by Steve DiMeglio, USA TODAY Sports
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - With a history of bruises on a golf course that can dish out pain on every hole, in a tournament he's won only once, and on a weekend he took verbal jabs from Sergio Garcia and jabbed back, Tiger Woods had to call on all his powers to win The Players Championship.
Digging deep after dunking his tee shot into the water on the 14th hole and squandering a 2-shot lead, Woods collected his thoughts before his next shot and controlled his emotions down the stretch to win his second Players, a dozen years after claiming his first.
Woods left TPC Sawgrass late on Mother's Day night with his fourth win of the season and the 78th Tour title of his career, just four shy of Sam Snead's all-time record of 82. He has won seven of his last 21 stroke-play Tour events and is now 52-4 when holding at least a share of the lead entering the final round. Woods also became the sixth player to win multiple Players titles in the tournament's 40 years, joining Hal Sutton, Fred Couples, Steve Elkington, Davis Love III and Jack Nicklaus, the only three-time winner.
"It was a tough battle," Woods said. "This golf course has been a little bit tricky over the years, and I'm not the only one who's struggled with it. It's a tough course. Fortunately, I've been playing really well, and the last tournament I played in, I played really well. So coming here I was pretty confident in what I was doing.
" ... I hit it so good today, it was fun. I hit it high, low, left to right, right to left, whatever I wanted, except for that tee shot at 14."
After his water miscue, the world's No. 1 golfer said a key par save on the next hole - with a clutch 8-foot putt - "turned the tide" for him.
He temporarily grabbed the outright lead with a birdie on the par-5 16th, and closed with two pars to post a 2-under-par 70 for the day and 13 under for the tournament, two shots in front of David Lingmerth, Kevin Streelman and Jeff Maggert, who at 49 was trying to become the oldest Players champion.
"I was in control of the tournament, got to the 14th tee and hit the worst shot I could possibly hit," said Woods, whose girlfriend, skier Lindsey Vonn, was in the gallery. "But it was the only bad swing I had all day and I was still tied for the lead."
Garcia, playing behind Woods in the final group with the little-known Lingmerth, pulled even with Woods with a birdie on 16.
Then, disaster. The Spaniard dunked two balls into the water on the fan-favorite island par-3 at 17 for a quadruple-bogey 7, followed by another ball into the water on 18 and a double-bogey that dropped him to eighth place. Five years ago, when he won The Players, it was his opponent in the playoff, Paul Goydos, who found the water at 17.
"That hole has been good to me for the most part," Garcia said. "Today, it wasn't. ... That's the kind of hole it is. You've got to love it for what it is."
The only player left for Woods to dodge was Lingmerth, who had missed his last five cuts heading into The Players and counts just one professional win. Lingmerth missed a 7-foot putt for birdie on the 17th and then he missed a 60-footer for birdie on the last, eventually three-putting to fall out of solo second.
'Don't like each other'
Sunday broke early for Woods, Garcia and six others who had to restart the third round at 7:10 a.m. after a storm delayed action Saturday. Woods and Garcia, who played in the marquee final group on Saturday, started from the 15th fairway. Woods made one birdie, Garcia two in the closing holes and shared the 54-hole lead with Lingmerth.
Lingmerth and Garcia were paired in the final group for the final round, with Woods in the penultimate group with Casey Wittenberg. Garcia said it was a good thing he and Woods weren't paired.
"He's not my favorite guy to play with. He's not the nicest guy on Tour. So it will good for both us not to play together again," Garcia said following completion of the third round. "We don't like each other. It doesn't take a rocket engineer to figure that out."
The two didn't play nice on Saturday. They extended a long-running feud following an incident on the second fairway in the third round. Garcia told NBC during a storm delay that Woods - unintentionally or not - had caused a distraction that triggered Garcia to hit his worst shot of the day. Garcia said that when Woods pulled a 5-wood out of his bag for his second shot out of the trees, the crowd responded with cheers - during Garcia's swing. Woods countered after the round that he is accustomed to Garcia complaining.
"Obviously, he doesn't know all the facts," Woods said Saturday. "The marshal said he already hit and I pulled the 5-wood and hit.
" ... It's not really surprising he was complaining about something."
Garcia, when told of Woods' response, said, "I don't care. At least I'm true to myself. I know what I'm doing. And he can do whatever he wants."
The frosty relationship between Woods and Garcia dates to the made-for-TV Battle at Bighorn in 2000, when Garcia beat Woods and celebrated a bit too much, especially with Woods batttling the flu.
Two years later at the U.S. Open, Garcia complained that heavy rains should have forced stoppage in play - saying that if Woods had been playing during the heavy rains, play would have been stopped.
Woods winning 14 majors hasn't helped the relationship, either, as Garcia remains at zero, though Garcia has played a major role Europe's success in the Ryder Cup.
Following Sunday's final round, Garcia didn't blame the scrap with Woods on his play down the stretch. But he had one parting shot.
"Was it a distraction? Maybe a little bit. But I mean, it really distracted me at that time, then after that you kind of move on and you try to figure things out," said Garcia, who added he doesn't regret saying anything about the incident. " ... I don't know, it sounds like I was the bad guy here. I was the victim."
Woods implied the same thing, saying he just goes out and tries to win golf tournament. He had nothing to say about Garcia's Sunday comments, just saying he handled the situation well.
Another drop scrutinized
NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller had plenty to say - about Woods' drop on the 14th hole. Woods hooked his 3-wood into the water hazard on the left and had to determine where the ball last crossed the hazard line. Woods, who was involved in a drop controversy in the Masters last month, eventually dropped 255 yards from the hole after consulting with playing partner Casey Wittenberg.
Miller said it was "borderline" whether Woods dropped in the proper place. Mark Rolfing, the only analyst near the tee, said he didn't have a problem with it.
Mark Russell, vice president of competition for the PGA Tour, said there was no problem.
"I saw it perfectly off the tee," Wittenberg said. "I told him exactly where I thought it crossed, and we all agreed. We talked to each other. He asked me exactly where it crossed. I told him I thought it crossed on the corner of the bunker right where he took his drop, and it's all good.
"There is no doubt, guys. The ball crossed where he dropped."
And there's no doubt Woods is the best player in the game. He likely will play next in The Memorial, one of his three wins last year. Then he will play in the U.S. Open and try and win his first major since the 2008 U.S. Open.
"Am I surprised? No," Woods said when asked if he's surprised with his latest stretch of outstanding golf. "I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done. But I'm not. ... I'm just trying to get better, and I feel like I'm getting better as the year's going on, which is nice."
Numbers piling up for Tiger
4: Victories in 2013. This is the earliest Woods has ever reached four wins in a season.
7: Victories in his last 21 PGA Tour stroke-play events.
52 of 56: Conversion rate when Woods has at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
78: Career PGA Tour victories. Sam Snead, with 82, is No. 1 on the list.
300: PGA Tour starts (including as an amateur). Woods also won in his 100th and 200th PGA Tour starts.
$5,849,600: Official PGA Tour earnings in 2013.
$106,800,300: Official career PGA Tour earnings.