Ponte Vedra – Despite the weather delay, the final round of the Players championship provided just what everybody wanted: a dramatic finish, good television ratings, large crowds and a popular champion. The fact that it was Hal Sutton and Tiger Woods didn’t seem to make that much difference. The fact that Tiger Woods was in the final twosome did. It’s hard to believe Sutton could shoot just 71 in the final round with a one shot lead, and still win when Woods was his closest competitor.
That’s why the Stadium Course at Sawgrass is nearly an equal star to the players. Demanding, tough, penal but leveling is how most players described it. The course doesn’t reward a player with one great part of his game, it rewards the player with the whole game. Sutton had it, especially in the last round missing just one fairway, 16, and that was just barely. His driving was accurate, his iron play precise and his putting nothing short of brilliant. More importantly though, the game in his mind was working like that of a champion.
Sutton talked all week about not trying to force the issue, don’t try to use the accelerator all the time when the brake is what you need. That’s easy stuff to say, but actually putting it into practice in the heat of the battle with the best player in the world as your competition, that’s championship character in action. I asked Hal if he would have been able to do that 5, 10 or even 17 years ago when he first won the TPC, he said no, he’s a much better and smarter player than he was then. His personal and professional travails are well known, and unlike Fulton Allem, Sutton was unwilling to go into his problems and count them among the things that make him the player, and person he is today. His solid play over the last two holes showed grit and determination, and a willingness to trust himself to get the job done.
Following his victory, Hal praised Tiger but added, “He’s not bigger than the game.” If you read between the lines, Sutton was sending a message to his fellow PGA Tour players. Stop trying to play Tiger’s game is the message. Play your own game, trust yourself and good things might happen. Too many players are melting at Tiger’s feet, much like they did with Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan, Snead and Nelson. Why is it such a big deal that Jack Fleck beat Hogan at the Open? Because everybody else was falling all over themselves trying to get out of Hogan’s way. That’s how too many players are reacting to Woods. In some ways, it’s understandable. Tiger is so good, so dominating and so able to will himself to success, it destroys the confidence of his competitors. His eagle on 16 Monday is the kind of thing that’s not supposed to happen in golf. It seems only Tiger can make it happen when he wills it to happen. Again, he’s an example of a great athlete who is playing golf, the first of what I think is many more to come.