Runner-up Goydos finishes as he starts, with heart firmly on sleeve

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Paul Goydos stepped into The Greatest Amphitheater in Golf, aka the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass, shoulders slumped, usual frown on his stubbly face, plain ol' Long Beach State cap plopped on his head.

He checked the wind, chose his club, took a swing and … splash! The ball caromed off the ultra-firm putting surface and into the awaiting blue lagoon, joining the other 120,000 tee shots that annually meet their demise here in the form of a watery grave.

That scene took place during Thursday's opening round of The Players Championship, but the prospective significance of such an experience wasn't lost on Goydos. "This tournament is not over," he theorized afterward, "until the [leader] gets it on land on 17."

Three days later, Goydos again stepped to the tee box on No. 17, shoulders still slumped, stubble kicking into 5 o'clock-shadow mode, same faded cap guarding his furrowed brow.

On the first playoff hole of The Players Championship against Sergio Garcia -- the first time tournament officials had implemented the par-3 as its initial extra inning -- he again checked the wind, again chose a club, again took a swing.

And yes, his ball once again splashed.

When Garcia followed by finding dry land -- to within 4 feet of the hole, no less -- it proved Goydos unfortunately prophetic, a soothsayer of the most star-crossed proportions.

"For me to complain to [course designer] Pete Dye now would be as sour grapes as you could drop," Goydos said. "The hole was designed to do exactly what it did. Just got me instead of somebody else."

The 2008 edition of the Players will forever be remembered as the one that got away from Goydos. He led the tournament by one stroke through 54 holes, by three with six left to play and by one while walking up the final fairway in regulation. In a classic case of prying defeat from the jaws of victory, he admittedly "chunked" a chip, leaving it 9 feet short on the 72nd hole, then missed the putt, falling into that fateful playoff.

Record books will tell the tale of the tournament's conclusion, but our memories will remember the week less for Goydos' misgivings on the course than his propensity for turning the TPC Sawgrass interview room into his own private comedy club. The 43-year-old two-time winner might not have emerged as the newest Players champion, but he did cement his PGA Tour lead in self-deprecating commentary.

Just listen to his take on how he fared: "I played well. I may have some mistakes, but the day I don't make mistakes is the day I'm dead."

Or on his new playoff record: "I got to do a lot of firsts this week. You know, first time leading and first playoff. I've got to think 0-1 is a better playoff than 0-0, right? Am I wrong there?"

Or on trying to beat Garcia: "You can't control it. No defense. I couldn't tackle the little guy. He's probably not little, that's probably not a fair thing; he could probably take me pretty easily. But you can't kneecap him."

In contrast, Goydos rewarded his competition with a bear hug as the two players passed in the fast-approaching twilight some half-hour after the playoff concluded. "Way to go, man," he told Garcia. "Great playing. I'm proud of you."

How great? Garcia led the field in driving accuracy and greens in regulation for the tournament, and even made a few putts when it mattered -- the bane of his existence for so many years.

Though it only slightly removed the luster of such a prestigious victory, the absence of Tiger Woods from this week's festivities was one felt from the palpable lack of buzz flowing through the host venue to Garcia's post-round acceptance speech.

"I want to thank Tiger for not being here," Garcia said of the game's No. 1-ranked player, who is continuing recuperation from recent knee surgery. "That always makes things a little bit easier."

For his part, Goydos also mentioned Woods after the round.

"In a sense, from a crowd standpoint, I got to be Tiger Woods for a day," he said of his newfound popularity before allowing, "That's from a crowd standpoint, not from a talent standpoint."

Without Tiger in the field, Garcia's main competition came from a quartet of world-class athletes who don't exactly look the part. Let's just say if the law firm of Goydos, Perry, Quinney & Baird showed up at your local gym, the bench-press machine wouldn't exactly be quivering in fear.

That wasn't the only final-round oddity.

On Mother's Day, Mother Nature celebrated with wind gusts of up to 40 mph, leading to a series of unexpected occurrences.
Little-known Greg Kraft flew past defending champion Phil Mickelson on the leaderboard; J.B. Holmes carded a double and six bogeys -- and moved up in the standings; Jesper Parnevik shot a "Jack Youngblood," taking a total of 85 strokes; and Nicholas Thompson saw his ball roll some 12 feet, unaided, on No. 17 before tapping in for birdie.

It was enough to take the focus off Garcia.

"The wind won," said Briny Baird, who finished fourth. "I think it kicked everybody's butts."

Everything about the Players -- from the palatial mansion that could be dubbed Tim Finchem's Rock of Love clubhouse to the eviscerating sweatfest known as No. 17 -- has always screamed "major," if only as an adjective, not in the traditional golf terminology. On this week, it felt more major than ever, with a winning score of 5-under-par that equaled the second-highest total since the tournament moved here in 1982.

Garcia leaves with his biggest career victory to date, a record $1.71 million winner's check and an infusion of confidence that just might carry over to the year's final three major championships. Meanwhile, despite Goydos' playoff splashdown, don't expect any nightmares over what might have been. He already sounds like he's put it all into perspective.

"Instead of the shot Sergio hit in the playoff, people may talk about how Goydos hit it in the water, blah, blah, blah," said the runner-up. "But Sergio hit it to [4] feet. I got beat. That's golf."

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.