Garcia jumps back on track to legendary status with Players win

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- There was no Claret Jug, no green jacket, no major championship trophy presented in Sunday evening's twilight at TPC Sawgrass. For Sergio Garcia, that would just be quibbling, wouldn't it?

A major title, no. A huge victory, yes.

And perhaps this finally knocks down the door to greatness that has long been expected of the Spaniard who has been stymied in his efforts to win one of golf's biggest tournaments.

"I'm looking forward to keeping going, I don't want to get stuck here," Garcia said after his sudden-death playoff victory over Paul Goydos. "I want to have a good year and keep giving myself chances of winning more events and having a major, if I can."

In truth, any victory would have worked for Garcia, 28, ranked 18th in the world despite no wins anywhere since 2005, when he won the defunct Booz Allen Classic on the PGA Tour and the European Masters on the European Tour.

But the Players Championship -- often referred to as the "fifth major" -- is not just any tournament.

For all the conjecture about its status among the elite events, the Players arguably offers up the best field of the year. There are no qualifiers, no amateurs, no club pros. Just the best players in the world -- sans Tiger Woods, due to injury -- and a brutal golf course to beat.

Garcia, whose par on the playoff hole came on the heels of a clutch 7-foot par putt on the 18th that gave him a chance to extend the tournament, put on a driving and iron-play clinic that would make even Woods take notice.

He led the field in fairways hit (43-of-56) despite winds that produced white caps on the numerous water hazards that dot the course. He tied for first in greens in regulation (56-of-72) despite rock-hard surfaces that repelled golf balls and left players and caddies in a futile search for pitch marks.

"He deserves it," said Goydos, who held a 3-stroke lead with six holes to play but could not hold on. "He played better than everyone else. Just look at the stats."

Of course, there have been numerous times when Garcia might have surveyed the numbers and shook his head in disbelief. Ranked as high as No. 4 in the world early in the 2003 season, he has long been regarded as one of the game's best ball-strikers. And it can get a bit old to beat everyone from tee to green but unable to get the ball in the hole.

"When you put it that way, yeah, it is a little bit frustrating," Garcia said. "But the game of golf is not only about hitting the ball. You have to have every single part of your game in shape. You can be a great ball-striker, but if you can't finish it off -- you're going to win some tournaments, but it doesn't happen too often."

Goydos, 43, got an up-close look at the greatness that is Garcia's long game during Saturday's third round, when the Spaniard hit 10 for 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens. Those are unheard-of numbers in such windy conditions. Garcia began the tournament by hitting 16 of 18 greens. In Friday's second round, he hit all 14 fairways.

In truth, Goydos -- who has done well to toil on tour for 16 years that have produced just two victories -- could never dream of hitting the ball with Garcia's accuracy and length.

"He hits whatever shot is needed at a particular hole at a particular time. That's the shot he hits," Goydos said. "He's a pretty impressive player."

The problem is with the flat stick. It has absolutely tormented Garcia. A player in his 20s should not be resorting to a belly putter, as Garcia did last year in nearly winning the British Open, but that is how desperate he became on the greens.

Then there was the constant switching. Belly putter. Left-hand low. Conventional. Different putters. Indecision.

Garcia, who played in the final group of the past two British Opens, finishing tied for fifth behind Woods in 2006 and losing in a playoff last year to Padraig Harrington, finally sought help from outside his inner circle. At the Match Play Championship in February, he solicited short-game guru Stan Utley.

Two hours into their first session together, Garcia said he began to putt more naturally, like the way he did when he was a kid. That feel type of putting will serve him well, although he still has his awkward moments on the greens.

"I'm just a guy who encourages him to make solid contact," Utley said. "We're making almost no adjustments at this point."

After a poor putting day on Saturday, when Garcia took 34 putts and shot 73 ("The worst score I could have shot," he said), Garcia made some of the biggest putts of his career Sunday. He had eight 1-putt greens, and it is difficult to say which was the most important.

Perhaps it was at the ninth hole, where he made a 14-footer to save par. Or maybe it was at the 14th, where he drained a 47-foot putt for birdie. Or maybe it was the 3-footer for par at the 17th in regulation, the one Garcia was leaning toward as the biggest. "It was the longest 3 feet I've ever seen," Garcia said.

Then came the par putt at the 18th, the one he knew he had to have. After missing the green from some 220 yards out, Garcia nearly holed his chip shot, only to see it scoot some 7 feet past the hole. "I knew I was going to make that putt," he said.

Now he has seven PGA Tour victories, the most of any player under the age of 30. He also has a combined 13 wins on the PGA Tour and Europe and a total of 16 international victories.

He did not rid himself of the title "best player without a major championship" -- in fact, he might have been saddled with it again.

But that's OK.

As Goydos said, "He's right there on the precipice of great things."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.