Just about anybody in the top 15 who shot 66 in the final round of The Players was going to walk away with the trophy and the $1.7 million that goes with the title. Alex Cejka seemed a likely candidate to not get the job done based on his past. Tiger Woods usually scares off the competition just by appearing in the final group wearing a red shirt.
Cejka lived up to his reputation as a good player but not a strong finisher.
In about 42 minutes his five-shot lead had evaporated, a double-bogey on the fourth hole sealing his fate as a non-winner. Tiger never got anything going, not even making birdie on the second hole to serve notice on the field. So with the tournament wide open, about a half-dozen players looked to be eventual winners: Retief Goosen, a two-time major champion, Ben Crane, John Mallinger, Ian Poulter and Henrick Stenson.
Of those, Crane’s notoriety came from his deliberate play, Goosen as icy-cold in tough conditions. Mallinger as an unknown, Poulter for his finish last year at The Open and his clothes, and Stenson for taking his clothes off at Doral earlier this year to hit a shot out of the water. Nobody seemed to notice that Stenson also happens to be the fifth ranked player in the world and at 33-years old has won 10 times around the world. He might not be a star in the US but as a true international player, he’s in the thick of things.
I had a chance to talk to Stenson after the round and asked if he was watching scoreboards to determine how he played. “Once I made the putt on 11 I felt like I could take control of the tournament. The putt on 13 gave me a lead and when Ian birdied 15 I topped that and figured if I kept walking I should win.”
He made it sound so simple but it was anything but. Stenson played a nearly flawless round, missing one fairway (14 and still made par) and posting six birdies enroute to a 66, the best round of the day.
“We know he has the talent,” Tiger said afterwards. “But in these conditions, impressive. Pretty incredible.”
And that’s from the best player in the world.
Talk all you want about Tiger’s lack of smiling, his big arms, his knee, whatever, but when he’s impressed by what somebody did on a golf course he just walked off of, you take notice.
Unlike Craig Perks, who I thought would validate his victory after the 2002 Players, I don’t think Stenson will disappear at all. It should move him to the forefront when it comes to the big tournaments and especially the major championships.
“This will give me confidence when it comes to the majors,” Stenson said afterward. “If I can play like this on this course against this field, I should be able to do it in the majors as well.”
I think he’s right about that.
He strikes me as a very even-tempered player (he is Swedish after all) with tons of game. It really comes down to the putter, like with most players out there, but Stenson will put himself in position to be successful in the future and his name will be heard on leader boards for a while.
Two other stories played out this week. Tiger’s just fine but perhaps still a little rusty. “First time I’ve played back-to-back weeks, something I was wondering about. The knee’s fine. I can practice.” That’s good news for Tiger, his fans and the Tour.
It’ll be interesting to see if that’s what’s going on with his game, just some rust, or if it’s fatherhood, distractions, age, whatever. He’s still incredible and looks like the light-heavyweight champion of the world. I know Johnny Miller said Tiger was too bulked up to play, and although I disagree, Miller should know. When he moved to his farm in the mid ’70s’ he bulked up enough that he stopped winning.
I do agree with Miller that Tiger doesn’t smile anymore. While that doesn’t matter it does appear he’s playing a joyless game. I don’t know if that goes with the territory as one of the most famous athletes in the world or he just is grinding all the time. Hindsight will give us an indication.
The other story is Jeff Klauk. Klauk finished a 3 under and represented himself very well. As the son of the superintendent for 20 years he estimates he played 1000 rounds at the Stadium course and knows it from mowing fairways and raking traps. He had a local contingent of fans giving him support and I’m sure he felt some pressure in his first appearance at The Players.
But he didn’t fold at all and at one point was tied for 7th.
A bad back nine on Friday cost him a shot at the first page of the leaders but he showed everybody, and perhaps most importantly himself, that he belonged out there with the best players in the world.
“My goal is to play in the Tour Championship,” Klauk revealed on Sunday. In order to do that, he’ll have to finish in the top 30 on the money list. Maybe not that far fetched if he keeps this kind of play up.
“If I can replicate what I did on several nines this week over 72 holes, I’ll be just fine.”
More than that Jeff.
You’ll be a winner.