PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – On the eve of Sunday’s final round at The Players Championship one long-time PGA Tour observer laid down a surprising truth, “Not only is Tim Clark the best player without a Tour title, he’s the best without a major.”
Less than 24 hours later on a golf course baked hard by heat and humidity the wee South African inched 1 ½ innings closer to shedding both titles with a fairways-and-greens schtick that never played well at the March Players but is custom fit to the May version, and an oversized putter that made quick work of the meanest greens this side of Oakmont.
Clark won the Bridesmaids Open on Sunday over perennial also-rans Lee Westwood and Robert Allenby, not with a roar but an authoritative clearing of the throat.
Clinical was Clark in his maiden Tour breakthrough, hitting 42 of 56 dusty fairways, 55 of 72 springy greens and 63 of 67 putts inside 10 feet. All total one would have thought the mid-length Clark was exactly what Pete Dye had in mind when he dug TPC Scruffy out of the swamp.
“A part of me is a bit disappointed because now no one is going to talk about me anymore. At least you had something to write about before. Now I'm just another guy with a win,” smiled Clark, who shot one of just two rounds in the 60s on Sunday (67) for a 16-under 272 total and one-stroke victory over Allenby.
For the record, the last two Tour standard bearers, Rory McIlroy last week at Quail Hollow and Clark at TPC, posted the rounds of the day on Saturday and Sunday, proving once and for all that weekends are made for winners and relegating Rounds 1 and 2 to qualifying laps.
The Players was Clark’s 206th Tour start, a record of futility that had started to weigh on Clark’s narrow shoulders for some time as he piled up the near-misses (eight runners-up and 40 top 10s).
“He told me a few months ago, ‘I can’t win, I can’t win,’” said Allenby, undone, again, by an uncooperative putter. “And then he goes out and beats me.”
The TPC dance card is officially full with Clark’s victory. Since the move to May in 2007 the crystal has been hoisted by the bombers (Phil Mickelson, 2007 and Henrik Stenson, 2009) the ballstriker (Sergio Garcia, 2008) and now the plodder thanks, in large part, to a perfectly storm-free week.
Hard and fast conditions took driver out of most players’ hands – Lucas Glover, for example, hit no more than four drivers each day. Clark, however, was able to keep the ball in play with the driver and play from the same spots as those he’s usually chasing.
The quintessential moment of length equalization occurred on the 18th hole on Sunday when Clark roped a driver perfectly into the fairway while playing partner Charley Hoffman had to lay back with a fairway wood and ended up some 70 yards behind Clark.
“He said, ‘I need to get some adrenaline because I’ve never hit a drive that long in my life,’” Hoffman said.
Yet as inspiring as Clark’s breakthrough was, Westwood’s also-ran had the look of a trend that is starting to lurch toward a habit. The Englishman was quoted recently that he is the second-best player based on how well he is hitting the ball. Thursday through Saturday it’s a hard point to argue. Sundays, however, are a different game altogether.
Westwood has racked up more silver and bronze of late than Canada, finishing second at last month’s Masters, this year’s Dubai Desert Classic and either second or third in half of the last eight majors.
Tiger Woods famously once opined that “second sucks” and no one knows that better than Westwood.
At Sawgrass it seems Karma, more so than a suspect short game or a spotty closer’s record, would explain Westwood’s Sunday misfortunes. The Englishman skipped the event last year and leveled the ultimate slight last week at Quail Hollow.
“The Players probably used to be regarded as the fifth major, and it felt that way back in the late '90s,” Westwood said. “But since the invention of the World Golf Championships, I think it's actually stepped back from that. They have to go in now before The Players Championship. So what is it, eighth on the list now?”
On Sunday Westwood began the final 18 holes at the “eighth major” with a one-stroke lead, missed four of his first seven fairways and dropped into a tie for the lead when Clark birdied the 11th hole. At the 14th Westwood had tree trouble, made bogey and the freefall was on.
“I just didn’t play well enough on Saturday and Sunday,” said Westwood, whose last shot at Players’ glory dropped into the pond surrounding the famed 17th hole and he finished tied for fourth place after a closing 2-over 74.
Allenby’s chances lasted a bit longer but ended in familiar fashion: an eagle left hanging on the lip at the 16th hole and a birdie putt at the 17th that stopped a roll short.
The Australian remains winless since 2002 but found a surprising amount of solace in his eighth runner-up finish on Tour and his third this season.
“My turn will come, that’s for sure,” Allenby said. “I’m not disappointed.”
It’s a good bet that neither is Clark. Not after his performance over the last 36 holes at TPC Sawgrass. Not after nine seasons of heartbreak.
“I think had I not won a tournament and come to the end of my PGA Tour career, there would have been some issues,” Clark admitted as the bagpipes echoed across Sawgrass. “At the end of the day, these are tournaments that you do judge your career on, The Players Championship and majors.”
With 36 near-flawless holes, Clark shed the better part of two unwanted titles. Not a bad weekend.