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 even.
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 two rounds.
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 putts.)
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.