The agony of defeat shared at The Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Wyndham Clark stepped toward the cup not once, but twice.

Because, well, of course he did.

Clark has already won a major championship, but he’s always dreamed of defining moments like this. The stage to himself. A putt to tie. The potential to unleash a memorable celebration.

There was no reason to be tentative, not right now. He is already securely among the top players in the world. He’s already earned $20 million on the course, so another $2 million, for coming up short, wasn’t going to move him.

So he gassed the putt.

“I went for it,” he said.

With a foot to go, Clark’s ball was tracking. Right center.

That’s when he stepped in, for the first time, to deliver an emphatic fist pump.

Clark knew, even at this speed, his putt would keep breaking left – and there it went, slashing across the hole.

His ball caught the left side and started spinning toward the middle.

That’s when Clark stepped in again – and couldn’t believe his eyes.

* * *

Scottie Scheffler wasn’t supposed to win this 50th edition of The Players Championship.

Pick your favorite reason: His under-construction putting wouldn’t hold up for another week. He’d be gassed from two straight weeks in contention, on two demanding tracks. No player had ever gone back-to-back at The Players. He was too far behind; beginning the day five shots back, he’d have to match the largest final-round comeback in tournament history.

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There was his injury, too, suffered on Friday, on his second hole of the day, when he strained his neck while hitting a long iron shot. In pain when he drew back the club, he briefly wondered if he’d have to withdraw, but those fears subsided once he got an on-course massage, and he had more treatment after the rounds, and he applied a few strips of KT tape.

But starting to feel more like himself Sunday, he kicked into gear with a hole-out eagle on the fourth hole and then added three more birdies on Nos. 5, 8 and 9. When he got up-and-down from the greenside bunker on 11 for another birdie, and then drove the green on 12 with a typically majestic drive, he had officially served notice.

Hearing the roars and seeing the mass of humanity a few groups ahead, Clark glanced at the leaderboard.

Then he chuckled.

“Of course.”

Xander Schauffele sensed it, too. “Just another week,” he said.

Scheffler’s name hardly registered with Brian Harman.

“He’s the best player in the world, and this is a championship golf course,” Harman said.

THE PLAYERS Championship - Final RoundTHE PLAYERS Championship - Final Round

THE PLAYERS Championship – Final Round

The fighter: Scheffler shows grit in making history

Scheffler overcame a neck injury on Day 2 of The Players to become the first player to win back-to-back.

Scheffler has become such a fixture on leaderboards since spring 2022 that he can almost feel inevitable. That he can almost feel infallible. The diabolical stretch in the Stadium that has tripped up contenders here for decades wouldn’t stumble Scheffler, as he pushed deeper and deeper toward his 20-under 268 total. He signed for an 8-under 64 that was both preposterous and, yet, when it comes to Scheffler, entirely plausible.

Two missed fairways. Four missed greens. And his best putting day of the week.

“I’m a pretty competitive guy,” he said, “and I didn’t want to give up in the tournament. I did what I could to hang around until my neck got better.”

Then he had to hang around a little more.

* * *

Harman arrived first, trying to win his favorite Tour event and validate his major championship breakthrough just eight months ago. The diminutive left-hander’s affinity for TPC Sawgrass should be no surprise, what with its claustrophobic fairways and subtle movements and emphasis on precision, and he played like a man at one of his personal playgrounds.

In the second and third rounds, he missed just two greens in regulation and poured in 230 feet worth of putts. On Saturday night, Sahith Theegala raved about his playing competitor after a stress-free 64. How he’s sneaky-long off the tee. Lethal with the irons, shaping it both ways, right at the flag. Exceptionally tidy on the greens.

“He’s one of the most impressive golfers I’ve ever seen in my life,” Theegala said.

Harman continued to dazzle Sunday, making four birdies in quick succession around the turn and then another on the 15th hole that put him within one of Scheffler’s lead.

That’s when he clanked his tee shot into the trees on 16 and failed to give himself a birdie look inside 50 feet. That’s when he didn’t take an aggressive enough line on 17. That’s when his pitching wedge into 18 stayed up on the ridge and didn’t funnel closer to the hole, leaving him a 20-footer that didn’t drop to force a playoff.

“I’m bummed,” he said afterward. “I wish there was a couple I could have back.”

And so up stepped Schauffele, a former Olympic gold medalist who was searching for the biggest title of his career. Winless since summer 2022, Schauffele has sought the next frontier by undergoing a swing change with new coach Chris Como that has tried to get Schauffele less laid off at the top of his backswing. The goal is to transform Schauffle from an above-average driver to an elite one, with ball speeds touching the mid-180s that, coupled with his trajectory, will fly bunkers and cut corners and create a distinct advantage.

Schauffele has established himself as a world-class player, but how he’d hold up in the cauldron of Players Sunday, with a revamped swing that required an entirely new pre-shot rehearsal and feel, was an open question.

