11 under. He, too, would prove vulnerable to short misses, as he botched three putts from inside six feet in the final round.
McDowell might have held a three-shot lead going into the last round were it not for a crazy bounce on 18 to finish his third round. His approach shot was headed for the pin but came up short, kicked left off a mound, rolled across the entire green and trickled into the water. Double-bogey.
Officials grouped the players into threesomes for the final round and sent them off two tees. Despite his bad luck at the end of his third round, there were signs that the tournament might be McDowell's for the taking. Darren Clarke, a friend from Northern Ireland, won Europe's Iberdrola Open earlier Sunday, and McDowell made a 51-foot putt on the par-4 fifth hole for his first birdie of the final round. In memory of Seve Ballesteros, G-Mac was dressed in Seve's traditional navy blue.
But the Stadium Course is one of the worst places to play like Seve, which is to say there is no way to recover from crooked shots. McDowell, who enjoyed a sizzling 2010, has struggled this year while working hard to patch up his swing coming into this tournament. But he began to unravel with a bad miss on the sixth hole, where his ball settled in the trees well right of the fairway. That led to a bogey, and the beginning of the end.
The week began with world No. 1 Lee Westwood making news for his decision not to play, and Rory McIlroy also opted out. Tiger Woods made it through only nine holes Thursday before withdrawing with a leg injury.
Many of the biggest names who did show up never made a charge. Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer would have climbed to No. 1 with a win, and while both made noise, neither could summon many weekend birdies. Donald got to within two of the lead through 36 holes but suddenly went into neutral and tied for fourth at 10 under. Kaymer birdied the first four holes of his third round but cooled off just as fast and tied for 19th.
McDowell's play was most surprising. The wayward Ryder Cup hero and U.S. Open champion dropped from the lead into a tie for 33rd place.
One of 40 players who finished their third rounds Saturday, Phil Mickelson began the day at five under and, seven behind McDowell, with only an outside chance at winning his second Players. Mickelson also would have moved to No. 1 with a win, but he seemed to try to make something happen early and went the wrong direction, bogeying the second and third holes on the way to a 72 for a five-under total, well back.
Pete Dye's diabolical course claimed the usual number of victims.
Lucas Glover, who had won the week before and hovered around the lead for the first 36 holes, shot himself out of it with 7s on 16 and 18 in the third round, and a quadruple-bogey 8 on the fourth hole in the final round.
Having climbed to 10 under par, Charley Hoffman dumped two in the water and made his own quadruple bogey on the island-green 17th.
"I think it's a great hole," Hoffman said afterward. "I can make a one or I can make a seven. I tried to make a one and win the tournament."
Garcia made a run with a 65, the best final-round score, which included six birdies and an eagle and got him to eight under.
Choi and Prodger were scheduled to embark on a 14-hour flight to Korea on Sunday night for the S.K. Telecom Open, but they rebooked for Monday. Choi will now set his sights on next month's U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, a course he won on in 2007. He could do it again. Working with Bann, his swing coach, Choi set out to gain distance off the tee to better compete in the majors, in part by learning a right-to-left ball flight. He also aimed to eliminate lower back pain that had developed from strict adherence to Jack Nicklaus's instructional book and a reverse-C swing.
The Tank has accomplished both of those goals, and he doesn't sound like he's done yet. He wrapped up his press conference with a message for the vast number of talented 20-somethings flooding the pro game, telling them to be regimented, and to live life to the fullest.
"And when I say that, I don't mean partying all the time," Choi said. "Live a systematic, regimented life, always be humble. That's my motto."