PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tim Clark had a pleasant surprise awaiting him outside the scoring area when he finished his stellar round at The Players Championship on Sunday.
|Tim Clark can take a long look at his first trophy on American soil. (Getty Images)|
Well, it was a high-five for Clark, who stands 5-foot-7. It was a medium-five for Phil, who stands at least half-head taller in both professional accomplishments and actual altitude.
Lefty, who for over a decade was alternately marked, hounded and ridiculed for his inability to win a major championship, could relate to what the little South African has been through, in his own way.
"I know that there was a great sense of relief when I got that first one in 2004," Mickelson said of his first of three Masters wins as Clark was finishing his 18th hole a few yards away. "If Tim Clark ends up winning this thing, what a first win that is. That's incredible playing and what a final round he has shot."
Long pegged as the best player never to have won on the PGA Tour, the diminutive Clark fired the low round of the day, a 5-under 67, to win his first U.S. title at TPC Sawgrass, finally delivered both the title and on his considerable promise.
"I think the only thing that kept me sane is that I had won overseas," Clark laughed.
What took so long?
"It was awesome, fun to watch," said Charley Hoffman, his playing partner. "Every drive was dead straight, every iron was hit where he wanted, the putts went in.
"He played like a champion today, no question."
In the past, he had played like one for 70 or 71 holes, then found a way not to win. Not without good reason, Clark had been characterized as a guy who melted when the cauldron began to bubble on Sundays.
To wit, earlier this year, in a decision that was debated for days afterward, he had a chance to force a playoff at the Bob Hope and elected to lay up on the last hole, an easy par-5, from 230 yards. He hit a 7-iron and wedge, failed to make his birdie putt, and lost to Bill Haas. It marked the eighth runner-up finish on the PGA Tour for Clark, who has three wins on the European Tour.
"I think it was probably a few weeks after Bob Hope where he had a chance to win there, and he just said, 'Oh, man, when am I ever going to win?'" runner-up Robert Allenby recalled. "I just can't get over the line, and I said to him, 'Mate, you've just got to be patient, you've just got to keep putting yourself in there for a chance on the last day.' Lo' and behold, he beat me."
Hoffman, one of Clark's friends, has one career victory, so he was familiar with the burden of unfulfilled expectations, too.
Players: Final scores and earnings
"There's no question it weighs on you not being able to close it out here," Hoffman said. "He's won internationally plenty of times, played Presidents Cup. He's a great player." Now he an accomplished one as well. This time, there was not a hint retreat on the weekend, which began with a 66 on Saturday, matching the low round of the day. Clark, 34, began the weekend seven shots off the lead and set a new Players mark for biggest comeback over the final 36 holes, eclipsing by one the mark established by the well-heeled winner in 2001.
That would be one Tiger Woods, who has 70 more victories on the PGA Tour. Somewhat hilariously, shortly before Clark teed off, he exited one of two fitness trailers and stumbled into an odd tableau.
Arrayed before him as he walked down the stairs were two black SUVs, a handful of uniformed cops, and about 50 members of the media. They were all awaiting Woods, who was in the second trailer, getting his sprained neck treated. Clark had a puzzled look on his mug for several moments.
"I figured it out," Clark said.
Same with the course. Clark looked a little fidgety over a few putts, especially down the back nine, but somehow steered the ball into the hole when it mattered most. He had one bogey on the card on the weekend, a seemingly impossible feat given how tough the course began playing as the tournament progressed.
"He didn't look like he had trouble today," Hoffman said. "It seemed like he was comfortable. He looked like we were playing out there on Tuesday."
He won a lot more than the cash wad that usually exchanges hands after a practice-round bet. The winner's share is $1.71 million, which is interesting, in that money was at the crux of Clark's criticism over the years.
Clark had won a staggering $14.72 million on the U.S. tour entering the week, easily the most of any player without a win. I half expected them to throw rice as he accepted the trophy as a joke about the bridesmaid deal.
On a day when exactly one other player broke 70, Clark took control with a 90-minute stretch to seize the lead, making birdies at four straight holes beginning at No. 9. Allenby and 54-hole leader Lee Westwood played the same stretch in level par, losing mountains of momentum and mojo.
Clark had made an unholy 54 of 55 putts from inside seven feet for the week. So, of course, when he faced a putt to retain a one-shot lead on the final green, it was from just beyond that distance -- 7 feet, 9 inches. He boldly slammed it home and when Robert Allenby was unable to muster a birdie on the last two holes, Clark had finally chalked up his first.
"Not just this round," he said of his putting wizardry. "Particularly the last two days is by far the best I have ever putted. I have never felt like that on the greens, ever."
Like many before him, Clark said that confidence is a fragile thing. It comes and goes like an onshore breeze.
"This might be a big step for me," he said. "This one win could lead to others. It's happened in the past, where a guy has taken a long time to win and then that one victory gives him the confidence to go ahead and win other tournaments."
No matter what happens from here, the little guy created big footprints at Sawgrass, to be sure.