PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — One bad tee shot made Tiger Woods appear vulnerable. One clutch par putt and a critical birdie made him look invincible.
Woods closed out The Players Championship on Sunday like he has so many other tournaments: hitting big shot after big shot down the stretch.
His latest unflappable finish helped him secure his fourth victory of 2013 and capture the richest prize on the PGA Tour for the first time in a dozen years.
“I know a lot of people … thought I was done,” said Woods, who has never won four times this early in a season. “But I’m not.”
This one had to be special. Not only did he win on Mother’s Day for the second time in his career with girlfriend and Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn in attendance, but Woods also won the final showdown against Sergio Garcia after a weekend filled with tense stares and sharp words.
Woods and Garcia were tied for the lead with two holes to play before heading in opposite directions. Woods kept his shots on land and made two pars. Garcia hit three balls into the water for a quadruple bogey-double bogey finish.
If there was any satisfaction in beating Garcia again, Woods kept that to himself.
“We just go out there and play,” said Woods, who earned $1.71 million and pushed his season total to over $5.8 million in just seven tournaments. “I had an opportunity to win the golf tournament when I was tied for the lead today, and I thought I handled the situation well and really played well today when I really needed to. And that’s something I’m excited about.”
Woods allowed the final hour to turn into a tense duel by hooking his tee shot into the water on the par-4 14th hole for double bogey. But his short game bailed him out to save par on the 15th and make a sand-save birdie on the 16th. He was solid on the final two holes for a 2-under 70.
“The shot that turned the tide was the putt on 15,” Woods said. “To go double bogey-bogey would have been huge. But to save a putt there and get some momentum going to the next three holes was big.”
Garcia’s finish was messy.
The Spaniard was standing at the 17th tee, staring across to the island green as Woods made his par. He took aim at the flag with his wedge and hung his head when he saw the ball splash short of the green. Then, Garcia hit another one in the water on his way to a quadruple-bogey 7. The meltdown was complete when Garcia hit his tee shot into the water on the 18th.
“It’s always nice to have a chance at beating the No. 1 player in the world, but unfortunately for me, I wasn’t able to this week,” Garcia said.
Woods was in the scoring trailer when Swedish rookie David Lingmerth missed a long birdie putt that would have forced a playoff. It raced by the cup, and Lingmerth three-putted for bogey.
Woods finished on 13-under 275.
He won The Players for the first time since 2001 and became the fifth multiple winner at TPC Sawgrass since The Players moved to this former swamp in 1982. It was his 78th career win on the PGA Tour, four short of the record held by Sam Snead.
Lingmerth closed with a 72 and finished two shots behind, along with Kevin Streelman (67) and Jeff Maggert, who also was tied for the lead until finding the water on the 17th to make double bogey. The 49-year-old Maggert birdied the 18th for a 70.
Garcia took 13 shots to cover the final two holes — 6 over par — and tumbled into a tie for eighth.
Given their public sniping, it was only fitting that Garcia had the best chance to beat Woods.
Their dispute started Saturday when Garcia complained that his shot from the par-5 second fairway was disrupted by cheers from the crowd around Woods, who was some 50 yards away in the trees and fired them up by taking a fairway metal out of his bag. He said Woods should have been paying attention, and it became a war of the words the next two days.
“Not real surprising that he’s complaining about something,” Woods said.
“At least I’m true to myself,” Garcia retorted. “I know what I’m doing, and he can do whatever he wants.”
Woods and Garcia played four tension-free holes to complete the third round Sunday morning, and they shook hands without words when they finished — Woods with a 71, Garcia with a 72 to share the 54-hole lead with Lingmerth.
Afterward, Garcia kept at it, saying Woods is “not the nicest guy on tour.”
Woods had the last laugh — along with the Players trophy. He improved to 53-4 in his PGA Tour career when he has at least a share of the lead going into the final round.
Garcia, when asked if he would have changed anything about the flap with Woods, replied, “It sounds like I was the bad guy here. I was the victim. I don’t have any regrets of anything.”
The real villain was the tricky island green.
It was at the 17th hole where Garcia won The Players in 2008 when Paul Goydos hit into the water in a sudden-death playoff. This time, the island green got its revenge. Garcia hit a wedge and felt he caught it just a little bit thin, which is usually all it takes.
“That hole has been good to me for the most part,” Garcia said. “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.”
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