Pro golf desperately needed a boost. A wild Players finish provided it

A split image of Wyndham Clark, Scottie Scheffler and Xander Schauffele.

The Players Championship delivered the PGA Tour's best finish of the year Sunday.

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The early-week vibes from Ponte Vedra weren’t great. The PGA Tour season wasn’t exactly off to a blistering start, and its commissioner was playing defense. The Tour needed a special Sunday at the Players Championship.

It may have just gotten it.

Battered and bruised already by even more players, including World No. 3 and the defending Masters Champion Jon Rahm, packing their bags for LIV Golf, and challenged by questions surrounding its Signature Events, the Tour’s 2024 got off to a funky start.

The Tour’s best remaining players? They weren’t winning. Wyndham Clark was the only player ranked in the Top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking to win one of the first nine events of the season. Meanwhile, players were pointing out flaws in the Tour’s new designated event model.

When the Tour played host to its flagship event at TPC Sawgrass this week, players, fans and the media alike had more questions than Commissioner Jay Monahan was willing to answer.

How were the negotiations with the Saudi PIF for an investment that was supposed to happen three months ago? Will LIV players be let back on the PGA Tour? Have board members called on you to resign?

Player trust in their embattled leader was clearly eroding.

Then the tournament began and more controversy ensued. Rory McIlroy, the face of the Tour and its most recognizable player, was at the center of a rules kerfuffle that dominated headlines for three days.

The game’s top player, Scottie Scheffler, was in contention through 36 holes, but dealing with a neck injury that threatened to take him out of the event.

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But then came Sunday, and…

Salvation! With Scheffler and some of the Tour’s brightest stars delivering a finish for the ages.

From the beginning, it was destined to be a star-studded final round with World No. 6 Xander Schauffele leading reigning U.S. Open winner Clark by a stroke. Another 2023 major winner, Brian Harman, was a shot further back in third, and the 2022 U.S. Open winner, Matt Fitzpatrick was in a tie for fourth.

A distant five back was Scheffler, last week’s winner, who was still dealing with a neck injury, sporting two strips of kinesiology tape under his shirt.

The World No. 1 started his final round slowly, parring the first three holes, falling six back of Schauffele. Then he found a spark when he spun his approach from the left and into the hole for an eagle. He then made five more birdies to surge into a share of the lead, and then one back of Schauffele by the 16th hole.

Scheffler got up and down from one of the small greenside pot bunkers for birdie to regain a share of the lead with Schauffele, but that set of a chain of events leading to golf’s best finish of the year.

At that same moment, Schauffele and Clark had both missed the 14th green, Clark in the left bunker and Schauffele in the heavy rough and mounding right. Both of them barely got their thirds on the green and while they both gave their par efforts a scare, neither fell. Schauffele’s bogey gave Scheffler the outright lead at 20 under and Clark drifted three back.

Things didn’t get any better for Schauffele on 15 as he blocked his drive right, into the fairway bunker. He managed to give himself a nine-footer for par, but he failed to convert it and fell two back.

That left Harman as Scheffler’s closest pursuer at 19 under after a birdie on 15.

Meanwhile, Scheffler was at the iconic island green par-3 17th. The traditional final-round pin location is all the way on the right, just past the lone bunker in front of the green.

Scheffler didn’t even challenge it, playing toward the middle of the green, but leaving himself 48 feet away from the hole. But the defending champion deftly navigated the slope of the island green and curled his birdie try within a foot for the routine 3.

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Harman was two groups back on 16, perhaps TPC Sawgrass’ last true birdie opportunity. The left-hander simply needed to find the fairway at the 534-yard par-5, but he pushed the tee shot and found the pine straw left of the fairway. From there he chose not to challenge the water right of the green and instead laid well back to 156 yards for his third. Only one player had a longer third shot on 16 Sunday then Harman.

The conservative strategy didn’t pay off. Harman’s third didn’t challenge the back left pin and left him 50 feet for birdie. He two-putted for a disappointing par.

Schauffele and Clark had more success, both finding the fairway and then the green on the par-5 in two meaning Schauffele had a chance to tie and Clark a chance to get one back. Just one player had a shorter eagle attempt all day then Clark’s 15-footer, but neither converted. Schauffele was back at 19 under with Clark at 18 under as they headed for 17.

The final group had one choice: take on the water hit a wedge just left of the flag and use the slop to bring their balls back to the pin. The right-hole location is traditionally the hardest on 17 and this year only three players made birdie all day before the final group.

Clark was first to play, memories fresh of the day prior when he laid the sod over his approach and watched his ball dive into the pond 20 yards short of the green.

Sunday’s was much better. He played the shot perfectly and watched as it rolled down to inside five feet.

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Schauffele matched, with his approach also taking the slope and stopping just inside seven feet. His putt was to tie. Clark’s was to get within a stroke.

But Schauffele pulled the putt and it never touched the cup.

“It’s such a small stroke with some wind, and I felt like I started it a little bit left,” he said afterward. “I felt like I had a good read. I told Austin I felt it started a little bit left of my line. Just a poor execution.”

Not a good visual for Clark to see, but he poured in the birdie putt anyway. Clark, Schauffele and Harman were all tied, one shot back of Scheffler, needing birdie on 18 to force a playoff.

Harman was first to try, missing his birdie putt from the front edge of the green.

Then the final group came down the 18th, Schauffele from right pine straw, and Clark from the fairway.

Schauffele could only muster a shot that landed short and released 60 feet away from the hole. He did well to get his putt within three feet, but that left Clark as the last man standing between Scheffler and the trophy.

His putt was very similar to Harman’s a group earlier, above the hole from the front right part of the green. He gave it a roll. It was tracking. It caught the lip. It spun out.

“I don’t know how that putt doesn’t go in,” Clark said. “It was kind of right center with like a foot to go, and I knew it was going to keep breaking, but it had speed and I thought it was going to good inside left, and even when it kind of lipped, I thought it would lip in. I’m pretty gutted it didn’t go in.”

Scheffler had won, and while there was no thrilling make on the 72nd hole, a vicious lip-out to force a playoff proved just as dramatic.

The Tour’s most talented star had won the event it desperately needed him to.

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