Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 9, 2010

One Drought Ends, Another Continues

It would like to be recognized as the fifth major, but golf has only four major championships. Still, the Players Championship isn’t the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Especially since being moved from mid-March to Mother’s Day weekend three years ago, it now ranks as the biggest non-major stop on the PGA Tour. The schedule change assured men’s golf of having a premiere event every month from April through August. The Masters leads off, the Players now fills what had been a month devoid of a high-profile event, and then the US Open, the Open Championship, and finally the PGA Championship fill the summer calendar.

The Tournament Stadium at the TPC at Sawgrass, the tournament’s venue since 1982, is a stern test with a dramatic and visually sumptuous finishing three holes. Sixteen is a reachable par 5, but with water lurking on three sides of the green. Seventeen is a par 3 with the famous island green which even people who never watch a golf tournament can recognize. And eighteen is a long and difficult par four with water all the way down the left side.

After three rounds this year 37-year old Lee Westwood was alone atop the leaderboard, at fourteen under par. But his lead was only one over Australian Robert Allenby; and fourteen golfers were within five strokes of the lead. That list included defending US Open champion Lucas Glover and recent Masters winner Phil Mickelson, who had raced up the leaderboard on Saturday with a 66. Among the less well known pursuers was 34-year old South African Tim Clark.

Because of the Players’ prominence, and because of Westwood’s recent history, most of the talk Saturday night was whether or not the Englishman could finally close the deal in a big tournament. Although twelve years removed from his only PGA Tour victory, he has thirty-one victories world-wide and is currently ranked fourth in the World Golf Rankings. To reach that point he had to come back from a time in the golf wilderness. He took time off a decade ago after the arrival of his first child, and when Westwood returned, his game did not. He eventually slipped all the way to 250th in the rankings.

But Westwood continued to grind, and gradually worked his way back. Then in 2008 at the US Open in San Diego, he had a putt on the 72nd hole to tie Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate and join the 18 hole Monday playoff. He left the putt short. Last year on the 72nd hole of the Open Championship he had a lengthy putt to tie Tom Watson. Perhaps remembering his experience the prior year in San Diego, he ran the putt well past the hole, then missed the seven footer coming back. As it turned out of course, Watson bogeyed the final hole, so if Westwood had two-putted he would have joined the playoff between Watson and Stewart Cink. And then of course a month ago Westwood had the lead after 54 holes at Augusta, only to wind up a spectator on Sunday as playing partner Phil Mickelson won his third green jacket.

If Westwood is the best golfer without a major victory, Clark came into the tournament as the most successful player without a PGA Tour victory. Winner of more than $14 million in his career, The Players was his 206th tour event. In the previous 205 his best finish was second, a position he had occupied eight different times. Those eight seconds, along with thirty-five top tens, were both the most by a non-winner on the tour.

So came Sunday on the Atlantic coast of north Florida. With the wind up, early scores were high. The final pairing of Westwood and Robert Allenby started nervously, both recording bogies on the first hole. But they steadied themselves immediately, and a third of the way into the round had opened some daylight between themselves and the rest of the field.

Then in the middle of the round Clark caught fire. From the seventh through the twelfth holes he fired irons like lasers and wielding his long putter with supreme confidence, he made five birdies in six holes. When Westwood and Allenby came through the same stretch twenty minutes later and played the holes in even par, the question became whether Clark could hold his nerve down the stretch.

Clark’s smooth putting stroke got a little quick as he played down the stretch, but he finished his round with six consecutive pars, to post sixteen under 272. Just a few minutes later, Westwood’s wedge on 17 found the water. When Allenby’s twelve foot birdie putt on the same hole stopped on the edge of the cup, Tim Clark’s $14 million in winnings jumped to $15.7. But far more important, he at last became a PGA Tour winner.

One has to feel good about Clark’s victory. He played the final 26 holes without a bogey, and came from seven shots off the 36-hole pace, making his win the largest weekend comeback in Players Championship history. Plus at five-seven and 165 pounds, and typically ranked somewhere south of 150th in driving distance, he’s proof that the game is not just about smashing the golf ball 350 yards off the tee.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel badly for Westwood. He has maintained a positive attitude with the media through each of his major and, today, not quite major disappointments. Certainly he seems to mean it when he says that he’s not going away, and will keep on working. Without a doubt, having made the journey back from the golfing wilderness to being ranked fourth worldwide is a testament to his mettle. Still at some point, doesn’t yet another “almost” or “might have been” begin to take a toll? There’s always a “best golfer without a major.” Some of them, like Mickelson or the late Payne Stewart, not only finally get the monkey off their backs but go on to win multiple majors and have great careers. Others, like Colin Montgomerie, one day just get old. There’s nothing not to like about Lee Westwood. Here’s hoping he finally breaks through.

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