Players Championship 2012: The 10 Most Dramatic Finishes in Tournament History
The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass was built specifically for fan excitement, and it has certainly delivered.
Most years the Players has come down to the wire, and the final three holes constitute one of the most dramatic finishes in all of golf.
Water lurks on every part of the stretch and threatens to kill off even the most comfortable of leading margins.
Even in the championship's relatively short history, a long list of dramatic conclusions exists.
So, which of these finishes are really the best?
No list would ever be completely definitive, but looking at all of the factors, these are the 10 candidates that best fit the description.
Maybe this year's final round will be an exciting one, but it will have to do a lot to live up to any of the awesome finishes that make up this list.
The 1987 edition of the Players was the first time the Stadium Course saw a playoff, and it was anything but ordinary.
Sandy Lyle, who finished well before the final group, was unlikely to find the winners' circle as he walked off the 72nd green.
Players faltered, though, and about an hour after he finished, Lyle found himself in a playoff with Jeff Sluman.
On the first hole of sudden death, victory again looked far from Lyle's grasp. The Scot holed out for a solid par on the dangerous 17th, but with Sluman six feet from the hole for birdie, the tournament was seemingly over.
Then something strange happened.
As Sluman lined up over his putt, an overzealous fan, for reasons still unknown, jumped into the water! The peculiar action forced Sluman to back off his putt and wait for the commotion of the guards whisking the fan away before he could finish.
After all of that was over, Sluman attempted to regroup and focus in on this tournament-clinching stroke. But the distraction had taken its toll, and when he finally hit the little putt, he couldn't find the bottom of the cup.
The demoralized Sluman proceeded to bogey the 18th and allow Lyle to make an easy par to take home the title.
Despite the anticlimactic end to the playoff, all of the action on the 17th made it impossible to keep this tournament off the list.
A difficult TPC Sawgrass course greeted players in 2008 and saw a talented young player walk away with the trophy.
Sergio Garcia, 28 years old at the time, survived the tough conditions and put himself just one step away from that long-awaited first major championship victory (back in the day when people were still certain Garcia was destined to win a major).
Unfortunately, Padraig Harrington got in the way that August—at least Garcia didn't blame the gods for that loss though—and four years later Garcia still has nary a major championship to his name.
Nonetheless, a victory at Sawgrass was one of great importance to Garcia, who hadn't won in his 53 previous PGA Tour starts.
It was far from easy though.
Down one on the 18th, Garcia was left with a seven-footer for par to have any chance at a playoff. With the tension so great, especially with Garcia's weakness in the putting department, the Spaniard drained it and could only wait and watch.
A quirky journeyman pro named Paul Goydos (whose sense of humor captivated the public that week) came to the 18th green needing a par for victory and had at least a decent look at it.
Just 15 feet from the hole, Goydos had the chance of a lifetime, but couldn't take advantage, allowing Garcia to avoid elimination for a second time.
Garcia used his final-hole momentum to stuff his tee shot on the first playoff hole (the 17th) to four feet and secure the victory.
So with all that, why does this finish only find itself ninth on the list?
Well, the playoff was anticlimactic to say the least. Goydos hit first and dunked his ball into the water, leaving Garcia an easy opening and an easy sudden-death win.
The tournament still did provide a great duel over the final holes, and if not for Goydos' slip on 17, the 2008 Players could be much higher on this list.
Perplexingly, Phil Mickelson had yet to win a Players Championship in his illustrious career going into 2007.
A change in swing coach made all the difference.
Ironically it was Butch Harmon, the former swing coach of Mickelson's greatest rival Tiger Woods, who put an end to the drought.
In just a few weeks, the expert swing instructor put Mickelson's ball-striking on track, and his game flourished at Sawgrass.
The lefty played brilliantly over the first three rounds and sat just one stroke behind a young talent named Sean O'Hair heading into the final round.
The elder Mickelson pounced on the inexperienced O'Hair in the final round and held a two-shot lead going to the precarious 17th hole.
It was now do-or-die time for O'Hair, and he wasn't going to back down. With Mickelson in the middle of the green and up two, O'Hair faced one of the most pressure-packed shots in golf.
He had to aim directly at the flag on the far right portion of the green. If his shot drifted even a couple yards right or his yardage was a couple yards off, his ball was in the water.
A nine-iron in hand, O'Hair prepared to hit the tournament's most important shot.
The ball looked good in the air and O'Hair thought it was all over the pin. It looked like the ball might finish just a few feet from the pin.
