Graeme McDowell failed to make it the dream golfing day for Northern Ireland last night when trailing in a desolate figure behind KJ Choi at The Players Championship. Darren Clarke’s sporting resurrection in Majorca had given his countryman’s charge in Sawgrass that bit more resonance, but the US Open champion’s momentum abandoned him in dramatic fashion in a final-round 79.
Instead, Luke Donald carried the torch for Europe, as he invariably seems to in America nowadays. The Englishman, who would have replaced Lee Westwood as world No 1 with a victory, was never really a factor in the climax, but still displayed his customary consistency with a 71 for a 10-under total to finish fourth in the event widely called “the fifth major”. Remarkably, this was Donald’s 13 th top-10 placing in his last 14 tournaments.
In contrast, McDowell had so much to rue as he left Florida. Perhaps the carnage could be traced back to the double-bogey he took on the 18 th as he finished his storm-delayed third round yesterday morning. It reduced McDowell’s lead from three strokes to one. Before that he seemed unstoppable as he reeled off the birdies in a 68 which was more accomplished than the number.
All too soon the errors multiplied. McDowell, who came in having missed three of his last four cuts, lost the lead on the sixth hole of the final round when slicing wildly off the tee and then proceeded to visit water three times – on the seventh, 13 th and 17 th . He fell all the way into a tie for 33 rd and it can only be hoped that this experience does not ruin all the recent good work he has put in with his coach, Pete Cowen. With the US Open in a month’s time, McDowell has plenty to build on.
Certainly, Sawgrass is that type of course where it can all unravel in an instant. David Toms is testimony to that, missing a three-footer on the first play-off hole. It was an anti-climactic finale as between them, Choi and Toms produced fireworks. The former birdied the famous island green 17th and then the latter birdied the imposing 18th . Locked at 13-under the pair went into sudden death.
Without a win for five years, Toms, the 2001 USPGA champion, seemed certain to fill the void when he was two clear with five to go. Yet he found the water on the par-five 16 th and when Choi nervelessly flicked in a nine-iron to 10 feet on the penultimate hole, surrounded by thousands of raucous fans, the stage was set. But Toms struck back with a 20-footer across the final green to keep the tournament alive.
Back to the 17 th they went, with Toms having a 15-footer for the win. Incredibly, the American three-putted, handing Choi the £1.2m first prize. For the 40-year-old Korean it was a first win in three years and a prestigious title that was long overdue. With his English caddie, Andy Prodger, Choi is one of the most popular pros on Tour and, after compatriot Y E Yang’s USPGA glory two years ago, this is such an important milestone for Asian golf.
Earlier, the Iberdrola Open had witnessed its own drama when Clarke won his first title in almost three years. The 42-year-old went into the final day four shots adrift of the 23-year-old Chris Wood. But in difficult conditions the Englishman, who has twice finished in the top five of the Open Championship could not secure a maiden victory and carded a six-over-par 76.
Thus Clarke’s 69 for a six-under total was sufficient to collect his 13 th professional win. “It feels pretty good,” said Clarke. “It's a bit of a monkey to get off my back.”