PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Fitting that the week the golf world buried Seve Bellesteros, the "Cliff’s Notes" version of the 30th edition of The Players Championship can be pulled from one of the Spaniard’s greatest quips, "I miss, I miss, I miss, I make."
But like Ballesteros, Choi finally rattled one in, a 5-footer at the 72nd hole to force a playoff he won when Toms three-putted the island-green 17th hole, his first three-jack all week.
“Today I missed a lot of 5-footers, maybe three or four, so when I had the same 5-footer to make (on the 72nd hole) I knew there was a chance I could miss it, but what I said to myself was let’s just get the rhythm correct,” said Choi, who closed with a 70 for a 13-under 275 total.
By contrast, no one thought Toms – who hadn’t missed anything, or so it seemed, for four days – would miss his par attempt in the first extra frame. Not even Choi, who was already preparing for the second extra hole.
If Toms was the sentimental favorite to win a Players that was noticeably void of a handful of the game’s biggest and brightest, Choi was not a bad consolation prize. The Korean is a Ponte Vedra Beach local of sorts, having lived and played out of TPC Sawgrass when he first ventured to the United States in 1999.
The eight-time Tour winner has been in a state of transition of late, settling into a swing that was retooled to facilitate a draw (read, more distance) and a new-found dedication to an often-suspect short game.
“That up and down at the last, that just hasn’t been his game,” said Steve Bann, Choi’s longtime swing coach. “In the past he always would go out and chip and putt for a while but he wasn’t really practicing. That’s been his biggest improvement.”
Although he hadn’t won since 2008, Choi was solid last year, if not spectacular, and went into the back nine on Sunday at The Masters with one arm in a green jacket. Coming into The Players he’d finished T-6, T-8 and T-3; and even when he fell three shots behind Toms through seven holes and missed putts of 4 feet at the ninth for birdie, 4 12 feet at the 11th for par, 9 feet at the 15th for birdie and 5 feet for birdie at the 16th, he never came unhinged.
He also received some help from Toms, who until he fanned his hybrid into the pond at the 16th hole had the look of a man who was going to nickel and dime his way into a Players title.
“Sixteen . . . I wish I would have talked him into laying up,” said Toms’ caddie Scott Gneiser. “We got to the ball and he asked, ‘What do you think of 2-iron (hybrid)?’ and I liked it with a one-shot lead. He just hit it against the bottom of the club and it ran into the water.”
In 2005, Toms was rushed off the golf course at the late 84 Lumber Classic and diagnosed with Supraventricular Tachycardia, a rare condition that causes a rapid heart rate. Through the better part of four days at TPC Steamy it only seemed as if the 44-year-old didn’t have a heart rate at all.
Funny then that it’s his heart, of all things, that seems to have rejuvenated the veteran. Of all the things Toms misplaced on his road to middle age – his health, his confidence, 10 yards off the tee – it was his passion for the game that had been holding him back.
But that spark has been rediscovered on the fairways of his home club in Louisiana alongside his 13-year-old son, Carter. “When I was really winning a lot of tournaments, he knew about golf and he was around some, but he didn't play it and wasn't into it. But now he is. It would have been nice to win today for him,” said Toms, who has been slowed late in his career by a litany of wrist and back injuries.
At this juncture, Tiger Woods can only hope for such an acute recovery from all that ails him. For the second consecutive Tour Sunday echoes of “Go Tigers” have filled the Sunday air, but they have been for Tigers (Clemson alum Lucas Glover and Jonathan Byrd last week and LSU’s Toms’ at TPC) of another tune.
Woods limped around a half loop on Thursday like Kevin Na and bounded off property like Kevin Durant, another WD from the game’s “fifth major,” another injury to fuel the uncertainty.
The TPC Sawgrass mounds were filled with more conspiracy theories than the knoll adjacent the Dallas book depository. All that is for certain is that Woods wasn’t ready to play. Everything else is conjecture.
“We are in the evaluating phase right now and will determine the next steps,” Woods’ manager Mark Steinberg said via email after his client went out in 42 strokes on Thursday and home before the afternoon wave had teed off.
What else is certain is that the May Players rewards consistency, regardless of age or medical history.
If the true measure of any “real” major is the collective disdain for a golf course, TPC Sawgrass may have finally arrived. Rees Jones, the “U.S. Open doctor” who is destined to suffer his share of slings and arrows at next month’s national championship, can exhale – Pete Dye’s swampland-turned-Sawgrass is officially under review.
“When I design golf courses, I try not to screw the player like that. I try to keep it a little bit fair,” Phil Mickelson said following a double bogey at the 13th hole on Thursday with an 8-iron.
Graeme McDowell was a tad more diplomatic, but he shouldn’t have been after his approach to the last green early Sunday morning to finish his rain-delayed third round bounced and bounded across the green and into the pond.
“Eighteen was a tough break, but it's just one of those things. This golf course is dangerous. If you get out of position, you will pay the price,” said McDowell, whose final tally on Sunday was five water balls and a closing 79.
At least he made the trip to north Florida. His fellow Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, to say nothing of world No. 1 Lee Westwood, didn’t feel compelled, all of which added to the feeling that something was missing from the 30th Players.
Final analysis: maybe the only thing missing was Ballesteros, and Choi did his part to honor the short-game magician in the only way he knew how.
“That shot on the 16th hole,” said Bann of Choi’s punch shot under a tree to 5 feet, “the same week they buried Seve . . . it was very fitting.”
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard
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