PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Tim Clark was good enough to win on three continents and play on three Presidents Cup teams. He was better than everyone but Phil Mickelson in the 2006 Masters.
Good enough to win on the PGA Tour? Clark was starting to wonder.
In more than eight years and 204 tournaments on golf’s toughest circuit, he was a runner-up eight times but nothing more. The worst moment was last year at Colonial, where he missed two putts to win, in regulation and a playoff.
“There was a part of me that thought, ‘Man, what have I been doing?’ When you play that many tournaments, and when you have weeks where you feel like you’ve played well enough to win and you haven’t, it gets a bit frustrating,” Clark said. “You do start to wonder, ‘When is it going to happen for me?’
“Luckily for me, this week I did play my best,” he said. “That’s about as good as I can play.”
Regarded as one of the best players to have never won on the PGA Tour, Clark ended that conversation Sunday by beating the best field in golf at The Players Championship.
And he did it in style.
Trailing by seven shots going into the weekend, Clark set a TPC Sawgrass record with the largest 36-hole comeback, breaking by one the previous mark by Tiger Woods in 2001.
On a frightening Stadium Course that played its toughest in the final round – the greens were so firm they were brown – he didn’t make a single bogey. The 34-year-old South African dropped only one shot on the weekend, and he played the final 26 holes at par or better.
The streak never mattered more than on the final hole.
Having survived the famous island-green 17th hole, Clark faced an 8-foot par putt on the 18th hole. He had a two-shot lead over Robert Allenby of Australia and Lee Westwood of England, but they still had three holes to play, including the par-5 16th that could easily be reached in two shots with an iron.
For Clark, it was about the same length he faced at Colonial last year. It was close to the same length of the birdie putt at the Bob Hope Classic this year, when he finished one shot behind.
“I knew I needed that putt, and I knew I needed it at the Colonial,” Clark said. “Today, I just trusted myself and just tried to get into that shot and tried to hit that shot as best as I could. That’s really the whole key. I think in the past, I’ve maybe been thinking about winning way too much. Today, I just tried to hit every shot as good as I could.”
Allenby hit them just as well. He just didn’t hit two putts quite hard enough.
Allenby can relate to Clark, having won plenty around the world, but not on the PGA Tour since September 2001. Two shots behind, he drilled his approach into 18 feet for eagle and a share of the lead. It lacked just enough pace to fall in.
One shot behind on the 17th, Allenby hit another pure shot that cleared the water, the bunker and looked as though it would funnel to the hole for a tap-in birdie. Instead, it checked up. His putt looked good all the way until it rolled up to the edge of the cup, then turned away. Allenby was so shocked he walked to the edge of the water, and no one would have blamed him for jumping in.
“For it to go up to the hole and take a little look over the top and then come back, that was a bit rude,” Allenby said. “But obviously, the golfing gods were with Tim today, and I can accept that. I did everything that I could possibly do to try and win the tournament.”
Allenby closed with a 70 to finish runner-up for the seventh time since his last PGA Tour victory.
Clark finished at 16-under 272 and earned $1.71 million from the richest prize in golf. It comes with a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, and a three-year exemption to the Masters.
U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover wound up third with a strong finish – a 31 on the back nine, including a 50-foot birdie putt on the 17th.
Westwood tied for fourth, four shots behind, although he had as good of a chance as anyone. He had a one-shot lead going into the final round, just as he did at the Masters, and held it going to the back nine.
Clark, however, ran off four straight birdies starting and ending with 18-foot putts on No. 9 and No. 12 to take the lead. Westwood, who made so many clutch pars early in the round, kept within two shots by making a 50-foot par on the 15th.
But his birdie putt caught the lip on the 16th, and his tee shot on the 17th clattered against the boards and went into the water, giving him a double bogey.
“Disappointed, but not something I’m going to pull my hair out over,” Westwood said. “If you don’t play well, you don’t deserve to win. And I just didn’t play well over the weekend.”
No one will question whether Clark played well. He was simply at his best.
“I did all I could out there,” Clark said when he finished his round. “That’s as good as I could have played. I feel like I hit every shot I like I wanted to today.”
It led to the best feeling of all – a victory on the PGA Tour.