PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Paul Goydos was the first Players competitor to hit a ball into the water at the 17th green Thursday. He was also the last man to hit a ball into the same lake Sunday evening as the sun began to settle behind the mix of palms and pines, and for that reason, he is not your new Players champion.
He is, however, your new American idol, golf division. He stole the show at the Players with his gutty play (that’s the preferred way to describe guys who are short hitters — sorry, distance-challenged); his smokin’ hot putting (come on, he hit only 31 of the first 54 holes in regulation and was leading the tournament at seven under par); and his dramatic flair (a monster birdie putt down a toboggan run on the fourth green Sunday and his unlikely hole-out from the rough on No. 10). He showcased his everyman, underdog status by wearing a hat from his alma mater, Long Beach State, because he didn’t have a sponsor for that space, and he showed off his quick wit on TV all weekend.
Goydos is now a star. It doesn’t matter that he’s 43 and still the same self-described and self-effacing journeyman he’s always been, he’s our journeyman now, a star journeyman, if there is such a thing. When he rinsed his ball in the lake at 17 in the playoff and Sergio Garcia stiffed his shot to three feet, some fans watching on the jumbo scoreboard by the 18th green began to cry.
He’s got two career wins 10 years apart (Tiger Woods won 50-some titles in between Paul’s two) and he’s played in the Masters only twice in his career, but now he’s got a following. It was a Tiger-less week, yes, and it was a Phil Mickelson-less Sunday (he doubled the first hole after losing his visor to the wind and a pond), but the considerably lighter-than-usual galleries at the Stadium Course were openly rooting for Goydos.
“They were pulling harder for me, for whatever reason, and the crowd was unbelievable, even after making a mess of the playoff hole,” Goydos said. “In a sense, maybe I got to feel for a day what it was like to be Tiger Woods and have the crowd behind you. People were emotionally involved in what I was doing and unbelievably encouraging. Golf fans root for the favorite, that’s what they do. And today they rooted for me. I don’t know what to say to those people, to be honest, other than, thank you.”
Garcia is already a star, but Goydos isn’t supposed to be a star. He’s ranked 169th in the world. He’s happy if he gets to play all four majors in a year, much less win one. He rightly considers his job as the single parent of two teenage girls far more important than his silly day job as a professional golfer. And he’s proud to be an honorary Dirtbag, the nickname of the Long Beach State baseball team, which was printed on the bill of his cap.
Sergio won, but Goydos also played like a champion. On the windiest, toughest afternoon of the week, Goydos looked up as he played the 16th hole and found himself in a three-way tie for the lead with Garcia and Jeff Quinney. The journeyman was supposed to blink and fade away, just like he was supposed to do all day. Instead, he two-putted from the fringe for the birdie that gave him control of the tournament.
At the 17th, with all the pressure on his shoulders (or lack thereof, as he joked to Bob Costas, explaining his reason for buttoning his shirts to the top), he stepped up and hit a superb wedge shot to 20 feet. He didn’t fade. He missed the putt but went to the 18th tee clinging to a one-shot lead.
As a guy who rarely hits a draw, the nasty 18th hole with the lake on the left is not his favorite. Add the semi-ferocious wind blowing left-to-right, and he would have had to aim somewhere over the middle of the lake to have a chance at hitting the fairway. He didn’t hit it, and in the short version of the story, he ended up with a 10-footer for par to win. He missed, and what followed was the most anticlimactic playoff in recent memory. It wasn’t over when Goydos went first and found the water. “You could win that hole with a 9 in a playoff,” he said. It was over when Garcia’s shot caught the slope and trickled to within four feet of the flag.
It was left to Goydos to put it in perspective. “I got beat by three, I think, in a playoff,” he said with a smirk.
He’s a media favorite because he says funny and smart things, he’s literate and he’s been known to hang around pressrooms to actually talk and have relationships with (close your eyes, Phil and Tiger!) media types. Some one-liners from Sunday:
On his pitch-in at the 10th: “That was borderline ridiculous.”
On how he handled the 17th hole: “I told myself I was going think of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and try to get on as a castaway.”
On losing in a playoff: “I’ve got to think 0-1 is a better playoff record than 0-0. Am I wrong?”
On whether he’d rather hit first or second on the 17th tee in the playoff: “Well, now I’d rather go second.”
On feeling like Tiger Woods for a day: “That’s from a crowd standpoint, not a talent standpoint.”
It’s clear that Goydos knows his place in the game, and he’s comfortable with it, as well as his effort at this year’s Players. As he left the interview room Sunday evening, the 2002 Players champion, Craig Perks, walked by. He shook his hand and said, “Awesome.” Goydos told Perks, “I just tried to be like you.”
Then Garcia walked into the room, carrying the crystal trophy. “Great playing,” Goydos said sincerely after they shared a brief hug. “Really good, man. I’m proud of you.”
Standing just outside the room to field even more questions from writers as darkness fell, Goydos talked about how he couldn’t wait to retrieve his cell phone from his caddie and call his daughters back home in California. They’d been excited about his play and were planning to watch Sunday’s finish. His oldest daughter, he said, even sent him a text message on Saturday night. He flashed a hint of a proud father’s smile. It had been a very good week.