Second later though, the ball plunked into the water over the green and left the excited O'Hair devastated.
The risky shot in fact cost O'Hair nine places on the leader board and a whole bunch of money, but it put him down in Players Championship lore.
Mickelson won comfortably in the end (despite an approach shot on 18 that flirted with the water), but for a moment on 17, the tournament was very much in the balance.
This photo of John Mahaffey may more accurately depict the man he defeated on the final day of the 1986 Players.
Larry Mize, who held a comfortable lead going into the final round, didn't look headed for heartbreak even with four holes to play.
The Augusta, Ga. native had a three-shot lead over Mahaffey on the 15th tee and was in the driver's seat.
But two Mize bogeys and a Mahaffey birdie on 16 left the match in a dead heat as the pair approached the infamous 17th hole.
Mize's tragic demise continued there. He gathered the courage to stuff an eight-iron five feet from the cup on the scary island green, leaving himself in perfect position to regain the solo lead.
However, Mize missed the golden opportunity, a critical error in such a tight contest.
The 18th proved his ultimate downfall though. Still tied for the lead, Mize kept his ball in play on the finishing hole and only had three feet for his par and almost certainly a playoff.
The man who would 13 months later hole a 140-foot chip to capture his first major title inexplicably gagged on the simple putt and left the door wide open for Mahaffey, who sunk his short par putt moments later for the win.
The excruciating finish was one to remember at Sawgrass. One man's tumble down the closing stretch cost him the tournament and, more importantly, a 10-year exemption on the PGA Tour.
With all that at stake, this certainly was one of the Players' most exciting final hole struggles.
The never quiet Hal Sutton told the press that he was ready to face off with Tiger Woods during the 2000 Players Championship, a bold assertion at the time.
After all, Sutton hadn't won a Players Championship in 17 years, and Woods was at the height of his powers with his game and his intimidation.
The young phenom did not scare Sutton, though, and with six holes to play in the final round, the 41-year-old held a commanding four-shot lead over Woods.
Sutton himself had once been that hot-shot young player before fizzling out with poor play in the late '80s, and he was not going to be fazed into making mistakes to hand the "godly" Woods a victory.
No matter, though, Woods still made quite a run at the crown. The 24-year-old birdied 13 and then made an eagle at 16 that produced quite a reaction from the excited Woods.
He was now just one back of Sutton with two holes to play.
Pars at 17 by both players kept the lead at one heading to 18, and after Woods' approach missed the green there, Sutton had his opportunity to shut the door.
With a seven-iron in his hands and all the pressure of a Players title on the line, Sutton struck a beautiful shot and immediately uttered the now famous line "Be the right club today!"
It certainly was, as the ball finished 10 feet from the cup and sealed Sutton a two-shot win.
That 2000 season of Woods may be the standard for golfing greatness, but on this Sunday in March, an old man well past his prime got the best of him.
The early part of the 2011 Players may have been surrounded by the news of Tiger Woods' departure after just nine holes (and 42 strokes), but the final holes of the tournament proved just as memorable.
On that Sunday, K.J. Choi and David Toms were tied for the lead with two holes to play in this pressure cooker and were prepared for quite a battle.
First was Choi, who holed a huge left-to-right sliding 15-foot putt for birdie on 17 to take the outright lead and control of the championship.
And after David Toms drove into a divot on 18, Choi looked likely to capture the Players' trophy.
But then, it was Toms' turn.
Out of the divot, Toms miraculously hit his approach shot pin-high and had 18 feet for birdie and a chance to force a playoff. The birdie putt dropped dead center, and after Choi made a pressure-packed five-footer for par, the two moved to the 17th for a playoff.
Both players safely found the putting surface at 17, and after they both lagged their first putts within a few feet, it looked like the tournament would move on to a second playoff hole.
However, the shortest putts in golf can be the most nerve-wracking. Toms pulled his 3.5-foot par putt, lipping out on the low left side.
The shocking miss made Choi's two-footer quite a bit easier. He put it right in the hole and celebrated his biggest victory yet on U.S. soil.
Choi versus Toms may not be Woods versus Mickelson, but on this Sunday, it was tough not to watch.
The final day of the 2005 Players Championship was a strange one to say the least.
The final group of Luke Donald and Joe Durant fell back with matching 76s on a day that saw high winds and high scores, giving the field new life.
