Tiger Woods claims fourth victory of the season at Sawgrass

Sergio Garcia’s hopes explode on 17th as Woods claims 78th PGA Tour title


As the Players Championship wound down at Sawgrass on Sunday, there were as many compelling stories on the leaderboard as there were golf balls in the water surrounding the tournament’s signature hole, the par-three 17th.

The players who held at least a share of the final-round lead included Jeff Maggert, a 49-year-old trying to win his fourth PGA Tour event in his 586th start, and David Lingmerth, who had a 74-foot birdie putt to get into his second playoff in 13 tour starts.

And there were the headliners and sparring partners, Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods, who were separated for the fourth round but tied for the lead late on.

By the end of the day, the great stories had fallen away and the greatest active player stood alone. Woods, summoning the kind of steely golf that eluded his closest competitors down the stretch, won for the 78th time in 286 tour starts as a professional. On a warm, breezy day, Woods carded a 2-under-par 70 for a 72-hole total of 13-under 275, two strokes better than Maggert (70), Lingmerth (72) and Kevin Streelman (67).

After Woods broke a two-year winless drought in official tour events in March 2012, his cup runneth over. He has won in four of his seven starts in 2013. “Am I surprised?” Woods said. “No. I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done. But I’m not.”

His career winning percentage of .273 is better than that of Ben Hogan (.218), Jack Nicklaus (.127) and Sam Snead (.148), whose record of 82 victories Woods is closing in on. Going into Sunday, his winning percentage here was dismal. Woods was 1 for 14 at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, with two top-three finishes.

“It was fast and difficult,” Woods said, referring to Sunday’s course conditions, “and I hit it so good today, it was fun. I hit it high, low, left to right, right to left, whatever I wanted, except for that tee shot at 14.”

Woods’s pop-up hook on the par-four, which resulted in a double bogey, was not pretty. It ended up in the water, and when Woods took his drop, he did so in a shadow cast by a similar incident at the Masters, in his previous start. In the second round in that tournament, Woods took an improper drop, but because the Augusta National rules committee did not ask him about it before he signed his scorecard, he received a reprieve wrapped in a two-stroke penalty.

In this instance, Woods’s playing partner, Casey Wittenberg, had what he described as a “perfect” view of the flight of Woods’s ball. “I told him exactly where I thought it crossed,” he said, “and we all agreed, so he’s definitely great on that.”

Woods’s path to the trophy ceremony was cleared when Lingmerth missed his long birdie attempt at 18 (and then missed the one back) and when Maggert and Garcia plunked their tee shots in the water at 17.

Garcia, who came to the hole tied for the lead with Woods at 13 under, deposited two shots in the water, both landing in the same general spot, and walked off the green with a quadruple-bogey seven. To add insult to indignity, Garcia made a double bogey at the last hole. He posted a 76 to finish in a seven-way tie for eighth at seven under.

“I just underhit it a little bit,” Garcia said, referring to the first water ball. “I felt with a little bit of adrenaline and stuff I didn’t want to shoot it over the green.”

Lingmerth’s biggest break of the fourth round came hours before his opening swing, when he was paired with Garcia in the final group instead of Woods. The three held a share of the lead at 11 under after the Sunday morning conclusion of the third round. On the final hole, Woods made his par before his playing partner, Garcia, drained his attempt. Because Garcia had honours when their round began, he was listed first even though Woods finished before him.

Playing with Woods, who draws large, rowdy galleries, is an experience akin to trying to strike a ball on an airport tarmac while planes are taxiing and taking off. In Woods’s three other victories this year, none of the players in his fourth-round, final-group pairings broke par. Wittenberg continued the trend with a 75 to finish in the logjam at eighth.

“This job is stressful regardless of whether you’re playing with Tiger or not,” said Wittenberg, who played with Woods in the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open. He added: “I’ve been on the wrong side of some really great golf by Tiger this year, but it’s been nice to be in the group and learn from it.”

Garcia was not as magnanimous. After posting a 72 in the third round to Woods’s 71, he wore his spleen on his sleeve. He told Sky Sports: “He’s not the nicest guy on tour.”

In a Golf Channel interview, he said: “We don’t enjoy each other’s company. You don’t need to be a rocket engineer to figure that out.”

It doesn’t take a rocket engineer to plot the trajectory of Woods’s year either. “I feel like I’m getting better as the year’s going on,” Woods said, “which is nice.”

Rory McIlroy ended a frustrating week with a smile on his face as four birdies in his final six holes saw the world number two finish alongside Garcia on seven under after carding a final round of 70. Pádraig Harrington’s 76 left him in a share for second last with Ben Curtis on seven over.

(New York Times Service)