K.J. Choi did everything demanded of the winner at The Players Championship.
Not only did he hit the island green on the 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass, he did it three times in one day. With the tournament on the line, he got up and down for par from 80 feet on the final hole Sunday.
Despite everything Choi did to win, this Players Championship might be remembered as much for how it was lost.
David Toms, who hit 5-iron out of a divot and made an 18-foot birdie putt on the hardest hole to force a playoff, missed a 3-1/2-foot par putt on the 17th to hand Choi the biggest win of his career.
”No excuses, no spike marks, no ball marks, no nothing,” Toms said of his three-putt bogey on the first sudden-death playoff hole. ”Maybe a lot of pressure. But other than that, there was no excuse.”
On a hole designed to provide great theater — the island-green 17th — the finish fell flat.
Both players hit the green in the playoff, and the advantage went to Toms with a shot that settled about 18 feet away. Choi lagged his long birdie putt about three feet by the hole, and Toms thought he had a winner with his 18-foot putt until it slid by the cup and rolled 3-1/2 feet by the cup. Into the grain, slightly uphill, he didn’t strike his par attempt solidly and missed.
Choi tapped in his putt and pumped his fist, yet his heart felt for the 44-year-old Toms.
”As a fellow player, I felt very sorry for him,” Choi said. ”Because I know how that feels. And I felt bad for him.”
Choi had reason to celebrate for his own feats. Winless on the PGA Tour for three years, he took the outright lead with a 10-foot birdie on the 17th in regulation, saved par on the 18th with a putt from just inside five feet to close with a 2-under 70 and kept his nerves steady.
The South Korean lived in Jacksonville briefly when he first came to America and once practiced at the TPC Sawgrass, although he said his game wasn’t good enough then to break par.
Now, Choi is The Players champion, a winner of the biggest event on the PGA Tour.
”For me to shoot under par every day on this course this week, it’s like a miracle, to be honest with you,” Choi said.
Choi won for the eighth time in his PGA Tour career, picked up $1.71 million from the biggest purse in tournament golf, moved to No. 15 in the world and all but assured himself a spot on the Presidents Cup team.
Toms, winless in five years, had an easy time taking away positives. He was the 36-hole leader, finished the rain-delayed third round Sunday morning only one shot behind and spent some five hours with his name atop the leaderboard in the final round.
And on his birdie on the 18th — one of only four birdies on the hardest hole at Sawgrass in the final round — he hit 5-iron out of a divot to 18 feet and forced a playoff.
”It was the best putt I’ve had in an awful long time,” Toms said.
Even so, it’s hard to get past a pair of mistakes.
The first one came on the par-5 16th, when he had a one-shot lead over Choi and tried to reach the green in two. His approach found the water, and Toms wound up making bogey. This is the guy famous for laying up on the par-4 18th at Atlanta Athletic Club when he won his lone major 10 years ago at the PGA Championship.
Toms was trying to put pressure on Choi.
”I thought I could hit the shot,” he said.
And then came the putt, when part of him already was thinking about going to the second playoff hole, that decided the tournament. One consolation for Toms, along with knowing his game is close, is that he moved to No. 46 in the world and can avoid U.S. Open qualifying if he can stay there one more week.
Toms also finished with a 70, joining Choi in the playoff at 13-under 275.
So many other players felt they also squandered chances, none more than U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Nick Watney.
McDowell, who had a one-shot lead when the third round concluded Sunday morning because of rain delays, lost his way after an errant tee shot into the trees on the sixth hole. He hit four shots into the water the rest of the way and closed with a 79.
Watney was in control late in the third round until playing a three-hole stretch in 4 over par, then fell behind with consecutive bogeys at the turn in the final round and could never catch up.
Paul Goydos, who lost a playoff to Sergio Garcia in 2008 when the tour decided to make the 17th the first playoff hole, closed with a 69 to finish alone in third.
Luke Donald never got on track, but still managed a 71 for his seventh consecutive top 10. He tied for fourth with Watney (71) and moved to No. 2 in the world, giving England the top two spots in the world ranking.
Donald and McDowell wore an all-navy blue outfit in honor of Seve Ballesteros — his famous Sunday colors — who died last week.
Toms took a share of the lead on the second hole and never trailed until the finish.
It was a long day for both of them — 32 holes for Toms, 27 holes for Choi, because of the rain-delayed third round that had to be completed Sunday morning.
One shot by McDowell, along with one wicked bounce, set the tone for the final round — for him and those chasing him.
With consecutive birdies amid several collapses, McDowell suddenly had a three-shot lead as he closed out the third round. From the right rough on the 18th, his ball took a hard hop short of the green, caught the slope with some speed and didn’t stop rolling until it tumbled over the edge and into the water. After a drop, he three-putted for double bogey to fall back to 12-under 204.
That one-shot lead didn’t last long, and neither did McDowell.
He drilled a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 5 to catch Toms, then crumbled with a tee shot into the trees on No. 6, a tee shot into the water on No. 7 and a peculiar decision to try to blast out from squarely behind a plant on the ninth. He made bogey on all of them, then dropped another shot into the water on the 13th, 17th and 18th.
What makes the final three holes so dramatic is that anything can happen. No one could have expected it would end the way it did.