The 48-year-old Fred Funk grabbed at the chance and raced out to a two-shot advantage with five holes to play. Conditions were indeed difficult, though, and with bogeys at 14, 15 and 17, Funk was left hanging precariously to his lead.
He didn't make things any easier on 18 either, leaving himself a tricky five-footer for par to secure a one-shot victory.
With this quite likely his last shot at winning a big tournament, Funk had a lot on the line on such a short putt.
The old man overcame the pressure and buried the short putt, eliciting a vicious hat throw to the turf in celebration.
The unlikely victor has still never won a major championship, but at least with his exciting win at Sawgrass in 2005 he proved he could beat "the best field in golf."
Don't let Fred Couples' final cushion of four shots fool you; the 1996 Players was a finish for the ages.
Standing in the 16th fairway, Couples, who didn't even have the lead at the time, was preparing for his second shot to the par-five green.
Down one shot and 220 yards from the hole, Couples went for the flag with a two-iron. And from the moment the ball came off the clubface, the shot was no good.
Couples overcut the two-iron and was certain that his ball (and most likely his chances at the tournament) was heading for a watery grave.
But in one of the luckiest breaks a golfer could get, the ball landed in the rough right next to the water and kicked left and forward right to the front fringe of the green.
Gracious for the lucky break, Couples capitalized, holing the 30-footer for eagle and grabbing the outright lead in stunning fashion.
The magic didn't stop there. After safely hitting 35 feet left of the far right Sunday flag on 17, it seemed that Couples was content to get out with a par and preserve his lead.
The putt, lightning fast and hit as if it was a six-footer, trickled right-to-left down the slope and unbelievably found the bottom of the cup.
Couples' birdie two produced a massive roar and gave him the cushion he needed to take home his first Players title.
A three-shot lead going up 18 ensured Couples a comfortable finish (although he did hit a daring cut over the water on his approach), but the excitement on 16 and 17 was enough to put this Players finish high on the list.
The 23-year-old Adam Scott, whose swing was almost an exact mimic of Tiger Woods' Butch Harmon model, was one hole away from a huge victory at the 2004 Players.
With a huge rise to golfing stardom a reward for the victory, Scott hit his drive right down the fairway on 18.
The young Aussie had a two-shot lead over Padraig Harrington and was in perfect position for his approach shot. The win, and all of its perks, was completely wrapped up for him.
That's when Scott made one of the most unfathomable mistakes in Players history.
With a left miss being the only potential disaster on the approach, that's exactly what Scott did. He grimaced into the sun as his ball plunked right into the water.
Scott then dropped and hit a decent, if unspectacular, chip and had 10 feet for bogey and the win.
Faced with the potential of making double bogey and falling into a playoff in a tournament that he had seemingly already won, Scott knew that he needed this putt.
Despite the pressure of that and how much this tournament meant, Scott holed the 10-footer and made a Tiger-like uppercut as he realized what he had done.
Ultimately this tournament should've been a snoozer coming down 18, but with one of the greatest gaffes in Players history then one of the greatest recoveries, it turned out to be quite a great conclusion for the tournament and for a young star.
The little-known Craig Perks stole the show at the 2002 edition of the Players.
On a course that seems to favor no one, Perks had as good a chance as any to take the home the title down one stroke heading to the 16th tee.
But what Perks did on those last three holes was nonetheless quite remarkable.
First was the 16th. In thick rough just to the right of the green, Perks faced a delicate chip for his third shot. Likely just trying to get up-and-down for birdie and tie for the lead, Perks did one better by holing the chip for an eagle three and the outright lead.
The fun continued on 17. After landing his approach 25 feet left of the flag, Perks faced that aforementioned putt Fred Couples made six years earlier to secure his win.
And like Couples, Perks drilled the putt to open a two-shot cushion over Stephen Ames with one hole to play.
He didn't make things easy though. Perks played the final hole poorly and was still not on the green in three. Having to get up and down from the rough right of the green to secure a one-shot win, Perks again did one better.
The ball landed 10 feet from the cup, bounced twice and died into the cup as Perks raced his club high in the air. Ames looked on from the driving range stunned at Perks' closing stamp on the tournament.
The win was an absolute fluke for Perks, who would never win a PGA Tour event again and would only record two more top-10s on tour in his career after the Players victory.
That makes the end of this list surely an ironic one. One of the worst winners in Players history gave the tournament its greatest finish.
We'll see if Sunday's finish can top this one from a decade ago, but it's doubtful that fans will get to witness something equal to Perks' magic anytime soon.
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