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The Players That Missed Its Mark

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | All right, so it wasn’t the back nine Sunday at The Masters.

No Tiger on the grounds. No Phil in contention.

For most of the day, there was no drama, no fireworks, no energy, no “feel” of a major and no buzz.

The Players was supposed to be the fifth major. But up until the very last, this rendition was more like the fifth inning … of a Pirates-Braves game. This was not better than most. It was better than few.

Then, too briefly, it got real good, real fast. On the 72nd hole American David Toms poured a 17-foot birdie putt on what is arguably the meanest par-4 finishing hole in golf to force a playoff with Korea’s K.J. Choi.

Go ahead, wise guys, say it: The Players Championship doesn’t start until the last hole Sunday.

Usually, the best stuff happens at the dreaded island green, par-3 17th. Which, by the way, is where the sudden death playoff began and ended when Toms missed a three-and-a-half footer for par and a lot of money.

From a style standpoint, this Players ended badly. But to be sure and to be fair, Choi won’t be asking for a do-over anytime soon.

As early as Saturday we got our first clue that the players weren’t going to measure up to The Players. That’s when the pied Ian Poulter got into the act.

When last seen at TPC Sawgrass in the dying of the light, Poulter was sprinting from the 17th tee to the 17th green, two-putting and then galloping off to the 18th where he hastily golfed his ball onto the final fairway. Turns out it was a desperate, but successful, attempt to beat the klaxon that sounded the end of the day’s rain-delayed play.

It meant Poulter could finish his third round and wouldn’t have to return at 7:45 Sunday morning when play resumed. Blessedly, he said, he would be able to sleep in with the rest of the civilized world and arrive at a fashionable hour for his final tee time.

This, of course, never would have been permitted at Augusta National, where running is not allowed. Alerted, the Pinkertons at The Masters would have tossed Poulter out on his precious British arse.

The sight of Poulter dashing around the grounds at, say, St. Andrews might have confused the locals into thinking somebody was filming a re-make of “Chariots of Fire.” And an Englishman running anywhere in the August heat of Atlanta, the site of this year’s PGA Championship, would be dismissed as the delirious act of a madman from across the water. At the U.S. Open, Poulter simply would have tripped over the rough.

“Unfounded,” tweeted Paul Azinger, when the critics came out in full force to blast Poulter. “Every player on Tour would have done the same thing.”

But not at a real “major.”

None of which is to say that The Players Championship isn’t without full merit and deserved significance. And this one was no exception. The tournament has earned its chops for lots of good reasons.

To repeat: The players don’t always measure up to The Players.

With the possible exception of Seminole (an argument for another column), TPC Sawgrass is the best golf course in Florida. It’s diabolical without being stupid. And with no venue change in 30 years, the tournament’s followers have come to know the golf course, particularly the dangerous rhythm of its finishing three holes.

And if you don’t buy that last point, try this stat on for size. The last three twosomes – the leaders – played the final three holes of the third round in a combined 10-over par.

Players’ winners have come in all shapes, sizes, ages, styles and nationalities. The only common denominator for Funk, Sutton, Woods, Scott, Garcia, Perks, Pate, Nicklaus and Clark – just to name a few – is there is no common denominator. And that’s healthy.

And now there will be an Asian name on the wall of honor near the clubhouse.

Kyoung-Ju Choi took up golf at the age of 16 when he didn’t foresee a big enough future in his first sporting love – powerlifting. He could squat 350 pounds when he weighed just 95. And his friends called him “Tank.”

But he decided youth would not be wasted on Kyoung. And he switched to golf.

In his three previous events leading up to Sawgrass, Choi quietly posted three top-eight finishes. He should have been a pre-tournament favorite. He will not be overlooked again anytime soon.

“It was important to stay patient and not give up,” Choi said late Sunday through an interpreter. When David Toms made his putt on 18, it was as loud as something you’d hear at The Masters.

Through no fault of Choi’s, that’s where the similarities ended.


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