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A Fresh Breeze

Absent the Tour's star attraction, the Players Championship turned into a howling battle of survival between the star who couldn't putt straight (Sergio García) and the likable but unlikely journeyman (Paul Goydos)

PLAY A big-money tournament on a ridiculous but wildly entertaining golf course. Do some sort of kneecapping thing to Tiger Woods so that he's not way north on the leader board on Sunday afternoon, or even in the field. Turn up the heat to 90-plus degrees so that the third beer feels like the fifth and at least some of the Mother's Day crowd on the 19th lawn (beside the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass) is acting loud, jingoistic and stupid. Set the wind machine to its highest level, so that visors are flying, umbrellas are being uprooted and pine cones are falling on your head. Set the clock to half-past seven, in a gorgeous mid-spring Florida dusk. Then bring in the protagonists, having them emerge from a tunnel, football-style.

The tunnel we refer to here runs under the stands near the 17th green, which were packed in that dusk light for the first extra hole of the Players Championship, and the first man to appear, wearing a sly grin and a Long Beach State Dirtbags baseball cap, was Paul Goydos. You can relate to this guy: a little paunchy, 43 and graying, a single father of two who goes by Sunshine, the right pocket of his white pleated chinos soiled with dirt. Sunshine was five under par for 72 holes, playing nothing but shortish cut shots and out of his mind and paying no attention to his World Ranking, which just then was 169th.

The next man through the tunnel was Sergio García, who, some years ago when he was still the boyish Spanish Sensation, asked the press to refer to him only as Sergio. You know: Madonna, Tiger, Oprah ... Sergio. (Didn't work.) He also had played 72 holes in five under par, about the highest score he could have shot from the places he was hitting it.

The European players and caddies—who know the petulant García (sore loser at last year's British Open, where Padraig Harrington of Ireland beat him in a playoff) and the spirited one (at 28 already one of the greatest Ryder Cup players ever)—will tell you that there is no better iron player in the game, not even Tiger. Along with maybe K.J. Choi, he's also one of the best drivers in the game. But his putting has prevented him from becoming a true world-beater. García, who plays all over the world, was looking to win his first event since September 2005. A serious drought. Still, he contends often enough to have entered the playoff ranked 18th in the world.

The crowd was squarely behind Goydos, and you'd have to think his self-deprecating, deadpan, Bob Newhart--like two minutes with Bob Costas, live on NBC early on Saturday night, had a lot to do with it. Costas asked Goydos—the name is Czechoslovakian—if he had ever had a 54-hole lead in a tournament before. "No," Goydos said, "but I've only been on Tour for 16 years." Asked for his thought about playing the 17th, he said, "Land." (You may know that the par-3 17th has an island green, attached to the rest of Florida by a little causeway covered by a green rug.) The conditions at the Players were best on Saturday and worst on Sunday but gruesome, really, for all four days of the tournament because of the wind. The course, built on a swamp and dotted with ponds and lined by clingy, overly fertilized rough, isn't designed to be played in 30-mph winds. On Sunday nine players shot in the 80s, and the field average was 75.176.

On the 72nd hole Goydos, in the last group, needed a 4 to win. Water left, trees and rough right, the wind howling across the fairway and a hole measuring 462 yards. On Sunday 18 was a par-4 in name only. Ten minutes earlier García's up-and-in for 4 must have felt like a birdie to him. Goydos, with a fairway metal, bailed where everybody bailed, in the right rough. He hacked his ball out, pitched it on and took two putts. With Goydos's bogey finish, the two men headed out to 17 for more golf in the fading light.

Goydos played first. When he had played the 17th on Sunday in regulation, he hit a hard-into-the-wind wedge, and it was perfect, hole high. In the playoff he endured a one-two punch. He caught the ball heavy, but he probably would have gotten away with the mishit, except that a rogue gust came up, one of many, and pushed the ball to the right and into the brownish pond. Goydos responded with a wry smile and not even a hint of anger.

Of course García could have gone in the water too, and with his ball in the air there were a few boors calling for that to happen. García shut them up. He stiffed the shot, and the game was over, except for the formalities. At the end the only residents of the island were an American golfer of middling talent, a European golfer with lavish talent, two caddies and a golden early-evening light all around them. The goofy hole never looked better.

IT'S NOT easy, staging a minimajor without Tiger. Until last week Woods had not missed a single event of consequence since turning pro in 1996. He is recovering from knee surgery and is expected back for the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in mid-June, if not sooner.

García, with his perfect English and expressive manner and good looks and powerful game, could still become a major star—not Tiger level, but not all that far behind. Despite his talent, he has already demonstrated that he's something of a head case. In 2002, and especially at the U.S. Open at Bethpage that year, he had a thing where he couldn't get his swing started and he'd grip and regrip and regrip again. He was all twitchy and confused, and it was hard to watch, but he overcame the affliction. Later he got yippy with the putter and tried all the common remedies: the Bernhard Langer broomstick putter; the Skip Kendall claw grip; the Choi fat grip. This year he's gone back to a traditional putter, held in the traditional manner, and has started taking putting lessons from the putting genius Stan Utley, who has simply attempted to get García to putt as García did as an amateur and as a first-year pro, when he seemed to make everything. It's not easy to reclaim the past. Nobody's figured it out yet, anyway. Last week García's putting was merely good.

On Sunday night Goydos said that García was still "a kid," but he really doesn't look or sound like one anymore. "When I play like a kid, I usually do well," García said. "I definitely don't consider myself a kid anymore. I feel like an old man, an old 28-year-old." You could hear the longing in his voice. Even in victory he sounded like a bruised man who has come to see that golf can make your head hurt. Your heart, too. He called his sport "a beautiful game but a really hard one." Sergio—let's see if this one-name thing can work now—can be exceedingly likable when he lets us in.

For Goydos, that's his natural move. He had a messy and protracted divorce that didn't become official until four years ago. Goydos has custody of his two girls, Chelsea, 17, and Courtney, 15. Sixteen months ago, when he won in Hawaii, he described himself as a "full-time father and a part-time golfer." On Sunday he said his girls "don't want a full-time father anymore." If you have teenagers, you know what he's talking about. He made enough money last week, $1 million, that he won't have to worry about expenses for a while. (Sergio made $1.7 million.)

Goydos is a journeyman, and proud of it. For a while on Sunday afternoon, there was a near-perfect V on the stomach of his avocado-green mock turtleneck shirt. The V did not predict victory for him, but the sweat that created it confirmed what we already imagined to be true. He's one of us, trying hard, coming up short. He'll stay at it. What else is he going to do?

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"I definitely don't consider myself a kid anymore," García said. "I FEEL LIKE AN OLD MAN, AN OLD 28-YEAR-OLD."


Photograph by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

DROUGHT BUSTER Although highly ranked, García (with Jeff Quinney) had gone almost three years without a victory.



LONG STORY SHORT Brilliant all week off the tee and from the fairway, García got the putter going on the final nine.