Clark prevails for maiden victory

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tim Clark was the odd man out. The ugly duckling of the Players Championship. The story I didn't want to write, the one you didn't want to read.

No offense to the diminutive South African, but entering Sunday's final round, the leaderboard offered intrigue galore, with many of the contenders providing headline-inducing tales.

Phil Mickelson? He would become the world's No. 1-ranked player with a victory. Lee Westwood? He would get that big-tourney monkey off his back. Robert Allenby? He would be the feel-good story, winning on Mother's Day one year after his own mother passed away.

By comparison, Clark's story simply wasn't as sexy as those of his peers -- a diagnosis that has nothing to do with a waddle that earned him the nickname "Penguin."

Prior to this week, he was best known for being the most talented PGA Tour veteran and most handsomely paid without ever actually winning a tournament. It was sort of his own little claim to fame, the only reason he received any previous recognition.

Hey, don't take my word for it. Ask him instead.

"I mean, a part of me is a bit disappointed because now no one is going to talk about me anymore," Clark joked. "At least you had something to write about before. Now I'm just another guy with a win."

And therein lies the major plotline to this saga.

Clark might not have owned the best back story on the leaderboard, but he is the eternal underdog, the little guy battling for respect and redemption on the game's biggest stage.

After all, you can only win so much money (he had earned $14.7 million on the PGA Tour alone entering this week) and in so many other places (he had triumphed three times on the European Tour, twice apiece on the Nationwide and Canadian tours and once at the Australian Open) before the beating heart of the winner's circle palpitates more audibly each week.

Clark has matured in the shadow of other, more successful players from his home country -- "I'm probably fifth on the pecking order down there," he says -- and stood idly by on eight separate occasions when his final result bested every player in the field but one, producing a reputation as a relentless runner-up.

"There was a part of me that thought, 'Man, what have I been doing?'" Clark said. "When you play that many tournaments, and suddenly when you have weeks where you feel like you've played well enough to win and you haven't, it gets a bit frustrating. I mean, I'm always happy for guys when they win; don't get me wrong. It's not a case of, 'What's he doing winning?' I've always been very happy for guys when they've won, particularly people that I consider friends of mine.

"But yeah, you do start to wonder when is it going to happen for me and what do I need to do to win, particularly when you feel like you've played well enough to win and you haven't. I guess that's the nature of this game. Sometimes you don't have to play your best to win tournaments. I think luckily for me this week, I did play my best. That's about as good as I can play."

Indeed, Clark proved that there's still a little magic in these 415 acres of erstwhile alligator-infested swampland, purchased by then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman for the princely sum of one dollar in 1978.

We've seen this before. From Hal Sutton's "Be the right club today!" iron shot to Tiger Woods' "Better than most!" putt. From Greg Norman getting the white towel treatment from Fuzzy Zoeller to Davis Love III posting a sublime final-round 64.

For Clark, that momentous moment wasn't one shot, but a string of them, as he birdied Nos. 9 through 12 to stake a claim to a lead he would never relinquish.

Clark now adds his name to the list of champions who have prevailed in grand fashion, outplaying every other competitor en route to the title. On Saturday, his 6-under 66 tied for the best round of the day; on Sunday, his bogey-free 67 stood alone, more than 7 strokes better than the field average.

"It's such a demanding course," Clark said. "I think if you get into a zone and shoot a good score, I mean, it's going to separate you a lot more. You know, it's a course that's so tough. If you're a little bit off, it's really going to show and you're going to shoot over par. You can still shoot a low number.

"I think that's what brings the big separation. When you're playing great -- and I guess that's a testament to the course -- driving it in the fairway and hitting greens will pay off."

Same goes for persistence and perseverance and all of the other buzzwords Clark has heard used to describe him over the years. No longer, though, will he be considered a habitual runner-up, his image now enhanced with his name permanently engraved into the winner's trophy.


So, big deal. It might not have potentially been the most captivating story of the week, but this tale of the ugly duckling will endure. It didn't end with a transformation to beautiful swan, though, instead simply resulting in a guy called Penguin enjoying some career-altering success.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.