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A funny thing happened at the Players: Paul Goydos nearly won it again

Paul Goydos, final round, 2011 Players Championship
Robert Beck/SI
Paul Goydos shot a 69 to finish tied for third at the Players Championship.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Three years ago, Cinderella was a Dirtbag.

In a major surprise, Cinderella crashed the beach party known as The Players this year for a second time. And for a second time, Cinderella was very nearly your Players champion.

But Paul Goydos, our favorite Cinderella fella, is a Dirtbag no more. He wore a TaylorMade cap while finishing third at TPC Sawgrass. That means he's played well enough to earn an endorsement deal with a big equipment company and isn't just a free agent who simply donned the cap of his alma mater and favorite college baseball team, Long Beach State, nicknamed the Dirtbags. Thanks for the support, by the way.

See, Our Man Paul is having the opposite of a mid-life crisis. He's 46 and will turn 47 next month. He won the Sony Open in 2007 at 42. The first time he ever shot in the 60s at The Players was three years ago, at 43, and he nearly won the thing, losing to Sergio Garcia in a playoff after he drowned a shot at the famous island-green par-3 17th.

Last year, Goydos shot a 59 at the John Deere Classic. On Sunday at the Stadium Course, he played 24 holes and polished off a 69 in the final round, which meant he came close enough to hang around the scoring area until K.J. Choi and David Toms officially posted 13 under, two strokes better than his 11 under.

Cinderella did an encore here and, as Goydos will tell you, that stuff never gets old. Especially when you've managed only one top-20 finish all year and you're starting to wonder whether you really want to make the commitment to do what you've got to do to compete and be successful with the world's finest golfers. Especially when you play the last seven holes in seven over par the week before at Quail Hollow to miss the cut by two strokes, and you start to think retirement may, indeed, be right around the corner.

"It's not like I've been burning down buildings in my 19 years out here," Goydos joked.

The near-miss in '08 put Goydos on the mainstream map of golf. Or maybe his Sunday interview with NBC's Bob Costas is what did it, since the clever Goydos answered clichéd questions in unusual ways. Costas asked the 54-hole leader how he slept. Goydos answered, "On my side." Hilarity ensued.

There was more fun stuff Sunday. After he came off the course, where he'd made a clutch second putt of some eight feet for par to keep alive his faint hopes of a playoff, he stood next to NBC's Jimmy Roberts waiting for another live-on-national-TV interview. (Costas didn't attend this year.) Goydos cracked a joke about always towering over his NBC interrogators. "That's what you get with me and Costas," said Roberts, who, like Costas, is vertically challenged and proud of it.

Roberts started the interview by saying that Goydos shot a solid 69 and was "in the house" at 11 under. Goydos promptly interrupted him. "We're outside the house," Goydos said as they stood in the bright sunshine next to the scoring building. Roberts laughed and corrected his intro, "Outside the house..."

It's great to be 46 and in contention. It's mood-altering. Goydos is known as "Sunshine" for his supposed negative ways, but he's possibly the funniest player on tour and certainly among the smartest. His nickname isn't ironic any longer, just accurate. Was he upset about this near-miss? Hardly. Giddy, perhaps, or at least as close to giddy as Sunshine ever gets.

"I played good this week," Goydos said as he stood on a mound near the clubhouse while Toms and Choi prepared to go out for the playoff. "In 2008, I controlled my own destiny and sort of let go of the wheel. Here, I played good all the way. I'm really happy with the swings I made on 16, 17 and 18. Considering how I sucked it up all year — I've been terrible — this was encouraging."

The bad part this year was his putting, which has always been his bread and butter. "My putting stats are as low as they've ever been," he said. "I don't know if it's age or what, but I've used more different putters this year than I've used in my entire career. Like five or six."

For The Players, he stuck with the model he used at Hilton Head, where he tied for ninth. This week? "It was better, no question," he said with a smile.

Sunshine could also laugh about his finish. He hit what he thought was a perfect 9-iron shot at the 17th hole, lurking one shot off the lead. The ball stopped 10 feet above the hole, a little to the left and, it seemed, right in the middle of a slick slope. One writer — let's call him the set-up man — asked if Goydos was surprised the ball didn't trickle closer to the hole.

"Yeah, somehow Tim Finchem suspended gravity for 15 minutes," Goydos said. "I know he's powerful, I don't know how he did it. Has any ball ever stopped on that hill? Ever? Ever? I only nudged the putt and it rolled right down to the hole. It was pretty funky."

He enjoyed his par at the 18th, too. There's that feeling of accomplishment of hitting pure shots, particularly under pressure. Goydos was in a zone. The Sunshine Zone? A zone.

"That tee shot was as good as I can hit one," he said. "That 5-iron was as good as I can hit one. I had to hit a hook 5-iron, which is not where I live because I generally fade the ball, and I actually hit that one right on the button."

The 5-iron pulled up 40 feet short and right of the pin. "The first putt was not as good as I can hit one," Goydos added. No, that one sprinted eight feet past. He had to make par to stay alive for a possible playoff. He ran the next one in. Then he retired to the scoring building. After making the rounds with assorted TV, radio and print media, he drank a bottle of water and watched Toms and Choi finish.

Third place doesn't suck. Not for him, not this time. "Hopefully, it's something I can build on," Goydos said. "I'm getting to that age where I need to find something to hang onto. I don't feel old. No, that's a lie. I feel old. But I didn't feel old until this year. Playing bad does that to you. I've got a great job, and I'm going to keep trying to do it."

The golf was good. His branding was good, too. His brand is the funny, witty, self-deprecating cerebral golfer. During the week, he answered a question on Twitter about whether it was easier to figure out how many balls were hit into the pond at the 17th hole or how many beers were sold in the concession stands there. His reply: "The beer sales fund our pension."

Then there was his moment with Roberts, who asked if having to play 24 holes Sunday due to the rain-delayed third round was a factor.

"I'm a professional athlete," Goydos barked, feigning indignity. "I'm offended by that question."

Roberts laughed. Goydos turned to the camera with a smile, "Sorry, America. Just kidding."

Finally, after chatting with a few writers, surrounded by a steady movement of fans — some heading home, some heading back to 17 to watch the big playoff — Goydos was ready to leave. A writer asked whether he'd seen this week's good play coming.

"Noooo," he said, unable to finish his answer without laughing. "Not at all."

The late evening sun cast a warm glow. A light breeze felt cool and fresh and clean. It was a beautiful day to be in Florida, a beautiful day to be alive and, for your Players third-place finisher, a beautiful day to be Cinderella. And in his heart of hearts, it was a beautiful day to be a Dirtbag, too.

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