PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — In a playoff for the first time on the PGA Tour, K.J. Choi conquered an island green and more pressure than he can remember Sunday to win The Players Championship.
He won’t forget the way it ended — and neither will David Toms.
Toms went from narrowly missing an 18-foot birdie putt for the win on the 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass to missing a 3½-foot comeback putt for par, handing Choi the biggest win of his career.
On a hole that is designed to provide great theater, the finish fell a little flat.
Moments earlier, Toms hit his best shot of the week from a divot in the 18th fairway and made an 18-foot birdie putt — only the fourth birdie on that hole in the final round — that got him into a playoff.
Then came the sudden-death playoff at one of the most infamous par 3s in the world. Toms looked to have the advantage when his shot settled 18 feet away and Choi was on the other side of the green.
But the South Korean hit a beautiful lag to just inside 3 feet that he ultimately tapped in for his eighth career PGA Tour win, and his first in three years. He became the fourth consecutive international player to win the PGA Tour’s premier tournament.
Toms said his short putt was uphill and into the Bermuda grain, and he knew it had to be hit solidly.
“I kind of hit it on the toe and didn’t get it rolling, and when I looked up it was left,” he said. “It was just a bad putt. No excuses, no spike marks, no ball marks, no nothing. Maybe a lot of pressure. But other than that, there was no excuse.”
Choi closed with a 2-under 70, making a par putt from just inside 5 feet that set up the playoff.
Toms also finished with with a 70, and that short putt he missed on the 17th green might not be the only shot that haunts him. Leading by one, he went for the green on the par-5 16th and hit into the water, leading to a bogey.
This from a guy who was famous 10 years ago for laying up on the par-4 18th at Altanta Athletic Club to win his lone major at the PGA Championship. Even so, he showed some grit at the end with a birdie on the final hole at Sawgrass, which soon was forgotten.
“I’m disappointed,” Toms said. “But the way I played 18 shows that I still can do it when I need to. I’ve got to work on my putting a little bit. I could have put some distance between myself and my competitors.”
So many other players felt they also squandered chances, none more than U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Nick Watney.
McDowell, who had a one-shot lead when the third round concluded Sunday morning because of rain delays, lost his way after an errant tee shot into the trees on the sixth hole. He hit four shots into the water the rest of the way and closed with a 79.
Watney was in control late in the third round until playing a three-hole stretch in 4-over par, then fell behind with consecutive bogeys at the turn in the final round and could never catch up.
Paul Goydos, who lost a playoff to Sergio Garcia in 2008 when the tour decided to make the 17th the first playoff hole, closed with a 69 to finish alone in third.
Luke Donald never got on track, but still managed a 71 for his seventh consecutive top 10. He tied for fourth with Watney (71) and moved to No. 2 in the world, giving England the top two spots in the world ranking.
Donald and McDowell wore an all-navy blue outfit in honor of Seve Ballesteros — his famous Sunday colors — who died last week.
Toms took a share of the lead on the second hole and never trailed until the finish.
His bogey on the 16th left him tied with Choi as they headed to the 17th. Choi hit 9-iron to 10 feet and punched the air when he made the putt, giving him a one-shot lead. Toms answered with a 6-iron from the divot and the biggest putt he has made in years.
Then came a miss that unraveled all his work.
Toms and Choi finished at 13-under 275. Choi earned $1.71 million and likely will move to No. 15 in the world. The consolation for Toms, along with knowing his game is coming together, is that he should crack the top 50 and might be able to avoid U.S. Open qualifying if he can stay there after next week.
It was a long day for both of them — 32 holes for Toms, 27 holes for Choi, because of the rain-delayed third round that had to be completed Sunday morning.
One shot by McDowell, along with one wicked bounce, set the tone for the final round — for him and those chasing him.
With consecutive birdies amid several collapses, McDowell suddenly had a three-shot lead as he closed out the third round. From the right rough on the 18th, his ball took a hard hop short of the green, caught the slope with some speed and didn’t stop rolling until it tumbled over the edge and into the water. After a drop, he three-putted for double bogey to fall back to 12-under 204.
That one-shot lead didn’t last long, and neither did McDowell.
He drilled a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 5 to catch Toms, then crumbled with a tee shot into the trees on No. 6, a tee shot into the water on No. 7 and a peculiar decision to try to blast out from squarely behind a plant on the ninth. He made bogey on all of them, then dropped another shot into the water on the 13th.
Toms threatened to take the drama out of this tournament when he came within inches of holing out on the sixth for a tap-in birdie to take a two-shot lead, then had a 12-foot birdie putt on the seventh with a chance to go four shots clear. He missed, took bogey on the next hole from the bunker and settled into a series of pars until the daunting finishing stretch at Sawgrass.
What makes the final three holes so dramatic is that anything can happen. No one could have expected it would end the way it did.