By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The dragonfly didn't bother him. The momentary lapse into a poor practice habit certainly did. And now Tiger Woods faced his moment of truth Sunday afternoon at THE PLAYERS Championship.
He had just double bogeyed the par-4 14th at TPC Sawgrass to give away a two-shot lead. While you may have been shocked at the turn of events unfolding for Tiger at that hole, you shouldn't be. That hole has haunted Tiger for years; he's 13 over for his career there. You almost expect to hear a sinister laugh rustling through the trees whenever Tiger steps onto its tee box. The 14th hole is his kryptonite.
For Tiger, though, this tournament -- the one he hasn't won in more than a decade, on a course that doesn't genuflect to his greatness -- hinged not on his mistake at the 14th, but his response on the par-4 15th. Suddenly finding himself sharing the lead with three other players, including another past PLAYERS champ in Sergio Garcia, Woods couldn't afford another lost stroke.
A poor approach with his 9-iron into the 15th left Tiger in a precarious position left of the green. Facing his toughest up-and-down of the week, he chipped to inside 8 feet ... and then struck the decisive putt, a par-saver that kept him in the game. And allowed him to watch as others self-destructed.
It was another hour before Woods could officially claim victory, the second PLAYERS win of his career and his fourth PGA TOUR win of this season. But as he reflected on the day, which started in the early-morning hours when he completed his third round and ended with his most important victory since his last major win in 2008 at the U.S. Open, Tiger knew where he had answered the call.
"The shot that turned the tide was the putt on 15," Woods said. "To go double bogey-bogey would have been huge."
A huge disappointment, that is.
Instead, Tiger added, "To save a putt there and get some momentum going to the next three holes was big."
That's because TPC Sawgrass' finishing stretch often is more about avoiding bad shots than hitting great ones. The dramatic moments revolve around tragedy, which is why THE PLAYERS provides such compelling theater.
Sunday was the tournament at its high-intensity, white-knuckling best.
Woods appeared in control as he stepped onto the 14th tee, leading Jeff Maggert by two strokes, and Garcia and David Lingmerth by three. Garcia obviously has skins on the wall at TPC Sawgrass, having won here in 2008. But Maggert is a 49-year-old who ranked 429th in the world and Lingmerth is a rookie who ranks 162nd and making just his 13th start on TOUR.
It had plainly become Tiger's tournament to lose.
But as he started his downswing on his tee shot, Tiger pulled up. A dragonfly had distracted him. "That happens," he said. "It's nature."
Hard to ignore the foreshadowing, though. After reloading, Tiger launched a pop-up hook that splashed smackdab in the middle of the water hazard down the left side of the fairway. Wasn't even close to finding dry land.
On a course that Tiger calls "tricky," the golf gods delivered their own source of amusement. For the first time all week, Tiger had reverted to a faulty swing that had cropped up in the early days of working with swing coach Sean Foley. Having imagined a low draw, Tiger saw the high hook.
He also imagined his mother Kultida, watching back home as she celebrated Mother's Day, having blood pressure issues.
"I'm sure that she'll give me a ration of grief for that shot on 14," he said.
A difficult lie after his drop -- the ball was on the sliver of rough between the bunker and the water, his feet below the ball, forcing Tiger to use a baseball-type swing -- didn't help matters. Meanwhile, Garcia and Lingmerth, playing in the final group behind him, had each just birdied the 13th hole to climb within two strokes. Maggert was up ahead, making pars.
When Tiger walked off the 14th green, all four players were tied. For Tiger, that was actually the good news.
"I figured I still was tied for the lead in the tournament," Woods said, "and if I played the last four holes at the time under par, I thought at worst I'd be in a playoff."
But he bailed himself out at 15. And the worst, as it turned out, happened to everybody else.
Lingmerth bogeyed the 14th with a poor approach and could never make up the ground, just missing an 8-footer for birdie at the 17th that would've tied for the lead. He'd have to settle for a valiant effort and valuable experience gained.
"I don't feel like I put the pedal to the metal today," he said. "I felt like I left a lot of shots out there."
Maggert fell victim to the 17th's watery grave, a double bogey taking him out of the mix.
"What can I say? A wrong shot at a wrong time," said the Texan, who last won on TOUR in 2006.
Finally, it came down to Garcia. He stepped onto the 17th tee tied for Woods at 13 under after both had birdied the par-5 16th. Five years ago, Garcia had won THE PLAYERS on the 17th tee in a playoff against Paul Goydos. Unlike the 14th and Tiger, the 17th and Sergio have a great relationship, a productive relationship.
Well, until Sunday, when Garcia pumped not one, but two shots in the water en route to a quadruple bogey.
"That hole has been good to me for the most part," said Garcia, quickly coming to terms with his fate. "Today, it wasn't. That's the way it is. That's the kind of hole it is. You've got to love it for what it is."
And you've got to love Tiger for what he is -- not only the best golfer of our generation but one who can dust himself off after a mistake and find a way to the winner's circle.
He's made that trip now 78 times in 300 starts on the PGA TOUR. Not all of those victories have been flawless. Not all have been pretty. But almost all of them have required some amount of grit and fortitude when the tournament was on the line.
A dozen years after his last win at TPC Sawgrass, Tiger finally answered the call again.