Tiger Woods shows off his command
Usually uncomfortable at Sawgrass, Tiger exhibits control of game in win
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- When the sun shines, and the beer flows, and the spectators flock to the vistas that provide a panorama of the 16th and 17th holes at the TPC Sawgrass, there might not be a better view in golf.
With apologies to Amen Corner, which has its own special place in the game's history at Augusta National, the closing holes here provide their own kind of drama when the tournament is on the line at The Players Championship.
So there was Tiger Woods, his ball safely on the front of the 17th green, listening to the crowd roar as Sergio Garcia birdied the 16th hole, stealing a peek across the water that separates the two greens, then hearing the crescendo of noise again as his weekend foil approached the 17th tee.
"We've seen amazing things happen there at 16 and 17," Woods said. "I was hoping I would be on the good side of it."
For the first time in more than 10 years, Woods played those holes on a Sunday with something at stake.
He birdied the 16th by getting up and down from the front bunker. He two-putted from 45 feet at the 17th, coaxing a putt that broke some 15 feet, up near the hole. And then he striped a 3-wood off the 18th tee to set up the par that clinched the tournament.
It was his first win here since 2001, his fourth victory this year and seventh in his past 21 stroke-play starts on the PGA Tour.
Behind him, Garcia knocked two balls in the water at the 17th. Jeff Maggert, 49, who had posted only one top-three finish in the past seven years, rinsed one there in front of Woods.
Rookie David Lingmerth gamely knocked his approach to eight feet, only to miss the putt that would have tied -- then bogeyed the last when he needed a birdie. Kevin Streelman, who tied for second with Maggert and Lingmerth, birdied the 16th and 17th, but he had begun the day five strokes back.
In the end, when he needed the shots the most, Woods executed them, shooting a final-round 70 when only one other player among the top 15 starting the final round managed to break par.
Save for a 14th-hole blip that allowed a slew of people back into the tournament, Woods was on his game, looking as good as he has from tee to green since he started winning tournaments again 14 months ago.
"I hit it high, low, left-to-right, right-to-left, whatever I wanted,'' Woods said. "Except for that tee shot at 14, I didn't really miss a whole lot of shots. I pured a lot of putts, too. Could have been something pretty low today.''
For Woods, the key is always being able to work the ball in different directions. That is when he feels the best about his swing, and in truth, he has not had the ability in recent years.
Casey Wittenberg, who played the final round with Woods, also was alongside earlier this year at Torrey Pines. He also was paired with Woods last summer at the U.S. Open, where Woods shared the 36-hole lead but blew up on the weekend, falling to a tie for 21st. There, Wittenberg said, Woods was unable to hit a draw, a shot he played to perfection Sunday off the tee on the 18th hole.
"His game has definitely progressed," Wittenberg said. "It's getting better and better each time I see it. I thought he played fairly well at Torrey, especially with his iron game. I know this golf course doesn't really stress him out as far as having to make him hit drivers. But all in all, he was pretty zipped up and had very good control over the golf ball and made a few putts."
We've seen amazing things happen there at 16 and 17. I was hoping I would be on the good side of it." -- Tiger Woods
Unlike at Doral and Bay Hill, where he was as good as he has been in years on the greens -- taking just 100 putts at Doral, then having the best strokes-gained-putting week of his career at Bay Hill -- Woods took 114 putts here this week, twice needing 30 or more during a round.
That is a testament to his ball striking that he was able to win without holing a lot of putts. He hit 77 percent of the greens at a place that has traditionally given him fits. Woods has had a single top-10 finish here since winning 12 years ago, and never contended on the back nine.
"You have to be on top of your game and hit all the shots," said Joe LaCava, Woods' caddie, who also won here with Fred Couples in 1996. "There was no fear at all. He was hitting the exact shots that were called for. He's driving it better, his iron game is more precise. He's working it both ways. He's putting well, but honestly he didn't make a lot of putts this week. He missed some putts or it wouldn't have been close."
It got close because Woods inexplicably hit a poor tee shot at the par-4 14th, a hole that has rarely been kind to him over the years. The water on the left typically has him pushing his drive to the right, but Woods hit a sky-hook into the hazard.
That led to a drop and a 255-yard third shot, followed by a chip and two putts -- double-bogey 6 and a four-way tie for the lead.
Woods then had some more trouble when he missed the 15th green pin high, but on the short side. He chipped to eight feet and made the par-saving putt.
"I thought the tournament was at 15," he said. "To go double-bogey, bogey would have been huge. But to save a putt there and get some momentum going to the next three holes was big."
Much had been made of Woods' lack of success here over the years. For whatever reason, Pete Dye's course has never suited him. Back in 2001, he won everywhere and was in the midst of the Tiger Slam -- four straight major titles -- when he won The Players. Of late, he had been winning only at venues where he performed well in the past, including this year's wins at the Farmers Insurance Open, the WGC-Cadillac Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
A win at Sawgrass ought to answer some of those questions. "He's too good not to play well here," LaCava said. "He should be in contention a lot more here."
Said Brandt Snedeker, who played with Woods during the first two rounds: "From what I saw, he was flushing it, and was in control of every part of his game. He's playing incredible golf right now. As players, we can tell when a guy is flushing it all the time. He has an innate ability to flush it all the time."
The victory was the 78th of his PGA Tour career and came in his 300th start. As if sensing milestones, Woods also won his 100th start and his 200th start.
Woods has never won four tournaments on the PGA Tour this early in the year and the only time he had done so by June was when he captured the Memorial in both 2000 and 2001. Of course, in each of those years, he won major championships, which will undoubtedly be the focus with the U.S. Open looming next month.
More important to Woods, he seems in command, in control. The rules controversy at the Masters overshadowed the fact that he was in the mix, despite a two-shot penalty that resulted in a triple-bogey. He has now won three of his past four starts, with the miss Masters mixed in.
Here, he overcame a double-bogey, as well as that pressure-packed scene at the 16th and 17th holes, where the tournament swung in his favor.
"That's what this place is about," Wittenberg said. "You can love it or hate that last stretch, but I think the best thing you can do is kind of embrace it."
Woods did just that, taking it on and seemingly enjoying every moment.
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