When they get around to writing the history of golf in the 21st
century, last week's Players Championship may assume a prominent
place in the narrative. Hal Sutton's victory, 17 years after his
first Players title, will rate a footnote as the moment when he
completed his return to the front ranks of the game. Of more
lasting significance will be whom he beat, and how. Tiger Woods
strutted into Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., fresh from an alarmingly
easy win at the Bay Hill Invitational, his third W of the year
and his 10th in 16 starts. Woods had been making such a mockery
of the competition that the day before the Players, Colin
Montgomerie, No. 3 in the World Ranking, made a stunning
admission: "After the first round last week, when Tiger shot 69,
the view in the locker room--without anyone saying it out loud--was
[that] the tournament was finished. It was like, Who is going to
finish second?" This was a concession best left for a late-night
chat with a sports psychologist, but by going public, Monty
touched off a heated debate.
The most vociferous dissenter was Sutton, an occasionally ornery
41-year-old from Shreveport, La. "He was in a different locker
room than I was," he said with a growl. "I will tell you this:
Praising Tiger all the time is certainly [creating] a defeatist
attitude. There are a lot of people who don't think they can beat
him right now down the stretch on Sunday. There's a lot of doubt
in their minds."
This kind of intimidation factor hasn't been seen on Tour since
Jack Nicklaus was in his heyday. It is instructive to note,
however, that the Golden Bear had nearly as many second-place
finishes as victories over the years (58 versus 70). As often as
not, Nicklaus inspired the competition--be it Johnny Miller, Lee
Trevino or Tom Watson--to elevate their games to his otherworldly
level. So far in his short career Woods has had the opposite
effect on his would-be challengers (with the notable exception of
Darren Clarke at the Andersen Consulting Match Play
Championship). In Woods's presence, especially on Sundays, swings
crumble, putters wobble and voices seem to rise a couple of
octaves. There can be no doubt that Woods's wins are, as the
saying goes, good for golf. Lately, though, we've been
experiencing too much of a good thing. If the competition never
rises to the challenge, Woods's victories become devalued, boring
At February's Nissan Open, in Los Angeles, Sutton decided it was
time to make a stand. He and Woods were paired together over the
first two rounds, and as trivial as it may sound, "I felt it was
important that I send a message," Sutton said. "One, that I
could beat him, playing with him. And two, that he knew that I
could beat him playing with him." Sutton shot 69-67 to Woods's
68-70. This was typical Sutton, as no one in golf plays with
more grim determination. A three-time winner over the past two
seasons, Sutton went to another level last year with his
courageous play at the Ryder Cup (he led the U.S. team with a
3-1-1 record), and in the first few months of 2000 he had
maintained the momentum, with four top-seven finishes heading
into the Players Championship.
Last Thursday, in winds gusting up to 30 miles an hour, Sutton
was the only player to break 70 on a wickedly fast, par-72
Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass, not surprising given that
he is regarded as one of the best ball-strikers in golf. (He led
the Tour in greens in regulation in 1998 and last year was third
in total driving.) Sutton shot 69 during the second round to take
a one-stroke lead over Tom Lehman and Omar Uresti into the
weekend. With rounds of 71-71, Woods was only four shots in
arrears despite having taken a double bogey in each of his first
On Saturday, Sutton and Woods had another chance to "get down in
the dirt," to borrow one of Sutton's many down-home expressions,
and the two players combined to produce golf that was high in
caliber as well as in theatrics despite playing two groups apart.
Woods birdied four of the first six holes to move to six under
and within a stroke of Sutton, who promptly answered with a
birdie jag of his own, making four in five holes to turn at 11
under, five ahead of Woods. "I was trying to answer everything he
did," Sutton said. "I am not going to roll over and play dead."
Woods responded with a spectacular eagle out of a fairway bunker
on the par-5 11th, but again Sutton parried, with a birdie at the
12th hole. (On the day, Sutton would make over 100 feet of birdie
The lead was still four shots when Sutton made his only mistake
of the day, flushing a nine-iron over the island green at the
par-3 17th, a miscue that led to a brutal triple bogey. With his
third straight 69, Sutton still had a one-shot lead on Woods,
whose 66 was, improbably, the first time he had broken 70 in 14
career rounds as a pro at the Deane (Beman) Dome. Woods and
Sutton would play together in the final pairing on Sunday, and on
the eve of the final round Sutton kept up the rhetoric.
