PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — As usual, the golf gods faked us out.
We thought Sunday's final round of the Players Championship would be about Lee Westwood, a man who hadn't found the right roll of the ball or gust of wind to win the big event. Turned out it was about Tim Clark, a man who hadn't found a way to win any event on Tour, whose life was a series of depressing six-figure checks.
Clark, who was the Tour's leading money-winner without a win ($14.7 million, eight runner-up finishes), shed that ignominious distinction with a bogey-free, five-under 67 to finish 16 under and beat Robert Allenby (70) by a shot at TPC Sawgrass.
"Today I just trusted myself," said Clark, who was so frustrated with his game that he took two weeks off coming into the Players. "I think in the past I've been thinking about winning way too much."
Lucas Glover birdied holes 15-17 to come in with a 70 and finish third, two shots back. Third-round leader Westwood (74) missed the island green on the famous par-3 17th for a double-bogey, and his back-nine 39 dropped him into a five-way tie for fourth place.
Clark, who played for North Carolina State after growing up in South Africa, birdied five holes in a six-hole stretch in the middle of his round to take control, then made six pars in a row to salt away the victory.
"This may just be a big step for me," he said, acknowledging his past failures to finish. "This one could lead to others. It's happened in the past."
Clark's emergence in lieu of Westwood was only the most stunning of a handful of surprises.
Heading into the week, speculation centered on whether or not Tiger Woods would play all 72 holes in the wake of just the sixth missed cut of his career. As it turned out, he didn't.
Woods finished only 60 holes, withdrawing with neck pain after hitting two shots on the seventh hole. He told reporters that he'd been playing hurt since before the Masters but could do so no longer. He is scheduled to get the neck examined this week.
The course caught many napping, too. Having been baked out by the sun and wind, it was almost unrecognizable from the one that competitors saw Thursday, playing more than three shots harder.
"The difference from the first two days to now is one of the most extreme I've ever seen," said Steve Flesch after carding a one-under 71, one of only 17 under-par rounds on the final day.
"It certainly underwent a huge change," said Phil Mickelson, who shot 74 and finished tied for 17th.
The early pairing of Robert Karlsson and Troy Merritt said it all: The two combined for just three birdies against six bogeys, three double-bogeys and a quadruple-bogey. (Karlsson made 9 on the par-5 11th.)
They shot 79-80, respectively.
Jason Bohn, playing mostly by himself after the departure of Woods, triple-bogeyed the 18th to shoot 80.
"Well, we got one day of Players conditions," Jerry Kelly said after shooting a final-round 74.
Needing a low round, Mickelson bogeyed the par-5 second hole and the par-3 third to drop to seven under, all but ending his chances at victory and the No. 1 ranking, at least for the moment.
"It was exactly what I needed to be able to try to make a run at the leaders," he said of the tough conditions. "Unfortunately, I didn't take advantage."
Clark was in control throughout, hitting 11 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens. As with last week at Quail Hollow, the winner was by far the hottest player on the weekend, with scores of 66-67.
"By far the best I've ever putted," said Clark.
His final round beat the field average (74.2) by more than seven strokes.
"It was fun to watch," said Charley Hoffman, who struggled to a 77 while playing with the winner. "He hit every drive dead-straight, every iron where he wanted to land it and made every putt he had to make with the exception of [a missed birdie on] 16."
It was Clark's first win since the 2008 Australian Open. Over the years, he has found a variety of ways to let tournaments slip through his grasp. The most egregious of these may have come at Colonial last year, when Clark blew a two-shot lead with five holes left and lost to Steve Stricker in a playoff.
"I can't take anything positive from today," he said then. "I have a lot of work to do when it comes to closing out golf tournaments."
He must have done the work, because on Sunday his apparent ease of manner belied the task at hand.
After hitting the center of the island 17th green and two-putting for par, Clark flipped his ball to a young boy as he walked toward the 18th tee and laughed as the boy juggled the ball and nearly ended up chasing it into the water hazard.
The 5-foot-7 Clark hit driver all day, even on No. 18, perhaps the most intimidating tee shot on Tour because of the enormous lake that borders the entire left side of the hole. He bombed his tee shot down the left side of the fairway. Fueled with adrenaline, he joked to Hoffman that it was the longest drive of his life.
There was reason to suspect the winner would come from somewhere back in the pack. Westwood has 20 European Tour victories but hasn't won on the U.S. PGA Tour since 1998. His claim to fame in the last few years is coming oh-so-close to winning the 2008 U.S. Open, 2009 British Open and 2010 Masters.
With 18 worldwide wins but only four on Tour, none since 2001, Allenby didn't inspire confidence, either, especially when he, like Westwood, promptly bogeyed the first hole.
But Allenby steadied himself with a 93-foot chip-in for eagle on the second hole, and birdied the fourth hole from seven feet to take the lead at 15 under par, a shot ahead of Westwood.
Allenby's eagle putt on 16 barely missed, and his bid to tie Clark with a birdie on 17 appeared to peer into the hole but somehow stayed out. His approach on 18 veered right, and he did well to salvage par. Now, Clark said, it's Allenby's burden to find his way back into the winner's circle.
"A part of me is disappointed because now no one is going to talk about me anymore," Clark said with a smile. "At least you had something to write about before. Now I'm just another guy with a win."