PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods has said he doesn't want to be as good as he was at the turn of the century, when he held all four major championship trophies concurrently and when he last won the Players Championship (2001) at TPC Sawgrass. He wants to be better.
After winning his second Players trophy by two over David Lingmerth, Jeff Maggert and Kevin Streelman, Woods is certainly on the right track. The 37-year-old No. 1 overcame a double-bogey on the par-4 14th hole when his tee shot hooked into the water, watched his closest pursuer, Sergio Garcia, fall apart with a series of water balls on 17 and 18, and signed for a 2-under 70 that could signal a big summer ahead in the majors.
"The golf course played tricky today," Woods said. "It was fast and difficult and I hit it so good, it was fun. I hit it high, low, left to right, right to left, whatever I wanted, except for that tee shot at 14."
The victory was Woods's fourth of 2013 and 78th overall, four short of Sam Snead's all-time record of 82, and came with his girlfriend, Olympic gold medal-winning skier Lindsey Vonn, watching from the gallery. He has now converted 53 of 57 third-round leads/co-leads on Tour, including 22 of his last 23.
"He's always hit it really good and now he's starting to get that putter back to the way it was in 2000," said Brandt Snedeker, who shot a final-round 70 to finish 7 under and in a seven-way tie for eighth place. "Didn't seem like he missed a putt for two years, and he's kind of getting that feeling back again."
Woods hit a succession of 3-woods, 5-woods and long-irons off the tees, reaching for his driver just once, on the par-5 11th hole. He hit 55 of 72 greens in regulation — tied for third among all players — and got up and down more than 70 percent of the time. He was four for four in sand saves. Asked if this was the most impressive of Woods's four wins this year, his caddie, Joe LaCava, said it was.
"He played great at Bay Hill and Doral," LaCava said as he stood in the parking lot and packed Woods's clubs in a travel bag emblazoned with the Stanford logo, "but this is a more demanding course, tee to green." For much of Sunday it seemed Woods might get the stiffest challenge from Sergio Garcia. The two clashed over a perceived breach of etiquette by Woods when they were paired together Saturday, and made no secret of their disdain for one another. They were still tied by 6 p.m. Sunday, when Garcia birdied 13 to pull even with Woods, who had just double-bogeyed 14 up ahead.
Playing with Garcia in the largely ignored final group of the day, one behind Woods and Casey Wittenberg (75, -7, T8), Lingmerth also birdied 13.
Just like that a potential Woods coronation had turned into a quartet at the top at 12 under: Garcia, Woods, Lingmerth and the resurgent Maggert, at age 49.
Woods got up and down from the front bunker to birdie the par-5 16th hole, and Garcia hit the green in two and two-putted to match him at 13 under. Maggert found the water on 17 and made double-bogey to take himself out of it.
That's when the day took the biggest plot twist since Woods's water ball on 14: Garcia hit not one but two balls in the drink on 17 and made a quadruple-bogey 7.
"I just under-hit it a little bit," Garcia said. "I felt with a little bit of adrenaline and stuff I didn't want to shoot over the green with a wedge. Just needed to hit it a little bit harder; maybe [I was] a little too confident." He found the water again on 18, making double-bogey to shoot 76 and tie for eighth place.
Lingmerth, a former hockey player, had been playing with a stiff neck and missed eight of his last 10 cuts (and five straight) coming into the Players. But with his dad, uncle and brother following him every step of the way, he played nothing like a hapless rookie at TPC Sawgrass, a course he had seen nearly a dozen times since he moved from Fayetteville, Ark., to Jacksonville in December.
After stalling in the middle of his round, Lingmerth birdied 12 and 13, made bogey on 14 and nearly eagled the par-5 16th hole out of the sand trap left of the green, settling for another birdie. He hit a brave tee shot seven and a half feet right of the right pin on 17, but with a chance to tie he missed his birdie try a hair right.
Needing to birdie 18 he hit into the right rough and also hung his approach shot to the right, giving himself a nearly impossible, lightning-fast, 78-foot birdie putt. When he struck it and watched as his ball zoomed well past the hole and onto the fringe, Woods had won the tournament. He hugged LaCava.
"It was a great week overall," Lingmerth said. "I'm in it to win it. I felt I had a good couple of chances there toward the end, and just didn't putt very well."
The leaders returned to finish the rain-delayed third round early Sunday morning, and Woods played his last four holes in 1 under, which got him into a three-way tie for the lead with Garcia and Lingmerth. After three days in which the greens had run at reasonable speeds, they were noticeably faster Sunday.
"These greens are getting really firm, and much faster today than they were even the last two days," said Kevin Streelman, who shot 67 to tie Martin Laird and Jimmy Walker for the day's low round and tied for second at 11 under par.
"I three-putted five times," said Swede Peter Hanson, shaking his head.
Rory McIlroy, who had lingered just out of contention entering the final round, birdied four of his last six holes to shoot 70 and finish 7 under. That was good enough to tie for eighth place, and the former No. 1 walked away knowing what he needs to address in advance of next month's U.S. Open at Merion.
"Tee to green I thought I played really, really well," said McIlroy, who hit 34 of 56 fairways and 52 of 72 greens. "I just didn't hole the putt. I've got a week off now and I'll go and work on that and see if I can improve around the greens. If I can do that and keep hitting the ball the same way, I think it's very, very close."
Woods has now won 78 of his 286 starts (27 percent) on the PGA Tour, and while many of those victories have been on courses like Torrey Pines, Bay Hill, Doral and Firestone, he is winning again on quirky courses that don't necessarily fit his or anyone else's game. The U.S. Open at Merion begins June 13.