Answers came over the next four hours. Schauffele flared his fairway wood so far right on No. 4 that it nearly found the water, leading to his first bogey in 29 holes. He missed his mark by a few feet on 14, his ball picking up a trace of mud in the rough that sent his approach tumbling off-line and over the green. A hole later, he again missed wide right – leading to a rare fit of frustration, as he slammed his club into the turf.

“Just untimely mistakes,” he said.

And yet, even after back-to-back bogeys, Schauffele still had a chance to force a playoff. He stepped up on 17, with the wind as strong as it had been all day, and landed his approach left of the flag. His ball caught the slope and funneled toward the pin, the crowd rose to its feet, and moments later he had just 6 feet to tie.

It didn’t touch the cup.

“It’s such a small stroke with some wind, and I felt like I started it a little bit left,” he said. “Just poor execution.”

His title hopes ended with – you guessed it – another wide-right miss with a 3-wood, his ball running meekly into the pine straw on 18.

“These suck,” he said. “When I went to bed last night, it’s not exactly how I envisioned walking off the 18th green. But I’ll lick my wounds and get right back to it next week.”

Schauffele’s father used to tell him: commit, execute, accept.

“So here I am accepting it,” he said as he walked out of the interview area.

Waiting to take his place behind the mic, standing alone and still shell-shocked … was Clark.

The now-30-year-old has worked tirelessly on his mental game, transforming from a player who was tormented by his talent to someone who now is emboldened by it.

Having hired noted sports psychologist Julie Elion to unlock his immense potential, Clark’s move has already paid off with a U.S. Open title, in addition to a pair of signature events against the best Tour players. Here, now, he was trying to win for the fourth time in 17 starts – a big-game hunter on a Tour that has lost so many of its alphas to rival LIV Golf.

With a near-flawless start to the week, Clark staked himself to a four-shot lead at the halfway point, but that advantage was gone by the end of the third round. Lowlighted by a chunked tee shot on 17, he carded a Saturday 70 to get leapfrogged by Schauffele, and yet Clark and caddie John Ellis were still convinced that this was merely him getting his bad round of the way.

After all, Clark has ascended so quickly not because of his mental fortitude, or his prodigious length, or his strength in extricating himself from deep rough. He’s also a lights-out putter, evidenced not just by his breakout performance at Los Angeles Country Club but highlighted again last month when he nearly shot 59 at Pebble Beach. For him, it’s the ultimate neutralizer.

That’s what made his final round at TPC Sawgrass so maddening. His day started inauspiciously, with a 5-foot eagle miss on 2, and didn’t improve from there. Good chances passed on 4, 5, 6, 12 and 15 and left him a few shots off Scheffler’s pace and running out of holes. Even on 16, in desperate need of an eagle, his putt from 11 feet lacked the necessary conviction and expired next to the cup.

After a macho birdie on 17, he needed another one on the intimidating 18th hole, with water lining the entire left side. Clark chose 4-iron and slung it around the dogleg, leaving himself just a pitching wedge into the green. He hammered it onto the front edge, unleashing a violent club twirl and talking to his ball mid-flight. It settled on the front edge, 17 feet, 4 inches away.

Scheffler was far removed from the raucous scene, clipping wedge shots on the range, only his caddie and agent in the area. There wasn’t a TV monitor nearby; he’d learn his fate from the sounds of the crowd.

Even an hour later, he knew only of the eventual outcome.

“I heard a groan,” Scheffler said, “and so it sounded like a missed putt.”

Not just any missed putt.

A putt that looked pure and then dove across the cup with a foot to go.

A putt that clung to the left edge, disappeared for a brief moment, and then was spit back out to the right.

A putt that was one of the cruelest, most violent and unforgiving 72nd-hole horseshoe lip-outs in recent memory.

A putt that made the crowd shriek, made Ellis drop his club on the green and made Clark visibly rattled – his hat off, crouched, on the front of the green, as the video screen showed Scheffler fist-bumping his caddie in victory. It was a sad, muted, uncomfortable end to what had been a delirious day of scoring.

As Tour staff scurried to ready the stage for a trophy presentation, Clark emerged from the scoring tent in a daze. He hugged his girlfriend and caddie, a Netflix camera and boom mic positioned over his shoulder.

“I’m still a little beside myself,” Clark said moments later. “I’m still shocked that putt didn’t go in.”

It was the second week in a row that he lost to Scheffler, but he and the others have been around long enough to know that not all second-place finishes are created equal.

Harman was ruing his final 45 minutes. Schauffele was searching for positives amid a swing change. And Clark, well, he was trying to rationalize what this pain might someday mean.

“I’m really hoping that these seconds are just leading to something greater,” Clark said. Then he hugged Elion and headed, by himself, into the player lounge underneath the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse.

Meanwhile, Scheffler’s press conference was just getting under way. With the gold Players trophy by his side again, he gushed how satisfying it was to close out another tournament. How thankful he was to be a Players champion for a second time. How special it was to compete, in this tense environment, against such talented players.

“I think those guys are going to leave this tournament more motivated than ever,” he said, “and I’ve got to do my best to keep up with that.”

It’s a warning that will only make their Sunday nights worse.

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