"You have got the greatest championship in the game, and you have
got the best player in the world right there on my tail," he
said. "That doesn't mean he is going to win tomorrow, even though
everybody else in the world is trying to figure out a way for him
to go ahead and do it." Woods was clearly amused by all the
posturing. He dismissed Sutton's bragging about L.A. as "spin"
and said of the impending final round, "I'm going to go out there
and play my own game, and we'll see what happens. Obviously Hal
may think a little differently. That's fine. He needs to motivate
himself the way he needs to motivate himself."
On Sunday, Woods looked like he was up to his usual high jinks,
making an effortless birdie on the 1st hole to tie for the lead.
Sutton, however, refused to back down. On the par-5 2nd he blew
his drive well past Woods's--"and he hit driver, by the way,"
Sutton would say later. Neither player made birdie, but Woods
blinked first by taking sloppy bogeys at the 3rd and 4th holes.
Sutton was merciless, grinding out one fairway-and-green par
after another. On the 11th hole he ran in a big-breaking
25-footer for birdie to stretch his lead to three strokes, and
then, as he stood in the middle of the next fairway, a
thunderstorm struck with enough force to postpone the conclusion
of the round until Monday morning. Sutton picked up right where
he left off, churning out par after flawless par, while Woods was
unable to summon the sort of Monday magic he flashed at Pebble
Beach, where he came from seven behind to win.
He began the morning with a three-putt at the 12th hole to drop
to four back, then made it interesting by birdieing the 13th and
making an eagle at the par-5 16th to move to within a stroke
heading into the scariest little hole in golf. Sutton had no
trouble at 17 this time, thanks to an absence of wind and a
marshmellowy green. Woods matched Sutton's par, so one stroke
still separated them as they played the exacting, 440-yard 18th.
After Tiger missed the green with his approach, Sutton nailed a
six-iron from 179 yards to within eight feet to lock up the
victory, his most eloquent statement of the week.
For his efforts Sutton collected $1.08 million of the $6 million
purse, the richest in history, and earned something that may be
more valuable--Woods's respect. "He's always been a great
competitor," Woods said. "Keep grinding it out, keep
fighting--that's the way Hal plays."
Sutton had plenty of kind words for Woods when it was finally
over, wryly pointing out, "It's O.K. to praise him now." Still,
he couldn't resist a couple more jabs. "Tiger Woods is not bigger
than the game," Sutton said. "The other night I was lying in bed
and I said, 'You know what? I'm not praying to him. He's not a
god. He's human just like I am, so we can do this.'"
Sutton's belief in the frailty of even the very best players
comes from personal experience. From 1982 to '86 he was one of
the game's most overpowering performers, winning seven
tournaments, including the Players and the PGA Championship in
1983, the year he finished atop the money list. Sutton fell into
the abyss in the late '80s, and by 1992 he could do no better
than 185th on the money list, making only eight of 29 cuts. He
has resurrected his game by returning to the simple swing keys of
his youth while dramatically upgrading his play around the greens
and his course management. He has also settled into a contented
domesticity with his fourth wife, Ashley, and their three
daughters. (The highlight of Sutton's week in Ponte Vedra wasn't
the victory. It was watching his year-old twins, Sara and Sadie,
take their first steps, on Friday evening.) Sutton looks like
he's ready to nab another major, but don't expect it to happen at
next week's Masters. Amazingly, he hasn't made the cut at Augusta
Woods has had a bit more success there, and he left the Players
revved up about the Masters. "My game is very solid right now,"
he said. "Believe me, I'm ready." There is no question that Woods
is still the prohibitive favorite at Augusta, and rightfully so,
but Sutton's performance will resonate. He kicked sand in the
face of the bully, scoring a victory not only for himself but for
every player who will have to tangle with Woods down the road.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BIRDIE When this 25-footer went in on the 11th hole of the final round, Sutton had his margin of victory.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND SO CLOSE Woods is right where he wants to be headed into next week's Masters.
Said Sutton, "I was lying in bed and I said, 'You know what? I'm
not praying to [Woods]. He's not a god.'"