When Rickie Fowler rallied from a five-stroke deficit to win last year, it was called the greatest finish in the 34 years since the Players Championship moved to its permanent home at TPC Sawgrass.
That is saying a mouthful because Pete Dye’s Stadium Course is set up for fantastic finishes, and there have been plenty of them, along with some memorable crash-and-burns, over the years.
There aren’t many courses that can match Dye’s last three holes — the risk-reward, par-5 16th; the par-3 17th hole, with its island green; and the par-4 18th, with water all along the left side and trees on the right.
Fowler started his run one hole earlier, playing the last four in birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to shoot 5-under-par 67. He then beat Kevin Kisner and Spain’s Sergio Garcia with two more birdies in what turned out to be a four-hole playoff.
If you are not keeping score at home, that is 7-under on his last eight holes.
“That’s one of the greatest comebacks I’ve seen in a long time,” said NBC commentator Johnny Miller, who knows a little about comebacks, having rallied to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont by shooting 63 in the final round.
Jack Nicklaus won the Players three times, but that was before it was first played at TPC Sawgrass in 1982, when tournament champion Jerry Pate took Dye and PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman for a swim in the lake off the 18th green.
Until Fowler’s run, the greatest comeback on the Stadium Course was authored by New Zealand’s Craig Perks in 2002.
Perks chipped in from 20 feet for an eagle on the 16th, holed a 30-foot birdie putt on the 17th and knocked in a chip of about 30 feet from behind the 18th green to beat Canada’s Stephen Ames by two strokes.
“I had dreams and goals, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would win a tournament like the Players,” Perks said of his only pro victory. “I look at it when I get down to say, ‘Hey, I did that. I’m The Players champion. I won.'”
In 2004, Australia’s Adam Scott held a two-stroke lead over Ireland’s Padraig Harrington when Scott hit his approach shot on the 18th hole into the water.
With outright victory seemingly slipping from his grasp and the possibility of a playoff looming, Scott took a drop and hit his approach to within 10 feet before holing the putt for a winning bogey.
Scott said he wasn’t thinking about a playoff.
“My first thought after (the ball went in the water) was, ‘We have a chip and a putt for bogey and the win,'” Scott said. “That’s what I told my caddie because I didn’t want him to be worried.”
Which apparently means that Scott was not.
Tiger Woods won the Players Championship in 2001 and 2013, but in 2000 he shot 66 in round three to get into the last twosome in the final round, during which he went eyeball to eyeball with Hal Sutton all day.
Sutton, who won the Players in 1983, held a one-stroke lead on the 18th hole, and after he hit his approach shot toward the green, the TV’s on-course microphone caught him saying: “Be the right club today.”
It was, and Sutton two-putted for a winning par to hold off the prowling Tiger.
In other dramatic finishes:
Fred Funk, who never won a major championship on the PGA Tour, became the oldest winner of the so-called “Fifth Major” at 48 when he held off Tom Lehman, Scott Verplank and England’s Luke Donald by one stroke in 2005.
In 2011, South Korea’s K.J. Choi became the only Asian player to capture the Players. He got up and down for a par from 80 feet on the 72nd hole and then beat David Toms with a par on the first playoff hole as the American missed a 3 1/2-foot par putt.
South Africa’s Tim Clark, who played the last 26 holes without a bogey, earned his first PGA Tour victory in 206 starts when he sank an 8-foot par putt on the final hole to win by one shot over Robert Allenby of Australia in 2010.
“A part of me is a bit disappointed because now no one is going to talk about me anymore,” said Clark, who added a second victory in the 2014 RBC Canadian Open. “At least you had something to write about before. Now I’m just another guy with a win. …
“I did all I could there. That’s as good as I could have played.”
As for the meltdowns:
John Cook came to the 72nd hole tied for the lead with Sutton in 1983 before hitting his tee shot into the water on his way to a double bogey.
In 1991, Phil Blackmar had sole possession of the lead before hitting his tee shot into the water on the 17th hole in the final round en route to a double bogey, and Australia’s Steve Elkington won by one stroke over Fuzzy Zoeller.
Garcia was tied for lead with Woods heading to the 17th in the final round in 2013, but twice hit into the water around the island green and Tiger went on to a two-stroke victory.
Many people believe Woods’ famous 60-foot birdie putt on the island green in 2001 came in the final round, as it is famously remembered for on-course analyst Gary Koch’s call of “Better than most,” but actually it was in round three.
However, it made the difference in the long run as Woods held on for a one-stroke victory over Fiji’s Vijay Singh.
It would have made for a better finish the other way.
–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre